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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

A New Cookbook Highlights All the Amazing Things Salt Can Do

One of the first meals I made from an exciting new cookbook was a simple stir-fry, but I would never have done it without the nudge that the book gave me. Another dish I made, Chinese brined eggs, was surprisingly easy; they simply sat in a salty bath with a few other ingredients for a couple of weeks, but in that time they transformed into something complex and introduced me to something new.

The stir-fry and brined eggs are from The Miracle of Salt: Recipes and Techniques to Preserve, Ferment, and Transform Your Food, a magnificent single-ingredient trip around the world. Readers may wonder where it will go—perhaps taking deep dives in pink Himalayan, or visiting with the sauniers of France as they skim for fleur de sel. While salt types and experts like that are present, this book focuses on how to use salt and techniques to create more delicious food. In other words, it's a cookbook, and we're in the capable hands of veteran cookbook author and travel writer Naomi Duguid, whose Burma: Rivers of Flavor cookbook is among my favorites. She uses Salt's recipes to deepen our knowledge of an ingredient used by almost everyone. This is a feat, as globetrotting cookbooks can feel like they poach little bits of information from here and there, creating a whole that's less than the sum of its parts. (Full disclosure: I've met Duguid, talked shop, and shucked oysters with her several years ago at a food-writer industry event.)

Right when I received the book, I got a few things rolling, as they required time to mature. Along with those eggs, I made preserved lemons, mostly just to try a North African twist that Duguid likes where, instead of quartering the citrus lengthwise and leaving the base intact, she slices them, salts each side, and stacks the slices in a jar just wide enough to fit the lemony pinwheels. This is great if you just want to use a bit (or a lot) of preserved lemon in a dish, as opposed to the commitment of the more-common quartering technique.

I also used gobs of fenugreek, mustard, fennel, and nigella seeds to make a vat of green mango pickle, which sat next the lemons and Acadian salted scallions (literally just salt, scallions, and time) for a month, each one getting tastier every day.

With those underway, I made a salad of quick cucumber pickles, the cukes sliced and salted then spending the night in the fridge before being coated with a dressing of mirin, soy, and sesame oil. Nothing groundbreaking, but make enough of it and, as Duguid notes, it keeps in the fridge for a week. I made miso vinaigrette to put on a weeknight salad, put together her Thai-style grilled beef because I love any excuse to use fish sauce as a marinade, and rounded out the week with her spaghetti alla puttanesca because I love dinner.

I quick-salted egg yolks, parking four of the orbs in divots in a square Tupperware full of salt, then added more crystals to cover them completely. After a week, they emerged like apricot-colored gummy discs, before air-drying in cheesecloth the fridge for another week, which readied them to be grated like Parmesan onto cooked veggies or add lingering depth to pasta.

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For a change of pace and a surprisingly quick lunch, I tried a stir-fry of duck breast and bitter greens with a salted black bean sauce. I'd used salted black beans before in mapo tofu, but in this case, you whir them in a food processor with shallots, and add that to hot chili oil before adding Shaoxing wine, soy, and sugar. The sauce coats the duck breast and, in my case, radicchio, Duguid peppering insights along the way. What I really liked here was how she expanded my range—I'd never stir-fried duck, or combined it with bitter greens for that matter—and it introduced me to a sauce that I could use on other dishes.

I did come across one sticking point while using this book, which is mostly a design issue. This is a pantry-style book, meaning you'll see recipes for salty condiments in the front, then find recipes that utilize them in the back. The recipe for black bean sauce is on page 189, but doesn't mention the duck dish that takes advantage of it until 100 pages later. Those Acadian scallions “can be used as an aromatic seasoning,” but doesn't say which, if any, recipes deeper in the book use it. Ditto for the Bengali spiced green mango pickle.

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As a reader, it takes a while to get a handle on this. I cheated and used the wonderful Eat Your Books recipe index to get around the problem, which worked great, but you shouldn't have to use a website to help you find something in the book that's already in your hands. I found myself wishing for a simple solution: that each pantry item from the front had a little list of the other recipes in the book that use it.

For something I wouldn't have done without an expert hand guiding me, I stuck with duck, making a prosciutto that called for using weight measurement and curing the breast with a mix of salt, curing salt, brown sugar, and ground ginger. After about a week in the fridge, it is rinsed and wrapped in cheesecloth, then goes back into the fridge for eight or 10 more days to dry out.

If you've ever wished for a succinct primer on salting and curing meat, Duguid's is the best I've come across. After waiting half a month to try the duck, my immediate thought after putting a slice in my mouth was that the book was worth it for those pages alone.

I did notice that when I first sat down with Salt, I created a two-column legal pad sheet full of recipes to try, so wrapped up in how good it all sounded that it never dawned on me that a couple dozen selections was a lot even for me, and that I might want to get a little picky. The wisdom of the book is not passed down with thick explanatory sections on science, but through a large stock of tested, well-written recipes. It's easy to read and thorough enough to give you the confidence you want before, say, making pancetta for the first time.

Sometimes, Duguid gives you the nudge you need. Every time, she uses the recipes to convey information, a hands-on form of skill-building and perhaps the best way to transmit knowledge there is.

'The Miracle of Salt' by Naomi Duguid$42 at Bookshop.org$45 at Omnivore Books$39 at Amazon

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