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.
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 civilised 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 had 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.
Let’s take those prepared sauces 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.)
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, how much is enough, well you need to practice to get better at knowing.
People ask me all the time wow, how did you make this taste so good or what did you put on this dish and 9 out of 10 times my answer is simply just 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.