At Christmas, I got a little tin full of pinkish-orange gourmet salt as a gift. It was aromatic with celery seed, rosemary, garlic and smoked paprika.
The label said: “Use with anything. It’s magic.” So I did.
It tasted wonderful on the rim of a Bloody Mary and sure made my popcorn more interesting. I wanted to devil eggs, sizzle a steak, fry pickles — just so I could dust it all with this tantalizing Magic Unicorn salt.
As it turns out, the pretty salt with the texture of Panhandle beach sand was compounded by hand at Beautiful Briny Sea, an artisan-products maker founded a few years ago by Atlanta native Suzi Sheffield.
Quick-witted and fun loving, Sheffield, it turns out, is as clever with cooking as she is mixing sumac and turmeric, pink peppercorns and lavender in her ginormous mortar and pestles.
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Her base, her blank canvas, is sea salt from Brazil. “It’s very simply flavored,” she says. “I appreciate the conscious salty taste to it. But it’s not overpowering, so it’s really easy for me to create flavor files using it, because I know right where it’s going to hit on the salt level.”
Salt, despite warnings from the health police, is essential for life.
Whether made from sea water or mined from the earth, it comes in all manner of colors (pinks, blues, blacks, grays, whites) and textures (grainy, chunky, velvety, flaky, pebbly, rocky). The mineral is a mirror of the land or water that produces it, Sheffield says, comparing the varieties of salt to those of oysters.
“There are so many different finishes and flavors,” she says of the bivalves. “Some are so briny, and some are so mild, and some have that creamy finish. To me salt is sort of the same way.”
In recent years, this discovery of the many forms of salt crystals has inspired histories and recipe books (see Mark Kurlansky’s “Salt: A World History” and Mark Bitterman’s James Beard Award-winning “Salted”); boutiques; and entrepreneurs like Sheffield (who also crafts products with sugar).
Salt makes food taste better, brings out the sweetness in sweets and, as Sheffield can attest, is a sponge for soaking up smoke and spice. You can preserve food with it, bake with it, use it in barbecue rubs, whip it into butter. You can sprinkle it on papaya, mango, jicama, watermelon and other fruits, on raw and grilled veggies, plain boiled potatoes, scrambled eggs, juicy pink meat and whole roasted fish. In sum, you can enjoy this elemental mineral on just about anything you put in your mouth.
The day I went down to Beautiful Briny Sea in Grant Park, I was offered a snack of Quinoa and Baby Butterbean Salad that tasted like the essence of summer. When Sheffield suggested using her truffle-salt butter with radishes, I thought of Steven Satterfield’s famous radish sandwich, from his book, “Root to Leaf” (Harper Wave, $45). Voila! Why not combine the two?
Something else to think about: Because we sweat so much in summer, our bodies sometimes need a replenishment of salt.
In Costa Rica, I remember drinking the local hooch, guaro, with water, salt and lime: a simple light sipper to keep you cool all day long. In Southeast Asia, salt is often added to lemonade, which transforms the drink into something sweet, puckering and satisfying.
Atlanta cocktail consultant T. Fable Jeon tells me he’s been “prescribing” the addition of saline to cocktails. Just before serving, his bartender colleagues use an eyedropper to finish a drink with a dose of saline.
Yes, drinks need finishing salts, too. Just like French fries.
Last year, when chef Guy Wong opened Le Fat, his Vietnamese restaurant on the Westside, Jeon introduced his Salé Collins, which translates from the French into “Salty Collins.” The Tom Collins riff replaces gin with rhum agricole and vodka. A few drops of saline (18, to be exact) turns a sweet, Suz-green cocktail into something not unlike the salty lemon and lime drinks of Vietnam.
More than a year later, the Salé Collins is still on the menu at Le Fat. On a steaming hot day, I can’t think of a better boozy refreshment. You can make the saline with kosher or sea salt. Or try lavender salt, another French touch. The Salé Collins hits all the right notes, but the greatest of these is salt.
Suzi Sheffield’s Quinoa and Baby Butterbean Salad
This cool, refreshing salad is perfect for summer — with fresh butterbeans and lots of herbs. Beautiful Briny Sea’s Suzi Sheffield developed it to use with her French Picnic salt, which contains thyme, lavender, garlic, pink peppercorn. But you may use any salt of choice. The addition of a roasted Meyer lemon adds a nice gentle zing.
1 lemon (preferably Meyer), thinly sliced
3 cups cooked baby lima beans, chilled
3 cups cooked quinoa, chilled
½ cup toasted sliced or slivered almonds
½ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
¼ cup fresh dill, chopped
¼ cup fresh mint, chopped
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
3 green onions, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons Beautiful Briny Sea’s French Picnic salt (may add more to taste)
½ cup basil-mustard vinaigrette (recipe below)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange lemons in an even layer on the parchment. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool. Chop roughly and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix lima beans, quinoa, almonds, pumpkins seeds, dill, mint, cilantro, parsley, green onions, lemon and salt. Stir gently to mix. Add vinaigrette, and stir gently to incorporate into salad. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving. Serves: 8
Per serving: 432 calories (percent of calories from fat, 26), 17 grams protein, 65 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams fiber, 13 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 644 milligrams sodium.
This makes more than you need for the quinoa salad. But you won’t mind, because it’s delicious on summer tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy-green salads.
1 bunch basil (about 1 cup with stems removed)
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup Dijon mustard
¼ cup dark soy sauce
1 cup champagne vinegar (or other light sweet vinegar)
¾ cup olive oil
Place basil, garlic, mustard and soy sauce in a food processor. Puree until fully combined. Add vinegar, and pulse a few times to incorporate. Using a measuring cup, slowly add the olive oil, with the processor running, until it is fully incorporated, about 1 minute. Place in a covered container, and store any in the refrigerator. Makes: About 2 1/2 cups.
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 41 calories (percent of calories from fat, 92), trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 4 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 122 milligrams sodium.
Radish Sandwiches with Truffle Butter
Feel free to skip the bread and dip cold radishes in softened truffle butter.
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoon truffle salt (we like Beautiful Briny Sea brand)
2 bunches radishes, washed, stemmed and thinly sliced
handful of arugula
1 tablespoon chopped herbs (we used tarragon)
Place butter and truffle salt in a small bowl or crock, and mix well with a spatula, until the salt is fully incorporated.
Slice baguette lengthwise; then slice in half to make four pieces. Spread the open sides of the baguette all over with the truffle-butter. Place radish slices on two pieces of the buttered bread. Top with arugula and herbs. Top with remaining bread and serve like a hoagie, or slice into smaller finger-sandwich style pieces. Makes: 4 to 6 meal-size sandwiches or 12 or more finger sandwiches.
Per serving (based on 12): 172 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 3 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 9 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 21 milligrams cholesterol, 467 milligrams sodium.
Le Fat’s Salé Collins
The handiwork of Atlanta cocktail consultant T. Fable Jeon, this drink from Guy Wong’s Vietnamese restaurant, Le Fat, is reminiscent of the salted lemonades of Southeast Asia. It is an excellent restorative on hot sweaty days. To make the saline, use 1 part salt to five parts water. To make the simple syrup, dissolve 1 part granulated sugar to 1 part water. Jeon tells me he never uses heat to dissolve salt or sugar in water. He suggests using warm water. Then stir, stir, stir. If your arm tires easily, use a blender. He also explains that a dash, in cocktail terms, equals six drops. “I don’t expect people to count the drops,” he adds. Store any leftover saline or simple syrup in a clean covered container or bottle in the refrigerator.
3/4 ounce rhum agricole (Jeon suggests Rhum J.M, 50 percent)
3/4 ounce vodka (I used Tito’s)
1/4 ounce Suze
3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup, or more to taste
3 1/2 dashes (about 18 drops or 1/4 teaspoon) saline (see note above)
1 1/2 ounces bitter lemon soda (Jeon suggests Fever-Tree)
1 long strip lemon peel
Pour the rhum agricole, vodka, Suze, lemon juice, simple syrup and saline into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well. Strain into a tall Collins glass filled with ice. Top with bitter lemon soda, and stir gently to mix. Squeeze lemon peel over the drink and drape on the side as garnish.
Alternate method: You may add the saline after mixing and pouring the drink. That way, you can add more or less to taste. If you use an eye-dropper, you can regulate the amount slowly and carefully.
Per drink: 126 calories (percent of calories from fat, 0), trace protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, no fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 269 milligrams sodium.