Monday, July 21, 2014

UnRecipe: Salt of the Earth Eats

We're definitely in the months where the notion of cooking over a hot stove is just not an option. But there's no reason not to celebrate ingredients while trying to beat the heat! This week's post is all about the magic of salt. It's a wonderful preservative and is a one-step miracle ingredient if you don't want to fuss with making a brine for a jar full of fresh vegetables. I'm parading the miracles of salt, but I'm also giving a head's up to a site I've been using as a great reference guide: The Japanese Food Report, which has been helpful for a lot of simple, everyday techniques.

The simplicity of salted radishes -- and not wasting any of the parts! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I totally came across The Japanese Food Report site by chance -- I was fortunate to have gotten my hands on what I can only describe as the perfect bundle of radishes, and wanted to do them justice. Sure, maybe a few of the radish roots looked like butt-cheeks (hee-hee!), but they were clean, unblemished, and the greens were absolutely pristine. Definitely grown in a greenhouse or something with a covering. Who cares -- they were gorgeous and I didn't want to waste any bit of it. I found the blog's method for a simple three leaf and radish pickle, which is quite simply radishes wilted and preserved with only salt. Honestly, how simple is that?

The simplicity of fresh radishes and sea salt - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The key to the salted radishes is cutting them down into distinct groups: slices of the red/white root, the stems, and the leaves. They'll all be salted together, but having them in different pieces evens out the wilting process when the salt is drawing all the liquid from the different parts. I followed the cutting method, making sure to separate everything. It was a pleasantly zen-like experience, making this traditional Japanese tsukemono (preserved vegetable) -- uncomplicated, yet each task was specific and purposeful. I used this as an opportunity to use a specialty salt I'd been saving, a sea salt collected from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I have plenty of fancy salts that friends have given, and a lot of the fanciness of the salts are something added, like cold smoked flavor, but this Hawaiian sea salt had the pure, intense flavor of the ocean. It was slightly wet, like other sea salts, but with a clean, mineral-free flavor, just an intense salinity. Which I know you'd say: it tastes extra salty? How is that special? It's hard to explain, but it really did taste like super clean ocean sea spray, and I thought for the crisp, sharp flavor of a radish, it would be a perfect pairing.

Salted radishes have the magical ability to fit into tiny containers AND keep its color intact! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Tossing the salt and radish greens and roots together, letting some of the initial liquid drain, then packing it into a surprisingly small glass container, it was amazing how much shrinkage happens with salt. I seriously put an entire bundle of radishes into a jar the size of a small margarine container, and it continued to shrink as the salt did its work. But the resulting radish tsukemono was gorgeous -- the salt does something that vinegar brines tend not to do, which is retain the vegetable's color integrity. I've pickled radishes in vinegar brines before, and it leeches the color, and then creates a stain effect on everything in the jar -- which is fine if you want everything to have a Hello Kitty Pink from the red of the radish. The plain salt seems to keep the color intact, which is a great option if you find yourself with multiple-colored radishes (they can come in purple and pink-skinned varieties), or wish to mix other vegetables in, like shaved carrots.

On colder days, salted radish is nice with a bowl of spicy ramen - Photo by Wasabi Prime
But what do you do with the salted radishes after you're done admiring them in the glass container? Thankfully, because they're salted and kept in a refrigerator, there's no hurry to use them immediately. I made this batch a while back during colder months, so I added the radishes to things like a homemade ramen, or something as simple as an egg and rice dish, for a simple breakfast. The radishes are extremely salty, so you can always rinse some of the salt off, or add it to bland items like a bowl of steamed rice and egg, knowing it will become the seasoning. Another great method I found on The Japanese Food Report blog was the onsen tamago -- poaching an egg in its own shell. Sort of a mix between sous vide and soft boiled eggs, it's one way to get a creamy yolk without having any fancy cooking apparatus.The radish with eggs and rice is a perfect, simple meal, even on a warm day when you don't want to fuss with cooking -- you can prep the eggs ahead of time and just add to the steamed rice to warm up.

Salted radish, steamed rice and poached egg - Breakfast of Champions! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I was so inspired by the salted radish that I wanted to continue the exploration of Salt + Food. In the past, I've salted whole lemons to preserve for later use. My dad would actually eat thin slices of the salted lemons as snacks -- it's a little strong for me -- but I liked having the salted lemons for flavoring stews and soups. The salted lemons got me thinking I could try the same thing with limes. If you're up to date on this year's food current events you'll know there was a lime crisis, aka the Limepocalypse.Which seems to have subsided to a degree -- I notice the limes at the store are larger and more plentiful these days.

Limepocalypse Now-ish - experimenting with salted limes for a dismal citrus future - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Months back, when the size of the limes in grocery stores were getting smaller, and the price per lime was rising, I picked up a half dozen limes to try and experiment. I scrubbed them all down with water and dried them off, did an X-shaped cut almost all the way through, making them look kind of like chunky tulips, then packed them with kosher salt, before jamming them into a jar. I added more salt on top, and sealed the whole thing up, before placing in the pantry. The salting process took a little over a month -- they've since lost their color (salt seems to only save some colors, citrus rinds not being one of them), and the limes deflated like flat footballs, just like what would happen with the lemons. But no mold set in, the salt did its work. I've sliced off bits of rind and chopped finely to add to a Thai-style curry -- something where a salty lime flavor would be appropriate -- and it's been a nice flavor boost.

Salty lime paste - preserved and ready to use at a moment's notice! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Since starting the salting process back in early spring, I let the limes sit for about two months before using. Color leeched out by the salt and deflated like sad little footballs, they still worked pretty well as a salty citrus flavor agent in savory foods.It's good to add it towards the end of whatever you're cooking, just so the flavor doesn't fade in a long simmer. And it's of course quite salty, so just a small spoonful packs a punch -- forget the pinch of salt you add into something, this will do.

I eventually removed all the limes, salt and juice, and buzzed everything down to a fine paste in the food processor. Even though I had everything in a glass jar, I was noticing some salt crystals starting to form on the outside of the metal hinge -- I think some of the lime juice was seeping out when I'd periodically shake the jar to redistribute the brine, and I didn't want the salt to corrode the metal. But the salty lime paste is perfect for adding a bit of lime-citrus to a savory dish, without needing fresh limes on hand. HOORAY, SALT!

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