I was reminded recently while talking at the water cooler that the simplest things in life can often be the most important. I am not talking of saving the world with a new message for peace; I am speaking of seasoning your food with salt. (Okay, pepper is good too.) Please keep reading – not just for my ranting, but for some chef’s advice on how to eat better tasting food. In honour of Earth Day this week, I thought it appropriate that I speak of a crucial element on our planet.
Even water with some salt becomes more of an advantage, as we learned when Gatorade was invented. A sprinkle of natural salt on most dishes will elevate them to a new level, bringing out their flavours and allowing them to intermingle more elegantly with other flavours in your meal. In a word, it balances the flavours. At a more basic level, it balances your body too, by regulating the fluid levels. Did you know that salt was also once used like currency? The word salary comes from a Latin word that referred to the allowance of salt given to Roman soldiers as part of their pay. Pliny the Elder, an ancient author and naturalist, said "Heaven known, a civilized life is impossible without salt”.
At the water cooler, we were recounting meals at restaurants and discussing the merits of healthy food versus comfort food (as in, vegetarian-style dishes against rich creamy cheesy dishes). Of course the right thing to say these days is that you love the fresh taste of those veggies and that all those trans-fats and carbs are too much to enjoy when they are clogging your arteries.
I once endured a meal at a vegetarian place (which shall remain nameless to protect the ignorant) and I have to say the lack of seasoning made it so bland I wished for a clogged artery just so I could feel alive. I hate to insult the chef by seasoning his food at the table but this stuff was in danger of slipping into oblivion. I added some salt and pepper and it came back to life enough to be palatable. One thing that all those comfort foods often have going for them is that they contain some element that incorporates seasoning.
It occurred to me the night I ate that meal that perhaps here is one of the reasons we have fallen out of grace and into the pit of prepared food problems. Did we forget how to use simple seasonings and get lured away from healthy eating by the temptation of processed marinades and sauces that promised more flavour? Did we let the proverbial pendulum swing so far that we lost sight of the other side, where a simple pinch of salt would bring a simple plate of food to life? I say it’s time to return to the basics and enjoy those straight-forward flavours again. You can head back down the path of connecting with your food if you use one of nature’s own seasonings.
Nowadays you can enjoy exotic salts from around the globe, but simple sea salt will do the trick. (Iodized salt will work too, but it is saltier in taste.) Try a small sprinkle on your next salad with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and I hope you will see the light as I did. Who would have thought something so simple and straight from the earth could offer so much to a leaf of lettuce or a tomato?
Life is far too short for it to be bland.
The general recommendation is to keep daily consumption under 2300 mg sodium per day, which is about 1 teaspoon. Let’s take those prepared sauces and packaged foods with a grain of salt and make sure that we are indeed living up to our potential. (I believe that’s called being worth your salt.)
Chef Martin says:
I have been cooking for a long time, and all those years have taught me one thing: the art of being a good chef depends on being consistent with your attention to detail. To graduate from cook to chef there is only a few things that separate the both of them, aside from management skills, and salt is in my opinion the most important difference in the area of cooking skills. A cook gets direction from the chef and sometimes maybe allowed to create some dishes. The best cooks will learn to control salt as fast as possible, because that will be the one thing that the chef will come by and check to make sure it has been adjusted to perfection. If your food is salted properly the chef will give you some praise after tasting it; you will most likely earn some brownie points, and avoid the snarly comments.
For years as a cook I struggled to balance salt in my food. I was working as a pastry chef 80% of my time so sugar was the thing I put in my mouth on a regular basis and I often under-salted dishes because it always tasted way too salty to me. It took many years for me to be able to master sugar and salt. I now realize how important it is as a chef to know just how much is enough. You can make the best dishes in the world, but if you don’t add enough salt, it is kind of like building a beautiful house without electricity or planting an amazing garden full of flowers and not watering it properly.
Now, do some people eat too much salted food, yes…but sea salt in a risotto is far from a bag a potato chips. If you want to elevate your game from amateur cook to amateur chef, start working on your salt skills. The last thing to do before taking dishes to your guests is simply to taste it and adjust the salt with a pinch. Taste it again and add more if needed. Just like water in your garden, knowing how much is enough takes the practice of doing it again and again, probably with a bit of trial and error.
People ask me all the time, "How did you make this taste so good?" or they say, "What did you put on this dish?!" and 9 out of 10 times my answer is simply just using enough salt and pepper. No one likes to go out and have bland food, so why would you serve that to your guests.
Keep on cooking.
Okay, we did just experience one of the most important times of the year, which involves quality time with friends and loved ones around the dining table, so I suppose you don't need an excuse to celebrate food again this soon after indulging. But come on, who doesn't want to say they took part in Cheeseball Day? Or perhaps Catfish Day or Donut Day? In all fairness, you could go healthy and celebrate Banana Day or Spinach Day if you prefer. You think I'm kidding, don't you? Not a chance. Anything is possible in the age of Facebook and the Food Network and lobbying, where it's easy to convince people of a new trend.
In the United States, there are more than 175 days dedicated to some kind of food. Other countries have special food days too, but no one else beats the Americans in diversity. For example, not surprisingly Italy has National Espresso Day (April 17) and Germany has a National German Beer Day (April 23). It certainly makes sense to me that nations known for particular culinary or beverage specialties would want to keep their importance alive in the country's conscience. A bit less obvious is the connection for Sweden's Cinnamon Bun Day (October 4) and Iran's Pie Day and Cheeseburger Day (January 23 and October 27 respectively). But hey, food is a way to bring people together, so why not pie and burgers?
There are some global food-centric days, like Pancake (Shrove) Tuesday. We have traditional foods associated with other holidays too and often they make sense. Having turkey or ham at a Thanksgiving meal in fall seems logical. I do have to wonder at the logic of having something like Peach Cobbler Day in April though, before the peach trees have even blossomed. (I couldn't find out who initiated this holiday, but I'm thinking it was just a keen peach cobbler fan who was pining for a taste.)
In Canada, we only have one recognized national day to celebrate food, called (simply enough) Food Day (the Saturday of the August long weekend). It was started with a BBQ theme in support of Canadian beef farmers after the mad cow disease crisis in 2003. It is now meant to be a celebration of the diversity of all Canadian food, celebrated by chefs across Canada. There is a World Food Day (October 16) recognized in many nations that works to raise awareness about hunger around the world, with efforts to eradicate hunger and recognize sustainable farming practices.
Food is a passion for me, and so I appreciate events like Food Day to help spread the good word about good, clean, fair food. There is nothing wrong with having fun with your food though, and the occasional donut does not herald the end of the world. If the urge strikes you, here are the next celebrations coming up on the calendar:
- national grilled cheese sandwich day (US - April 12)
- national coffee day (Brazil - April 14 ... in case you can't wait until Espresso Day)
- national eggs benedict day (US - April 16 ... I would have thought this would fall on a weekend)
- national pigs-in-a-blanket day (US - April 24)
- national pineapple upside down cake day (US - April 20 ... my recipe is pretty good if you want to try it!)
It seems almost every common dish or food ingredient is listed but I'm sure there is room for more ... I wonder if I could get a proclamation to declare my birthday as Tuna Casserole Day?
Well, here we are, already at Easter. It’s good to know that spring is under way, and I feel like it’s time to celebrate and let loose. I watch my dogs get spring scents in their nostrils and their tails perk up, like they have inhaled a tonic. It seems children at Easter are the same, as they run and hunt for Easter eggs. Adults should have a dose of that, too. With that in mind, here's my lighthearted foodie nod to this holiday weekend.
Easter is a celebration that rates of the same magnitude as Christmas – there is much to be done for it to be heralded in with the appropriate amount of fanfare and indulgence. Whether you are celebrating the end of Lent or planning an Easter Egg hunt for the kids, it is and should be a big deal. Those just don’t materialize overnight!
Are you feeling like I am, that it seems you just put away the Christmas decorations and here you are trying to find a pastel-coloured tablecloth and napkin rings that match the tulips you bought? Does it irk you that you can’t decide which sheets to put in the spare bedroom so that it looks bright and springy? Well, the one saving grace is the reward that awaits us at the end of all the agonizing decisions… chocolate!
I am not trying to make light of what many consider to be a serious occasion. The consideration that goes into religious Easter week celebrations is important. Feasting is just one component that has great significance to the reason for the holiday. But in this column I am focusing on the frivolity of Easter.
Bunny-tails and fuzzy chicks make me smile, and chocolate makes me smile even more. Jelly beans are one of the four Easter goodie food groups and that is not a bad thing either. It is the one time of year when the theme overrides the issue of quality; you can have just as much fun eating “Peeps” as you can savouring artisanal chocolate bunnies made from estate cocoa beans and flavoured with some exotic spice. And, if you have to hunt for your Easter “loot”, then that is one more reason to enjoy every morsel, in celebration of following directions or solving the riddle given. (One year when I was a kid we had a poem whose rhymes gave hints on where to find the eggs – it included a quote from MacBeth that was to lead us to the eggs hidden in the washing machine!)
So, I may not get everything all ready for spring by this weekend, but I certainly plan to sample a jelly bean or two, and I promise to savour a chocolate bunny on Sunday night (I'm a tail-first gal, I eat the ears last.) Next week there will still be time to work on the garden plan, and the ironing of those lighter weight blouses can wait until after the company has left. I will watch the dogs bounce in the new grass and I might even check in the washing machine to see if the Easter Bunny remembered a long-ago hiding place.
I hope you have the chance to take the time for such frivolous celebrations of life this weekend – you deserve it too! If you need help with some Easter egg hunting ideas, check out this great article I discovered.
Does anyone remember the old Arlo Guthrie tune? You know, the one about the pickle? He comments in the lyrics on how absurd it is that he could be so successful with a song about a pickle. It makes me think of today and how the food trends have become so extreme, so exotic. Are we yearning for imaginative stuff on our plates? Is the world so serious that we look to the dinner table for a bit of something absurd just to relieve the stress? I'm going to give you a couple of examples to ponder, and maybe you can let me know your thoughts.
1. Burgers - they're going to be responsible, or maybe full of crazy stuff. Even A & W has advertised that they are now serving antibiotic-free beef, and independent restaurants are often working with smaller suppliers in that "know where your food comes from" philosophy. Other places are going the extreme route: duck confit burger, anyone? How about a squid slider?
2. Waffles - they're not just for breakfast anymore. Sweet waffles are popular, but the southern dish of chicken & waffles has helped inspire all kinds of rich savoury toppings. This is another trend that is not for the faint at heart however.
3. Brinner - when you miss breakfast, you can have it for dinner! Some of this trend is centered around the concept of putting a poached egg on top of a dish, but there's something to be said for making more meals acceptable for all those wonderful Sunday brunch dishes :)
4. Gyros - it's cooler when your wrap has an ethnic name, isn't it? The Greek flatbread with flavourful fillings is the new wrapped sandwich craze. Portable food is always cool in today's world. If only there was an app that would allow telepathic texting while you eat...
5. Donuts - what else can you put in them? It's frankly scary the range of fillings available in fried pastry, and then consider the variations of stuffed food similar to a donut - like kolaches (great with plum jam but now possible with candied jalapenos and smoked beef).
6. "I dare you" food - ever tried beef tongue? How about fresh grated horseradish? Foraged greens? Moss? It's all out there for the adventurous. Chefs love shock value too sometimes.
7. New twists on beverages - craft beer pubs are passé; look for beer bars with odd themes (think different glassware or decor and innovative beer styles). Wine is okay, but mead is more fun. And cocktails can come with any kind of garnish now, even scented feathers!
8. Salt cod - no really, you have to try it! Andrew Knowlton, the editor of Bon Appetit magazine, said it looks like "a last-resort snack for those beyond the wall in Game of Thrones" but treated properly it is delectable.
9. Nitro coffee - because life just keeps getting more Fast & Furious. Seriously, why have just caffeine when you can have it injected with nitrogen and served from a tap? Apparently it has a creamy texture not unlike a pint of Guinness.
10. Restaurant names like never before - in an effort to be new and inventive, owners are picking terms like "luncheonette" and "provisions" to sound unique. Couple this with some wacky ingredient or animal name (think anise hyssop or blue oyster) and you're all set. Only trouble is everyone else is using the same kind of formula - go figure.
11. Lithuanian and South African cuisine - it sounds like someone spun a globe and said "quick, what countries have we not featured on menus recently?" But there are some interesting foods to try - a Lithuanian stuffed potato dumpling called a cepelinai sounds delicious, and I love bobotie, a sort of South African shepherd's pie.
12. Pickles - you thought I was going to leave you hanging, didn't you? Don't you agree, what with kimchi everywhere now and pickled mushrooms as garnish and pickled fruit on cheese boards... really, the recession wasn't that bad we need to preserve everything! I love a crunchy dill pickle like the next person, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
How trendy are you? Does any of this stuff even pique your interest, or would you rather stick to Meatless Monday, Tuna Casserole Tuesday and so on? Does your family enjoy trying new things? I'd love to hear your comments.
I'll be posting links to some of the recipes from this week's list on my Happy Gourmand blog for those wanting to try something new, and I have the Arlo Guthrie Pickle tune on my Facebook page if you're feeling nostalgic. Whatever food you're enjoying this week, Bon Appetit!
Read more Happy Gourmand articles
- Spring inspirations Mar 21
- There isn't much a cookie can't cure Mar 14
- And the winner is... Feb 21
- Food is life and what a good life it is! Feb 14
- Breakfast: best way to start the day Feb 7
- Beginner's guide to aphrodisiac foods Jan 31
- Chase away the winter blues Jan 24
- Sprinkles on broccoli, really?! Jan 17
- I resolve to... Jan 3
- The right way to start the New Year Dec 27
- We need to believe Dec 20
- Nuts at Christmas Dec 13
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