Why do some restaurant chefs refuse to put salt and pepper on their tables? Presumably, they consider their food to be perfectly seasoned for every palate. I suppose allowing the diner to adjust the flavor according to personal tastes would be culinary heresy. Sacre cordon bleu!
Personally, I like having salt and pepper available at all times. I know how to cook and I know how to eat, and I appreciate the efforts of every cook, professional or non. I always taste the meal first, every part of it. And only then, after savoring each bite, separately and in concert with all the elements of the meal, only then might I consider adding salt or pepper. It's not a slap in the face to the cook. It's my own personal tastes, the way I want to eat that particular meal, and I'm not suggesting that other diners need to alter their meal similarly. I just want the option available.
In most restaurants, I rarely do feel the need to adjust the seasonings. But when I do, I get irked if I have to track down the waiter and then cease eating until the hallowed vestibules of salt and pepper arrive, as if smuggled out of the kitchen and away from the chef's sensitive eyes and ego. Egads! We're talking about the two most common seasonings in the world here, ones every person has grown up with. It's not like we're corrupting prime rib with globs of ketchup or a dose of hot-dog relish.
In her new book Salt and Pepper, the always entertaining and informative Michele Anna Jordan, finally brings these two seasonings to the literary table, so to speak. As she's done with her previous Good Cook's Books on Tomatoes, Olive Oil and Mustard (and more recently, her books Polenta and California Home Cooking), Michele gives us a grand synopsis of the topic: the history, lore, processing, use and little known facts of each condiment. Did you know that Mahatma Gandhi challenged the British Empire with just a fistful of salt, which became a symbol of India's independence movement? Or that pepper makes up one of the key ingredients in fragrances and perfumes?
We encounter salt and pepper every day, but how little we seem to know about them. I've learned a great deal about each in this delicious little book, which, like its 135 recipes, is perfectly balanced: there's just enough information on salt and pepper to whet my appetite, but not so much as to overpower my taste for the subjects. Like any good read, Salt and Pepper is at home on the bedside table, by the deck chair, or by the couch, as well as in the kitchen.
Personal tastes for salt, as Michele points out, aren't just whimsy. Our bodies need salt. Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is essential for regulating electrolytes, as are potassium, calcium and magnesium. So when I ask for salt on the table, I'm not necessarily doing it as a matter of taste. Indeed, I may be responding to my own body's signals, ones that say a tad more salt in the blood stream would be appreciated, thank you very much (although admittedly, salt used in excess can be damaging). But salt is also magical. As Michele writes, "It makes otherwise bland foods taste good, and it makes good foods taste even better. Its absence can render potentially wonderful things tasteless."
While pepper is not biologically essential, the pure burst of flavor it adds to a meal makes it seem indispensable. Like salt, pepper comes in a myriad of varieties. Salt is a rock, a mineral, found in the earth and sea. The places of origin affect its flavor. Pepper, being a plant, is also affected in taste by its origins and environment, and because it's perishable, time and aging also contribute to its flavor.
Take your pick of pepper: black, green, white or the faux variety, pink. If you pick black, will it be Tellicherry from India, Sarawak from Malaysia, or perhaps Lampong from Indonesia? How would you know which is of superior quality? Michele has the answers.
Besides quality variations among different types and grades of pepper, pepper can have its own snob appeal as well, a characteristic that usually has less to do with the peppercorn itself than it does with personal preference. Michele points out that Europeans actually prefer white pepper to black, while the reverse is true here. For me, white pepper is not relegated to use in white sauces only (like wearing white shoes in summer), and I find it makes an intriguingly complex and complimentary dance when paired with certain foods, like Swiss cheese, ginger, mushrooms, spinach, and risotto. But I have found at least one person who feels differently.
I admire a certain TV chef, but in her comments to viewers, she irritatingly and repeatedly dismisses the use of white pepper, even when demonstrating other peoples' recipes that include it as an ingredient. She is, of course, entitled to this personal preference. But being on the other side of the fence, I adore the deep, sweet taste of white pepper in certain recipes, and I fear this chef's partiality will give novice cooks an irrational prejudice against its use. When it comes to ingredients, (such as white pepper), I advise cooks to take other peoples' personal preferences (including my own) with a grain of salt. Let your own palate be your guide.
Once cracked or ground, pepper loses its intensity rapidly—unlike salt, which as a rock, never changes in flavor. But salt and pepper both profit from being freshly crushed in a mill. Salt crystals with irregular edges take to food better, they hold on and don't roll off like the perfectly round grains found in common table salt. Pepper can be coarsely or finely ground, but whichever shape it takes, the mere act of grinding it as you use it—and not before—makes a world of difference in flavor.
Michele addresses various types of grinders, or mills, in Salt and Pepper. The grinding mechanism is the key to a good mill, and she prefers ones with an efficient stainless steel grinder and a sturdy traditional crank or bulb. Recently, I have been experimenting, on the quest for the quintessential mill. I have discovered that one needs different mills for different purposes. For instance, I love my battery-operated mill with a small light on the bottom, operated by pressing one's thumb to a single button on top. Michele mentions this model in Salt and Pepper, noting that she once felt such items frivolous, but then she recognized it's a handy item for those with impaired hand or wrist movements; or, in my case, for cooks who tend to multi-task when cooking, using both hands to do different jobs at the same time.
For instances when I want a lot of pepper in just a few quick cranks, I've discovered the new Millennium peppermill. Wow! This is a dream for serious cooks. It has a big crank and grinds a tablespoon of pepper in just a few effortless spins. I'm also playing around with different salt mills, ones that give me the same variation in texture that a good peppermill does, without pulverizing the salt to a powder.
But most importantly, Michele has come up with the solution to my dining-out dilemma: William Bounds makes a tiny travel set of salt and pepper grinders, complete with their own velour carrying bag. I can now satisfy my seasoning sense when dining on airplanes, at picnics, and most of all, at those before-mentioned restaurants, which refuse to share their salt and peppershakers with me. Egads! What a concept!
You'll never know much you don't know and salt and pepper unless you read this book. Given the worldwide availability of more exotic peppers and salts, Salt and Pepper is the perfect companion to the dedicated cook's library. Now that I know so much more about this dynamic duo, using them takes on a whole new meaning. I'm off to buy Celtic gray sea salt, Hawaiian red salt, whole white peppercorns, Malabar and Muntok peppers—and I'll never take the phrase "season to taste" quite so casually again!
Salt & Pepper
135 Perfectly Seasoned Recipes
Copyright © 1999, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created July 1999
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