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Volume 41 Issue 3 • May 26-June 1, 2011
now in our 41th season

Ocean Essence

by Jenn Farmer - Chef and Food Fancier

Recently I telephoned a dear chef friend of mine in such excitement, that he took it for panic.  I asked if I could come over, I had something I needed to show him.  It was early for him.  He had worked late the night before, so he only reluctantly agreed to let me come over.  What most people don’t realize is that in restaurants, even after that last plate of food goes out to the customer, there is still work going on in the kitchen.  There is cleaning, prep lists, dishes, and ordering for the next day, so it’s not uncommon for Chefs to have late nights.     I sprinted up the stairs to his apartment, flying through the door like a whirling tornado.  He looked disheveled, bleary eyed, with bed-hair, and a cup of tea.

“What exactly is so important this morning, Boo?”  he asked.  (We have known each other for what feels like 20 years, and Boo is his nickname for me.)   He was obviously confused by the wild exhilaration in my eyes.    

“LOOK at this Uncle Noel” (my nickname for him) — I pulled a small round container from my pocket and shook it at him.  “Nantucket Sea Salt.

“What?”  He leaned in closer, taking it from me, examining it through the clear container.

“Open it—taste it, it’s like a warm day on the beach.  Taste the sunshine, and imagine a swim at Surfside or Cisco beach, it’s so great!”  I said breathlessly. 

 “Wow.”  He honestly agreed, being patient with me in his unfortunate state of exhaustion. 
He knows how I feel about salt.  I love salt.  Perhaps “love” is the wrong word...”obsessed” is far better.     I may seem overzealous about it, but it is fascinating stuff.  The chemical make-up, its appearance, and its color are all interesting to me.  Since it is a crystal, it can be in perfect tiny cubes, or thin flaky sheets, big fluffy structures, or in solid golf ball (or bigger) sized chunks.  Salt can be a multitude of different colors naturally ranging from very white or opaque to grey, pink, red, and even black.  The texture is also unique.  I enjoy the tiny crunch of fleur de sel on a nice steak or a perfect slice of tomato.  It is as seductive as that perfect sphere of caviar as it is pressed between your tongue and the roof of your mouth with a satisfying ‘pop.’  Then the flavor...ohhhh the flavor!  Much like great wine, salt can have several flavor components.  It can be bitter or sweet, taste a bit like clay or seaweed and minerals.  Many gourmet smoked or flavored salts are now available on the market too. 

After assaulting my poor comrade, I raced home to find out more information about Nantucket Sea Salt.  Soon, I was writing an email to the man who makes it, Chef Bart Gangemi.  Luckily for me, Chef Gangemi was kind enough to show me the process of how he makes the salt.

I walked down to the Easy Street Cantina, where the salt is actually manufactured and got the Grand Tour.  The ocean water is collected by him personally, and brought back where it is filtered.  Then it is allowed to evaporate in large pans in his warm baking ovens.  He wisely uses the surplus heat from his morning baking to aid in the evaporation process, otherwise the salt would be far too expensive economically and environmentally to produce.  The salt goes through a second filtering whilst warm and is transferred into new pans, evaporating under less direct heat.  On occasion it’s stirred, but not over-worked, to keep the big beautiful gem-like appearance and texture.  When the salt is the appropriate texture, almost fluffy and no longer moist, it is packaged to be sold.  There are some pictures of the process on his website, www.nantucketcookie.net. 

Chef Gangemi is not new to the seasoning world, he has been producing “Nantucket Secret Spice” here on Nantucket for years and now is making a new product called Bartholomew’s Nantucket Island Spice, same great product but (you guessed it) with Nantucket Sea Salt.  It is a lovely product and slightly addictive.  Since trying it recently, I have used it on fresh fish (grilled tuna was my personal favorite), oven roasted potatoes, chicken, flank steak, and grilled vegetables. 
I asked Chef Gangemi for his favorite use for his natural salt.  He enjoys it on a simple grilled steak, and a bit of his spice on baked potato with some butter with the same seasoning.  He is a purist, like most Chefs.  Don’t let that stop you from experimenting—food should be fun.  He also suggests impressing guests with a lovely broiled cod with julienned vegetables finished with a bit of lite butter, then broiled again for beautiful color and flavor, then a sprinkle of seasoning.  It is truly a beautiful and delicious dish.  

I am not entirely certain why salt and potatoes are such a great combination, but they tend to bring out the best in each other.  Here is my favorite simple recipe for potatoes.  Add some nice blanched green beans, and some simple grilled or broiled seafood (sprinkled with a bit of salt of course) and you have yourself a beautiful summer meal. 

Roasted Potatoes with Nantucket Sea Salt

  • 2 pounds fingerling potatoes
  • 2 T. Olive oil (duck or bacon fat may be substituted)
  • Black pepper
  • Nantucket sea salt
  • 1 lemon
  • One half cup thinly sliced scallions or chives

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Halve the fingerlings, or leave whole if they are very small.  Toss together with the olive oil, and pepper.  Spread the potatoes evenly on a sheet pan and roast for 30- 40 minutes, until crispy on the outside and completely cooked on the inside.  Garnish the golden potatoes with Nantucket Sea Salt, a little zest from the lemon, and scallions.  A little fresh squeezed lemon may be added at the table by your guests. Enjoy!  Serves about 4.        

I have had several friends ask me for the following recipe. These caramels make great gifts, if they last that long.

Nantucket Sea Salt Caramels

  • 1 teaspoons Nantucket Sea Salt
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • One half teasp. Nor’easter Bourbon (vanilla extract may be substituted)
  • 1 and one half cup sugar
  • One quarter cup light corn syrup
  • One quarter cup water

One candy thermometer and parchment paper are also needed

Line the bottom of the 8 inch square baking dish with the same size square of parchment paper and set aside.  DON’T oil the paper. Sprinkle with some of the sea salt crystals.  
Bring the cream, and butter to a boil in a small sauce pan.  Remove from the heat and stir in the bourbon.  Set aside.

Boil sugar, corn syrup, and water in a 3 quart heavy saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves.  While boiling carefully swirl the pan until the mixture is a nice golden caramel color.

Carefully stir in the cream mixture (it will bubble up a lot).  Stir frequently while simmering, until the caramel reaches 248 degrees Fahrenheit on the candy thermometer.  This will take approximately 10-18 minutes.  Pour the caramel into the parchment lined pan.  Sometimes I will sprinkle a little more salt on top at this stage, but that is optional.  Cool the caramels for at least two hours.  Cut into bite sized pieces, and consume or wrap in small squares of waxed paper, twisting the ends closed.  Makes 20-40 candies, depending on the size they are cut.  

Salt is a flavor enhancer as well as a very effective and important preservative.  Like all great things in this world salt should be enjoyed in moderation.  I believe finishing dishes with great quality salt has actually lowered my sodium intake, since it is more flavorful than iodized or other processed table salts.  I just cook with less salt to begin with.  Now l have Nantucket Sea Salt I can pinch and crumble over my meal at the table which controls the portion better than a shaking it on. 

Historically salt has been used in trade and as currency; in fact Roman soldiers were once paid partially in salt.   A very important food preservative, at times it has even exceeded the value of gold.  This may seem a little overzealous, but I understand why.

 

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