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Seal of Approval

The Salt Crust Technique Locks in Aroma and Moisture for a Finer Flavor

March 07, 2004|JAN WEIMER

The dry-aged porterhouse steak for two at Table 8, the trendy new restaurant on Melrose Avenue, is served encased in an igloo of hardened salt speckled with aromatic herbs. The waiter then delivers a deftly dramatic blow with a spoon, shattering the crust as a perfume of spices wafts to adjoining tables. It's restaurant entertainment for the 21st century.

Although the salt-roasted steak is not on the menu--it's by request only--the dish is already a cult favorite at the 6-month-old restaurant. "We can't handle too many orders each evening," says chef/co-owner Govind Armstrong. "This makes it our signature dish. It becomes cool and funky. You can't get it all the time, so you might have to come back."

Salt's role in cooking dates back 10,000 years, when caravans of this precious commodity were traded in Jericho for preserving ingredients as well as used for embalming the deceased. Recipes for cooking fish, beef, lamb, venison, pork, chicken and duck in a salt crust also have been traditional staples in European and Asian countries where sodium chloride is mined or harvested from the sea by boiling or solar evaporation. In China--where home ovens are a luxury even today--salt is first heated in a wok before the food is cooked over a burner or wood fire to mimic oven roasting and save on fuel. And in France, a type of salt crust that is popular with bistro chefs is prepared by combining salt with flour and egg whites to form a mantle of dough.

Over time, salt symbolized hospitality and friendship in many cultures. In ancient Ethiopia, guests were offered a piece of rock salt upon arrival. Hleb-sol, a Russian word for hospitality, translates into "bread salt." And in biblical history, the Law of Moses makes mention of the Covenant of Salt, which stated that all offerings were to contain salt--the symbol of a peaceful friendship.

Despite the large quantity of salt used for a crust--pretty savvy of Morton's to feature a salt-crust recipe on its box--food cooked in this manner does not taste salty. For his version, Armstrong prefers a porterhouse for its savory bone, serving it with seasonal vegetables. The technique renders the meat extremely tender and flavorful. Steam generated below the salt hardens the crust and hastens the cooking, while sealing in juices. The embracing cocoon captures subtle nuances of taste and texture, as seasonings permeate the meat. After cooking, a brief rest period allows juices to be evenly distributed.

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Table 8 Salt-Roasted Porterhouse Steak

Serves 2-4

SALT CRUST

2 cups Kosher salt

2 tablespoons whole coriander seed

1 tablespoon whole mustard seed

1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon whole fennel seed

1/2 teaspoon chili flakes

6 medium bay leaves, crushed

1/2 cup water

STEAK

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

10 fresh thyme sprigs

2 pounds porterhouse steak (about 1 1/2 inches thick), removed from

refrigerator 2 hours or so before roasting, trimmed and patted dry.

To make crust, combine salt with spices in a medium bowl. Gradually stir in water and mix well. Mixture will be the consistency of wet sand.

Brush a cast-iron pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Place 5 thyme sprigs in the bottom of the pan. Place the steak on top of the thyme sprigs. Brush the top of the steak with remaining tablespoon of olive oil and arrange remaining thyme sprigs on top. Spoon salt mixture over the top of the steak and pack tightly with hands. In a 475-degree oven, roast meat 22-24 minutes for medium-rare, or until a meat thermometer registers 125 degrees (or 120 degrees for rare). Remove meat from oven and let it rest for 5 minutes.

Present meat at the table and crack the salt crust with a mallet. Return to kitchen, discard crust, and brush salt off of meat. Place meat on a cutting board. Remove the bone, place the tenderloin and top loin pieces next to each other and slice crosswise through both of them. Serve immediately.

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Jan Weimer last wrote for the magazine about maximizing kitchen space.

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