Herbs & Spices

Great Salt Debates by Anne

salts How does salt enhance flavor?  I have read different explanations and don’t know which one is the most accurate a reason—or if they all play a part.  One interesting fact I have read recently in a book called The Inquisitive Cook is that salt, or sodium chloride (NaCl), stimulates your taste receptors, since those nerves endings are stimulated by NaCl.  Therefore, salt actually makes your tongue more sensitive, rather than making the food itself actually taste more like itself.  Isn’t that fascinating?  Personally, I’m rooting for that explanation, because it blows my mind to think that salt isn’t necessarily enhancing flavor, it’s enhancing your tongue’s ability to taste the flavor. 

I also have heard that NaCl, when it comes in contact with food, upsets the food’s molecular structures, drawing moisture out of the molecules and releasing the flavors, making them more easily accessible to the tongue to taste.  Actually, this is also a cool idea to think about.  And it does tie in with salt’s known function of removing liquid from foods.

I also wonder about the intensity each salt crystal itself.  Some people say with great confidence that certain salts are more “mellow tasting” than others.  Others—with equal conviction—insist that all salt tastes intrinsically equally strong—it’s just that salt with bigger crystals doesn’t have as much surface in contact with the tongue, so there’s less of the salt to taste, even if it is the same amount.  Again, I have no idea who is correct.  Most of this “information” about salt flavors was collected from salt-lovers at parties, the grocery store, and restaurants.  I am not a chemist, but wouldn’t NaCl always be NaCl?  In other words, are there more and less potent versions of it?

We just bought a new container of coarse sea salt (the third one in the picture), which once again got me thinking about this last debate.   I already know that I love coarse sea salt on food, but it seemed like it would be fun to conduct another one-person tasting.  Today I just wanted to experience the difference in salt crystal size—I will probably move on to other comparisons.  Nowadays there’s a whole myriad of salts to choose from.  It seems like a tasting of that scope should involve more people.  Want to come to a salt tasting? 

Today was more of an idle desire to taste, back-to-back, the contrasting experiences of eating food with  small crystals and large. I made two small bowls of tabbouleh salad, one with fine sea salt, the other with coarse sea salt.  I stirred both in well.  Unsurprisingly, the small salt tasted uniformly salty and pleasant, while the big salt overall did taste “mellower,” but with the occasional crunchy thrill of a large salt crystal.  Those little crunches did not taste overwhelmingly salty, though, and the texture was so satisfying to my teeth, especially in a dish like tabbouleh salad, in which texture is one of its distinctive pleasures.   

Tonight’s conclusion?  Use coarse sea salt with your tabbouleh.  Also, please pass the salt.  There’s more to think (and taste) about.

Layering Flavors by Anne

thyme.and.thyme.I It’s not an actual secret or anything, but I like to think of layering flavors as an ace in my pocket.  It's a trick that may be obvious, but doing it intentionally makes me feel like a cooking genius.  Hey, I'll take it.  At this moment, the kind of “layering” I’m talking about is actually the repetition of a flavor in different ways.

For example, you could include both the fresh and dried version of an herb, or mushroom, or fruit, in your recipe.  Using both fresh and dried can make a flavor impact that is more than the sum of its parts. You can also layer a flavor by repeating it over the course of the cooking time—such as adding onions at different times during the cooking of a soup.  Also, adding a flavor in different forms, such as incorporating it within a sauce and then adding it to another part of the dish, can augment that flavor.  And of course, garnishing with one of the key flavor elements of a dish will also enliven it.

I have a mushroom and leek crêpe filling (that could also fill omelets beautifully) that uses all of these concepts, and they result in a deep and savory, mushroom-y experience.  Thyme is repeated three times and is both fresh and dried.  Mushrooms are also both fresh and dried, and even the liquid from rehydrating the mushrooms is used in the sauce.  The gruyere cheese also participates in three different places—within the filling, the sauce, and atop the two.  Hmm, what else.  Oh yes, butter is everywhere.

Layering the flavors in this filling takes a bit of extra time, but it is deeply, deliciously worth it.  In fact, if you like mushrooms, I’d call this filling an ace in your pocket.

Mushroom Leek Filling for Crêpes

Ingredients for the filling:

  • 3 T butter
  • 3 leeks, white and very green parts sliced in thin half-rings
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • Several thyme sprigs
  • A total of 1 lb mushrooms – one part of them dried and rehydrated.  Best if some of the dried mushrooms are morels.  Portabella mushrooms make good additions for fresh, especially if you cannot get your hands on morels.  When gathering your mushrooms, note that the packaging on dried mushrooms will usually indicate what the fresh equivalent weight will be once rehydrated.
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • Optional: a few tablespoons of port or sherry
  • 2 T cream
  • 4 to 5 ounces Gruyere, shredded (about 1 1/2 cups).  If you cannot get Gruyere, try two parts Jarlsberg to one part parmesan mixed together.

Ingredients for the sauce:

  • 3 T Butter
  • 3 T Flour
  • The liquid from soaking the dried mushrooms (above)
  • 1 ½ cups milk
  • Some of the cheese from ingredients above

Directions to make the filling:

  1. Place dried mushrooms in a medium-sized bowl.  Pour boiling water over mushrooms to cover, plus a little more.  Mushrooms will likely float to the top, so place a saucer, lip side down, over the mushrooms to keep them pushed down into the water.  Also, cover the bowl with a large lid to retain the heat.  Steep the mushrooms for about half an hour to an hour.
  2. During this time, slice leeks lengthwise, wash any dirt from between the layers, and slice thinly into half-rounds.  Set aside.  Chop fresh mushrooms into a small dice, about a half-inch square or less.  Remove enough leaves from thyme sprigs to make about 2 teaspoons’ worth.  Set aside into a small bowl.
  3. When dried mushrooms have finished steeping, remove mushrooms from liquid and keep liquid handy.  Chop rehydrated mushrooms and add to fresh mushroom bowl.    Place steeping juice in a small saucepan and boil over medium heat until reduced to ½ cup of mushroom broth.   Set aside.
  4. In a large pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat.  Add leeks and thyme and sauté for 3 minutes, or until leeks are soft.  Bring heat up to high, and then add mushrooms (and port or sherry, if you are using it).  Stirring frequently, cook until mushrooms have given off their liquid—about 10 minutes.  Turn heat off, and add the cream, 1 tsp of fresh thyme, ¼ cup of the grated cheese, and black pepper.  Set filling inside.

Directions to make the sauce:

  1. Briskly whisk together butter and flour over medium heat for 3 minutes, continuously whisking.
  2. Add the mushroom broth and the milk, whisking as you gradually pour in the liquids in a small stream.  Continue to whisk over the medium heat until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add about a cup of the cheese into the sauce, and continue to stir until the cheese is melted.

Assembling Crêpes with Mushroom Filling

A saucy filling like this one needs a crêpe fold that contains it well.  This one fits the bill.

To fill crêpes:

mushroom.crepe

  1. Place a crêpe on a flat surface, with its’ best-looking side facing down.  Once its folded, it will be the part that shows.
  2. Place 2 - 3 T of mushroom filling in the center of a crêpe (Make a test one to see if you like the crêpe-to-mushroom ratio).
  3. Pour 2 – 3 T of sauce over the filling (use best judgment—you don’t want to overwhelm your filling with sauce, but you don’t want it to be dry, either).
  4. Sprinkle a few cheese flakes and a few thyme leaves over the top. This makes a difference!

To fold crêpes:

folding.crepes

  1. Take the bottom edge of the crêpe and fold it up over the filling.  Then fold in the two sides flaps over the first one, and over each other.   Finally take all the folded parts and fold the whole crêpe and filling over on top of the last flap, so that the bulk of the crêpe is sitting on top of the final flap.  You should have a neat little square or short rectangle.
  2. Repeat this for all the crêpes, making an effort to fill and fold them in a consistent fashion so that they look good together.
  3. Arrange your crêpes on a large rectangular serving platter or on a cookie sheet lined with parchment, wax paper, or foil.  These crêpes can be served at room temperature, or you can warm them up for a few minutes in the oven at a moderate temperature. Cover the crêpes with foil if you do this, so that they don’t dry out when heating.
  4. You can garnish the top of each crêpe with a sprig of thyme, or at the very last minute before serving you can add a bit of the sauce to the top of the square and place thyme on top of that.  The sauce should hold the thyme in place.

Makes enough filling and sauce for 12 to 15 crêpes.

Lemon Balm, Two Ways by Anne

lemon-balm-2-waysreal

Important fact about lemon balm: It belongs to the mint family.  Important fact about mint: many varieties would take over the world if given the opportunity. 

 

Neither of these facts stopped me a few years ago when I blithely tucked a pert lemon balm plant into my garden bed.  I sorta knew, and I sorta glossed it over in my head (The glossing continued when I later planted spearmint into the ground as well.  Use pots! Pots!). 

 

Yesterday I made more room for my new plants and tried to stop mint world domination.  During this act of heroism I needed to remove a gargantuan lemon balm plant—it was the mother of all the runners that had made their way around the yard.  Transplanting a huge chunk to a pot, I saw that I had hardly made a dent in the colossus.  I just gawked at it for awhile, reflecting.

 

Lemon balm, like mint, tastes lovely in spite of its aggressive tendencies.  It tastes like lemons with a hint of mint.   Like the other varieties of mint it also has digestive properties, so it makes a nice herbal tea or a refreshing addition to lemonade.  But this huge plant would have made way more tea than I was in the mood for drinking.   I needed a recipe that used the stuff in bulk.  Like pesto.  Along the way, I also made guacamole.

 

Lemon Balm Pesto

 

Note: In this recipe, I chopped ingredients finely by hand rather than using a mortar or food processor. I wanted to taste and see the distinct parts of the pesto. I was aiming for a pesto to top roasted fish, but I think this would be lovely on pasta with pecorino romano and generous amounts of pepper.

 

¼ t kosher salt

2 cloves minced garlic

½ t lemon zest

2 cups lightly packed lemon balm leaves, rinsed and dried.

¾ C finely chopped walnuts

1 T minced chives

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

 

*I did the mincing and chopping after steps 1 & 2

1. In a bowl, mash the minced garlic into the salt with the back of a spoon.  Mash in the lemon zest.

2. With the lemon balm, first make a chiffonade -- stacking many leaves, rolling tightly, then slicing slender strips. 

3. After you finish this, add the chiffonade and the garlic mixture to a cutting board and mince the elements together, until particles are well-blended and the size of fine confetti. 

4. Sprinkle chopped walnuts over the mixture, and lightly chop them in. 

5. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the minced chives.  I don’t chop these in because I like the small circles of minced chives, and the chives can retain more zing in distinct pieces.

6. Pour olive oil over mixture, and stir in. 

7. Season to taste—adding more salt or olive oil, if desired.

 

Lemon Balm Guacamole

This is what I would call a recipe tangent.  My husband Michael joked that I should make lemon balm guacamole, because we had seen a cooking show in which the guy was making different versions of guacamole which sounded gross to Michael.   Though it was a joke, it sounded good to me.

 

3 T of the pesto mix at the end of step 3 (before the walnuts & chives were added),

1 mashed avocado

1 t lemon juice

1 T minced chives

 

Stir all ingredients together in a bowl and serve immediately, or place avocado seed back in bowl and cover with plastic wrap directly touching the surface of the guacamole.  Refrigerate and serve as soon as possible.

 

This is great with tortilla chips, though I’d also like to try it with taro root chips or on a sandwich.