Tutto il sale non è lo stesso

All Salt Is Not Alike

Tutto il sale non è lo stesso

All Salt Is Not Alike

About 15 years ago Marcella Hazan was in New York on a book tour.  This was before she moved to Florida and she was still living and teaching in Venice.  On this visit, she held two master classes at The French Culinary Institute.  I don't know how my husband got me into one of these intimate, six-hour events; after all, I was only an adoring fan and a clumsy amateur.  But, it turned out, so were the 11 others who gathered with me around a large, stainless steel work table in FCI's lower Broadway kitchens.  

Mrs. Hazan sat at the head of the table, next to a pack of cigarettes, an ash tray, and a short glass of Scotch that she nursed throughout the evening.  The story was that as a child she had an illness that affected her taste buds, making wine totally undrinkable, "like vinegar," she said.  How ironic given the great Italian wine culture and because her charming husband, Victor Hazan, is one of Italy's leading wine experts.  She stayed rarely in her chair, instead moving solidly from student to student, from flaming burner to work station, as her husband played her straight man and regaled us with vino stories, and as a band of chef-clad FCI assistants kept things moving.  

It was in this class that I first understood the principle of cooking what's in season.  "Shop first and then make your menu," she commanded.  She had frustrated the FCI organizers because she wouldn't set a menu until the day before class when she'd see what looked good in the NYC food markets.  She chose zucchini and littleneck clam risotto; roasted eggplant with peppers and cucumbers; halibut with squid sauce; lemon, cucumber and pepper salad; and a Torta de Carote, or carrot cake -- not at all like the American cream cheese-iced version.

We were making the roasted eggplant, a recipe that first blister-roasts the eggplant on the flame of a gas burner, then draining its excess liquid, and adding salt only just before serving.  Mrs. Hazan abruptly grabbed the familiar cylinder of table salt and told everyone to stop what they were doing.  "Never use this," she instructed, waving it in the air.  "Americans think this is salt but this is from some chemistry laboratory.  It only adds sourness.  It adds no flavor.  You will ruin your food."  She went on to explain what salt is, where it comes from (the sea, underground, or laboratories), and how, as cooks, we must understand salt if we are ever to get the best flavors and results from our precious ingredients.  

More valuable than just more recipes, this class gave us real wisdom that Italian home cooks all seem to have.  Like knowing your salt like you know your tomatoes.    

I went home and threw out my cylinder of iodined salt as if it were poison.  First I replaced it with a box of kosher salt.  A few months later I went to Italy and began the habit of whenever I'm lucky enough to travel there, to always bring back a half-dozen boxes of Italian sea salt.  I don't buy anything fancy.  It's not Hawaiian red salt or Ile de Re fleur de sel or some truffle-flecked sea salt.  No, I buy what Italian home cooks buy.  It costs about 75 cents for a 1-kilo cardboard box.  I wrap my boxes in plastic shopping bags and add weight to my checked luggage and they are my most favorite souvenir.  

A stack of boxes of Italian supermarket sea salt now always takes up precious cabinet space in my small kitchen and my husband and friends think I'm a little obsessed with keeping a supply.  But every time I open a box and spoon the white grains into my countertop salt dish, I think of Marcella.  And I say, grazie.

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