herbs and spices

Pass the Salt Please

“Pass the salt, please.” Instantly I’m handed way more salt than my body could possibly handle, and I shake some on my dinner to my palette’s delight. My passionate salting makes me especially clumsy, and I drop the salt shaker onto the table, freeing a collection of brilliant white grains.  “Quickly over the shoulder,” my grandma blurts out in concerned Russian. She’s referring to the superstition that spilling salt is bad luck and welcomes lies, treachery, darkness. This superstition, originates from the Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, in which Judas, the original traitor, is seen knocking over the salt cellar with his elbow. It is believed, for inexplicable reasons, that when one spills salt, a flick of salt over the left shoulder is supposed to blind the devil lurking behind you. And so I oblige, after all why tempt forces I cannot reason with, as in my grandma’s anxiety regarding this matter? In any case, it’s just a little salt. not like it’s valuable. Salt is cheap and widely available. We often take for granted salt’s availability and low monetary value today, but only a century ago, it was a highly sought after commodity, used commonly as currency and believed to be a limited resource. It once determined trade routes, led societies into war, incited people (i.e. Indians led by Ghandi) to revolt against an empire (Britain) that imposed a tax on salt.  In many parts of the world where refrigeration is not available, it continues to be used as a preservative of highly perishable foods, meats and fish being the most notable. (If you find all of this interesting, check out Salt: A  World History by Mark Kurlansky).

Did you know that “sal-” is Latin for salt, and that many of our modern words with this prefix have origins related to expressions or uses of salt in Ancient Rome? For example, “salary” derives from the Latin “salarium”, which describes the ration of salt Roman soldiers were paid for their labor. This also explains the expression “earning one’s salt.” 

Clearly this rock is to be honored, and in this post, I will do my best to discuss various culinary and health matters in the most salacious (sorry I had to) way I can muster.

Salt and Health

Salt gets a lot of bad press these days within the medical community, and from the health perspective it’s not hard to see why it might be a cause for concern. Americans are eating more salt than ever, a whopping 3.5grams a day- way more than the recommended amounts of 1.5-2.3 grams a day. This excessive salt intake is known to contribute to the development of hypertension, a serious risk factor for stroke, heart, and kidney disease. However the important takeaway from this is that 80% of the salt we eat in the U.S. is already present in the food we eat before we sprinkle some on it. Processed foods are loaded with salt, even when they do not taste particularly salty. Take white bread for example- one slice averages around 170 mg of sodium, so one sandwich later, the bread has already contributed to over 20% of your recommended intake. That’s before you even add the pastrami and cheese. My guess is that increased salt lengthens the shelf life of these foods, which any food company is very interested in doing.

The foods that contribute the most salt to Americans’ diet are:

  • Yeast breads
  • Chicken and mixed chicken dinners
  • Pizza
  • Pasta Dishes
  • Cold Cuts

-CDC data: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 24, 2010; vol 59: pp 746-749

Quick Tips for Skimming unnecessary sources of excess salt: Eat fresh or frozen produce, wash canned vegetables if you do eat them, cook more, look at the sodium content of the bread you eat.

My takeaway message from this section is just that if you stay away from super processed, packaged, canned, foods, and make more things from scratch, you’ll end up having an easier time maintaining a happy balance of enjoying the wonderful flavor that salt contributes to many dishes while not overloading your body with salt. You’ll totally get more bang for the buck.

But also, let’s not forget salt is an essential component of life. Dehydration typically represents bodily loss of salt and water, and both need to be replenished, especially when activity level or heat make us lose it more quickly. So drinking regular water when you’re dehydrated (including hungover) might not work if you haven’t consumed any salt (from a recent meal or snack) recently. It has to do with osmotic forces from low salt concentrations causing the water to leave the blood and enter cells instead. You need the salt to hold on to the water and keep it inside our blood vessels. Physiology 101. Now another catch to all of this is that salt water is not just unsavory to drink, it actually will not pass from your gut into the body. It requires sugar to help co-transport the sodium molecules across the gut wall. There-in lies the brilliance and magic of Gatorade. They figured this out before biology had an explanation for why this was so effective.

Salt Recipes and Cooking Strategies

Now that we’ve established that salt can be a curse and a blessing, lets shake it up.

1. The dry rub is an essential for cooking meat or poultry, in particular larger hunks. The kosher salt is the star here, since it’s flat flakes give it more contact with the meat and more salt gets dissolved into the meat, contributing to a superb flavor.  Next time you plan to cook meat, pat it dry with some paper towels and rub it all over with some of the mixture below:

  •  4 Tablespoons Kosher Salt (4 parts)
  • 2 Tablespoons brown sugar (granulated sugar should work fine too)(2 parts), more important for bigger cuts of meat
  •  2 Tablespoons black pepper, preferable freshly ground (2 parts)
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin (1 part)
  • 1 Tablespoon smoked paprika (1 part)
  • 1 Tablespoon garlic powder (1 Part)
  • 1 Tablespoon onion powder (1 part)
  • 1 Tablespoon dried oregano (1 Part)

If you don’t have all these ingredients, my simpler  3:2:1:1 version just has 3 parts brown sugar, 2 parts Kosher salt, 1 part black pepper, and 1 part garlic powder. Mix all of these and store in an airtight container.  Just use enough to cover the meat on all surfaces. Store meat in the fridge. Wait 3-24hours before cooking. For thin cuts of meat, or meat that will be dry roasted, wash off the rub and pat meat dry prior to cooking. Some favorite dry rub meat recipes are: Crockpot pulled PorkOven Baked RibsRoasted Brisket

2. Curing is less often used in the home, but it’s really worth a try- you’ll be amazed by the flavor and texture transformations  some salt +sugar+time can produce. Since you are basically using salt and sugar to kill off the microbes in a raw meat or fish, it’s fairly safe but there is an inherent risk of bacteria surviving the curing process. As long as you buy from a trustworthy vendor and practice very good hygiene, you needn’t worry. So far my track record with this is perfect. For my home cured salmon (Gravlax), I got some wild salmon from Lobster Place in Chelsea Market. I also do not keep anything I cure longer than 3-4 days in the fridge. Pregnant women, small children and infants should avoid cured foods, since they are particularly susceptible to some of the bacteria (i.e. Listeria) that are sometimes present in cooked meats.

I really like Chow’s recipe for Cured Salmon, though I typically leave out parsley, and either leave out the white peppercorns or replace them with 2 tbsp crushed coriander seeds.

Using this salmon I’ve made XO Sauce Gravlax Fried Rice, Cured salmon onigiri, and the classic Bagel with Cured salmon, cream cheese, red onion, and capers. Give it a try and let me know what recipes you come up with!

Cured Salmon, red onion, capers, cream cheese atop a toasted bagel.

Cured Salmon, red onion, capers, cream cheese atop a toasted bagel.

Xo Sauce Cured Salmon Fried Rice, from my anniversary tasting menu (see link above)

Xo Sauce Cured Salmon Fried Rice, from my anniversary tasting menu (see link above)

3. No-vinegar Pickling is my latest big passion. There’s something marvelous about “good”  bacteria acting on fresh produce to create unique delightful flavors. Essentially, you are using salt to control the rate of growth of bacteria in the Lactobacillus genus, which are naturally present on most fruits and vegetables. This bacteria spews out lactic and acetic acids, and other compounds, which make the environment too acidic for any other bacteria to survive, and contributes to the tangy taste. Pickling is a very safe way to prepare fruits and vegetables. You need not worry about any “bad” bacteria growing in your pickles and making you sick. The steps are stupid simple:

1) Wash a glass mason jar with soap and water. Wash whatever you hope to pickle using regular tap water

2) Take a few cloves of garlic, split in half, throw in the jar. Throw in a teaspoon or 2 total of any of the following: crushed black pepper, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, all spice, cloves . Throw in some sprigs of washed dill.

3) To keep the pickling vegetables crunchy, you can supposedly add a few horseradish, oak, or grape leaves. I’m hoping to try this soon, but let me know if it works for you!

4) Make a brine of 2 tablespoons kosher salt to ever qt of tap water. Supposedly chlorine free is better, but I’ve never tried. You might need to warm up a smaller amount of water (i.e. 1 cup)  to dissolve the salt and then add more water once the salt has dissolved.

5) Put you washed vegetables into the jar, preferably whole. Cutting them might make them lose their crunch more quickly.

6) Fill the jar with brine until the water level is 1-2 inches above the vegetables. You may need to weigh down the vegetables with something. This is key because the pickling needs to happen in anaerobic conditions, that is, without any air. Otherwise, if the vegetable is in contact with air, undesirable fungus  or bacteria might grow. Even if this happens, it’s not a big deal- you can just scrape that layer off.

7) Close tightly with a cap, keep at room temperature for 4-5 days.

8) “Burp” the jar by loosening the cap to release the gas that has built up, and close it again. You can try the vegetable at this point to see what progress it has made, and continue to let it pickle for 5 more days, sampling it midway.

9) When your pickle has reached its desired taste, put it in the fridge to store long term. It can keep for weeks, probably even longer.

10) Great foods to pickle: Cucumber (duh!), beets, watermelon (or just the rind is great too), tomatoes, grapes (with cloves), parsnips, peppers (bell, cherry, or spicy), peaches (but not overripe), onions, fennel.

Dill Pickles

Dill Pickles

Pickled Grapes

Pickled Grapes. Tangy, sweet, with a hit of clove at the back of the tongue. Really unique flavors.

I also would like to give a shout out to one of my favorite food blogs, “Not without Salt.” Definitely check it out, it’s a brilliant concept and execution.

Now folks, go off and do try this at home (as long as you don’t have high blood pressure or other conditions in which salt should be restricted).

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This entry was posted in: herbs and spices

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I’m currently in the midst of my medical training, having completed my third year of medical school at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in NY. Taking this year to do preventative medicine research and explore outside interests including mindfulness based training, cooking, photography, and web development. I find myself constantly in awe of the human condition, and the resilience many people are able to find within themselves during times of incredible duress or suffering. I am interested in continuing to learn about healing in its many different forms. I am certain there are many more therapeutic agents outside of what the medical establishment currently offers and accepts as standard of care. Whether a nourishing meal, a walk in a scenic landscape, a sitting meditation, or an FDA approved drug, I hope to learn enough to help those in need of healing find the most efficacious choice to restore wellness.