Nothing says fine dining like a sommelier at your table. But have you ever had the luxury of a selmelier??
When I was in culinary school, my instructor Chef B, told me about a fabulous store in Portland’s Mississippi District that he was pretty sure would blow my mind. A place where the beautiful, delicious and unexpected are brought together for your absolute pleasure. At The Meadow, doors, windows, and vases, both antique and new, burst with the most colorful blooms you can imagine. Hand-selected chocolates from the finest chocolatiers around the world bedeck one wall. On another, a wine collection that strays from the well-beaten path to reflect the love of wine held by Jennifer and Mark Bitterman, the owners, founders, artistes and resident selmeliers of this gourmet oasis.
And, of course, there are the salts. This most ancient ingredient surpasses even fire in its ability to enhance the flavors of foods and the Bittermans’ have traveled the world over to collect the world’s most unique, effective, and remarkable versions of this paramount ingredient.
Their shelves bring more than 100 sea salts and quarried salts together so that their Portland devotees (and now those in New York City,) can explore the diversity and richness of culinary traditions, and gastronomic geology. Pink salts, and green salts. Smoked, brined and flavored salts. Salts that are microscopic in grain and those special ones from the Middle East that are the size of a little white gumdrop. They have a salt from every country I have ever been to, and I have traveled the world just tasting salts from the corners of the world that I still hope to see.
I have been coming to The Meadow for this or that since that first culinary school tip; chocolates to send as gifts, cacao nibs for homemade confections, fleur de sel, sel gris, and exotic finishing salts to play with at home. But the past couple of weeks, we have been enjoying The Meadow’s most spellbinding product; the Himalayan Sea Salt Block.
Over Thanksgiving, we served bacon wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese on the block so that they would pick up a slightly salty, mineral-rich flavor enhancement. We do the same with cheeses, apples, and pears as we enjoy wine before dinner. We tried freezing it, serving up a couple of scoops of ice cream on top and had our own “topping slabbing” with caramel and nuts – again, the slightly salty flavor picked up by the cream was just enough to open our palates so that the richness of the caramel, the nuttyness of the honey, and the fragrant vanilla truly shone through.
At last, I was ready to really put this block to the test and cook ON it. According to Bitterman, sauteing on Himalayan salt blocks develops exponentially more flavor than sauteing in conventional cookware because salt blocks cook food in two ways. “At a blazing 500 degrees or higher,” says Bitterman, “the heavy block of salt has enormous thermal mass, sizzling away moisture to produce a thick crust of rich, concentrated flavor. At the same time, the Himalayan salt itself sets to work, bursting cell membranes, intermingling juices, and breaking loose new flavors that in turn sizzle away to make for even more concentrated flavors.”
When I finally get pastry baking on this block down to a science, you’ll see it posted here. But to be honest, cooking on a sea salt block is trickier than it might seem, as we found when we tackled searing sea scallops on our block for dinner one night. The process of warming the block is not to be disregarded as it will greatly impact the finished product; if the block sits too long over the heat it will be TOO warm, creating too nice a sear on your food and perhaps not cooking your delicacies all the way through.
To learn more about Bitterman, The Meadow, and cooking with Himalayan Salt Blocks, visit: http://www.atthemeadow.com where you can purchase your own salt block, read blogs, search recipes or order Bitterman’s new book Salted !