- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2007

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

When my mom calls to report on the pounds of dough she kneaded over the weekend to make her holiday sweet rolls, I know it’s time to dust off my own beloved holiday recipe.

Only I don’t have one.

No ultimate brownies, no airy forget-me-not cookies, no maple-laced pecan pies that friends anxiously await each year. Instead, I sift through piles of cookbooks until I happen upon that perfect holiday gift.

This year, it’s salt. Yes, my nearest and dearest are getting plain old sodium chloride. Not the pantry staple best suited for dashing over shoulders and sprinkling on not-quite-there-yet stews. I’m handing out dressed-up sea salts scented with citrus peel, dried herbs and spices. For my closest friends, even dried black truffles (sorry, but everyone else gets the more budget-friendly porcini mushroom version).

I can’t take credit for such a brilliantly simple holiday gift idea. My fascination with flavored salts began after attending a cooking class in Las Vegas with Bellagio executive chef Wolfgang von Wieser. While the rest of my friends were playing the slots, I was happily nibbling on petite bites of smoked salmon, cheese custards and sauteed shrimp that Mr. Von Wieser sprinkled with his delicately scented house-made finishing salts.

“Start with the base flavor, like tomato, before you experiment with other additions,” says Mr. Von Wieser, passing out samples of his smoked paprika, tomato and squid ink salts. “You want to balance the flavors so it’s not too harsh.”

Back home, I vowed to make each and every one of Mr. Von Wieser’s salts. Then I glanced at the recipes. His tomato salt involves pressing, drying and grinding fresh tomatoes, and that’s before adding tomato paste and starting the cooking and drying process all over again.

I needed quick and easy recipes for holiday gifts. I started with ground spices, adding one tablespoon of smoked paprika to 1 cup of coarse sea salt. It was tasty, but not quite racy enough to transform a ho-hum baked potato into a conversation-worthy side dish. Two tablespoons did the trick.

With the basic formula in hand, I graduated to dried chili peppers, porcini mushrooms, even those coveted dried black truffles I’ve been hording in the back of my pantry. Ground fine and mixed with sea salt, a little goes a long way. Now I’ve got a year’s supply to sprinkle on omelets, potatoes and pastas … and share with friends.

When it comes to the salt, the most basic bulk brand will do just fine. Invest in bold, heady spices from a good purveyor such as toasted, ground cumin seeds, 5-spice powder and smoked paprika. They’re strong enough to lend flavor to a dish even with the lightest sprinkle.

Freshly dried ground herbs like rosemary and sage are also a good choice. Avoid the more mild-mannered dried basil, oregano and bay leaves, which can be overwhelmed by the salt when used in small quantities.

Experimenting is half the fun, and it’s affordable. At only a few dollars per pound, even Mr. Von Wieser can let loose with his salt whims.

“Clove, now I thought it would be good, but it didn’t work so well. But bacon, that turned out very, very good,” he says, sprinkling the pork-infused salt on creamed potatoes.

The bacon salt is fantastic, the hands-down favorite in our cooking class. Tiny bits of concentrated smoky flavor infuse the salt. I’m dreaming of all the salads, soups, meats, shellfish, and vegetables — everything, actually — that I can sprinkle it on at home. And it’s mostly salt, right? So that means it will fit within all those New Year’s diet resolutions, the perfect pork-based diet food. My friends are going to love it.

There’s always a catch. Ingredients with a high-fat content like bacon require a dehydrator to remove all of their moisture.

Dehydrating prevents spoilage and promises a shelf life of several months. Oven drying just won’t cut it with bacon.

Whole dried chilies couldn’t be easier. Grind them in a blender or spice mill, removing any large pieces, and use the same formula — 2 tablespoons to 1 cup of sea salt.

This year, my Texas friends are getting chili-laced holiday baskets with ancho, Hatch, pasilla and smoked Serrano salts to spice up soups, side dishes and grilled meats (let’s not mention they took 5 minutes to make). Maybe I’ll throw in a jar of bittersweet chocolate sauce, too. A bowl of vanilla ice cream with homemade chocolate sauce is hard to beat; sprinkled with the tiniest bit of ancho chili salt, it’s worthy of breaking that New Year’s resolution.

If your friends aren’t keen on eye-opening Bloody Mary’s rimmed in chili salt, send them a box of orange, tangerine, lime and lemon salts to sprinkle on fish, chicken and vegetables.

To make citrus-scented salts, slice the peel from the fruit, remove as much of the bitter pith as possible, and cut into 1-inch pieces.

Scatter the peel on a baking sheet and place in a hot oven, immediately turning off the heat, and let sit until dried (they may not be crispy, just dry enough to grind).

Grind the peel to a fine powder, add the sea salt, and in single afternoon you’ve got enough citrus salt for all the seafood lovers on your list, not to mention the vegetarians, meat fanatics and pastry fiends.

All that’s left to do is pour the beautiful gem-colored salts into small glass jars, tuck them into a basket, and include a handful of recipe cards and serving suggestions for inspiration.

Basic flavored salt

2 tablespoons ground dried herbs or spices, or whole spices or dried chilies

1 cup coarse sea salt

If using whole spices or dried chilies, grind to a fine powder in a blender or spice mill. Remove any large pieces. Add 2 tablespoons of the ground spices to the salt. Mix well to combine. Store up to 6 months in a cool, dry place. Makes 1 cup.

Suggested herbs and spices: chili powder, smoked paprika, rosemary, 5-spice powder, coriander, ground toasted cumin seeds, ground dried chili peppers (ancho, Hatch, pasilla, smoked Serrano, etc), ground dried mushrooms (porcini, black truffles)

Citrus salt

Choose one or a combination:

4 to 5 medium oranges

5 to 6 tangerines

5 to 6 large lemons

7 to 8 limes

1 cup coarse sea salt

Using a small knife, cut the citrus peel of your choice into small 1-inch strips, avoiding as much of the bitter pith as possible.

Scatter the strips on a baking sheet and place in a 300-degree oven.Immediately turn off the heat and leave for 3 hours. Remove the dried citrus peel from the oven. (It may not be completely dry; you don’t want it to burn.) Grind peel to a fine powder in a blender or spice mill. Remove any large pieces. Add 2 tablespoons of ground citrus peel to the salt. Mix well to combine.

Store up to 6 months in a cool, dry place. Makes 1 cup.

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