Friday, September 5, 2008

Seasoning with salt

Learning how to season your home cooking with salt is your secret weapon. Food over salted is, of course, too salty. But under-salted food is tasteless and boring.

The first meal I cooked for my husband -- the dish we call “carrot and vermicelli” -- is famous only for being the blandest meal I ever made. The soup, inspired by the rice noodle pho we enjoyed at the Vietnamese restaurant near where we worked, was my offering to my then boyfriend of my skills as a potential life partner. My version was cooked rice noodles, shaved carrot and ginger, green onion, chicken breast and chicken stock from a can.

I remember preparing our meal in my tiny apartment kitchen so carefully. I assembled all the ingredients, thinly and evenly slicing the carrots, following the package directions on the vermicelli, and unwrapped the Japanese noodle bowls and chopsticks I had bought for the occasion. The result was beautiful to behold: a tangle of rice vermicelli beneath modest slices of carrots and chicken resting in broth and garnished with onion and ginger. It tasted, however, like carrot peelings with a vague hint of starch. I provided soy sauce for the seasoning, and toasted sesame oil for pizazz, but to no avail. I think we ended up ordering a pizza.

Just as the salt you use is a personal choice, so too is how much of it you add to your meals. My taste buds are fairly sensitive to salt, whereas my husband, who can scarf down plates of olives and hunks of asiago cheese, likes his meals saltier.

As you cook, you will learn how salty you like your food to be. I add salt to a dish based on the number of servings, measuring approximately 1/8 tsp ground salt (or 1/4 tsp large flakes, or one generous pinch) per serving. I provide salt at the table for additional seasoning to suit individual tastes.

I remade carrot and vermicelli the other night, tipping my imaginary toque to my first lesson in seasoning. I cooked the noodles, put a handful in a large soup bowl and ladled in a cup and a half of hot homemade chicken broth. I cut pieces of leftover chicken breast and sliced the carrots and green onion. (I was out of ginger.) Then, I salted everything with Maldon and added garlic chili oil for pizazz. It was wonderful.

With the leftover cooked noodles, I made this simple and delicious noodle salad for an afternoon picnic. I used chicken simply because it's what I had in the fridge, but you could use pork tenderloin, steak slices, tofu cubes, or leave out the protein altogether. Here is the recipe:

Serves 2
1 cup cold leftover cooked rice vermicelli
1 cup cold cooked chicken, sliced or pulled into thin strips
1 large peeled carrot, sliced into ribbons with a potato peeler
2 green onions, chopped
1 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs (try cilantro, basil, parsley, mint or combination)
1 small yellow zucchini, sliced into thin discs
2-3 leaves swiss chard, sliced into ribbons (discard stems)
zest and juice of one lime
1 Tbsp flavourful oil (I used chili garlic oil. Toasted sesame would be great. Light olive oil would also be fine.)
Combine ingredients in a bowl, toss and serve.

NOTE: To make chili garlic oil, buy a 500mL bottle of light olive oil, open the lid and break back the inner plastic pouring guard with a knife. Add to the bottle 5-8 peeled garlic cloves and 3-6 red chili peppers cut in half lengthwise. Before adding the garlic, mash them a bit using bottom of a heavy can or mug to release the juices; the cloves should be broken open but not completely pulverized. You can also use dried chilies. Let the oil steep for several days to reach maximum potency. If it's too strong, add more oil; too weak, add more garlic/chilies.


milanese masala said...

Great advice! I wish my husband would read this post (but he won't since he doesn't read blogs, the fool!). I think he oversalts his food and he thinks I undersalt. Maybe his tastebuds are less sensitive than mine because he smokes. Could that be a possibility?

Kristen Peterson said...

Smoking definitely deadens taste. My husband told me that in high school, a waitress asked if he was a smoker after seeing all of the salt he put on his food. (He said no. He's just a salt-lover for whatever reason.) Google "smoking tastebuds" for a list of articles on the effects of smoking on taste and smell.