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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

It's white magic

A life-changing technique? Salt-roasting reveals profound, pure flavor.

October 31, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

What was quite possibly the single best dish I've eaten this year came to my table as a bleak white mound that looked less like food than some kindergartner's art project igloo. That it was wheeled with such ceremony through the dining room of Providence restaurant on a table-side service cart only added to the sense of surrealism. What in the world could this be?

With chef Michael Cimarusti standing by expectantly, his manager-co-owner, Donato Poto, used two spoons to crack the crusty top of the mound and lift it away, revealing two perfectly cooked spot prawns and releasing the most remarkable aroma of supremely fresh shellfish. After a quick trip to the kitchen for shelling, those prawns reappeared, drizzled with a little very good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon and sprinkled with sea salt.

I took one bite and had to close my eyes. Many dishes are good; some are excellent. A very few are truly profound, and this was one of them. It had the deepest, purest taste of shellfish I've ever experienced, like some distilled essence.

The fact that, as I've since learned, it's remarkably easy to make at home only adds to its magic.

Salt-roasting, essentially nothing more than baking something in a mound of salt, is a technique with ancient roots but a thoroughly modern result -- food that tastes clearly and intensely of itself.

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You can try this at home

You don't need any fancy equipment. You don't need days of preparation. You don't need a pantry full of exotic ingredients. With nothing more than a roasting pan and a box of salt, you can create moist, richly flavored dishes that derive their complexity not from complication but from concentration.

The first thing I tried to salt-roast at home was fingerling potatoes. I moistened some coarse salt and buried the potatoes in it. On a whim, I chopped some rosemary into the salt. I roasted the potatoes until a knife slipped into them easily, about 25 minutes at 400 degrees.

I lifted off the salt crust and brushed away the stray flakes that clung to the potatoes. They didn't look all that different from regular roasted potatoes. I took a bite. The flavor was amazing. Not only was there the strong, minerally overlay of newly dug potatoes, but there was also a gentle, almost haunting, fragrance of rosemary. Despite having been cooked with 2 cups of salt, the potatoes weren't too salty.

So off I went, on a salt-roasting binge. Over two weeks (and using more than 18 pounds of salt), I salt-roasted whole fish, spiny lobster, chicken breasts, shrimp, prawns, pork roast, roast beef, steak, even pears.

I don't remember the last time I have been so excited by a cooking technique. It's like combining the best features of roasting and steaming. Time and again, I was surprised, even shocked, by what emerged from under the salty crust. Pork tenderloin that was moist and tender; whole fish that was buttery and juicy; spiny lobster that was tender, not chewy. And everything with a deep, even profound, taste of itself.

Even the failures were instructive.

The pears, for example, came out tasting weirdly savory; they might be good in a salad, but not for dessert. Shrimp without heads didn't work so well either: The salt stuck to the cut surface and was too strong, though once I'd trimmed away a quarter-inch, the flavor was fine.

For some reason, the salt didn't stick to the cut surface of the steak, except where there was exposed fat. The flavor was terrific, concentrated and beefy, but the lack of browning was obvious. (No problem: I sliced the steak thin and served it in a salad with arugula, cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmigiano.)

This lack of browning was more problematic with the pork tenderloin -- pale meats really need to be seared first. That's the same reason the chicken breasts were also disappointing: Without the browning, the skin is flaccid and gummy.

Perhaps the most telling failure was the previously frozen freshwater prawns I'd picked up at a Chinese grocery. Though the flavor was extremely concentrated and the meat was incredibly moist, the prawns just didn't taste very good. With this technique, quality of ingredients is paramount.

Salt-roasting has been around for ages, and there are all sorts of variations. Some cooks make an extremely salty pastry and wrap that around the food. Some beat egg whites into the salt to form a rock-hard crust.

Cimarusti (who has now made a seasonal change from spot prawn to spiny lobster) doesn't add anything to the salt but heat -- and a lot of it. He bakes the salt in a 550-degree oven until it is incredibly hot, and then roasts the prawns in that. It works very well, but he warns that it is extremely risky.

"I will tell you from personal experience that that hot salt is the most intense heat I've ever felt," he says. "I've touched my arm on the side of 550-degree ovens plenty of times -- every cook has. And it smarts. But that is nothing compared to the time I touched that hot salt."

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