Salt, Pepper, Sugar, Vinegar
Salt, pepper, sugar and vinegar are the basic elements which are the key to our cooking. They are used judiciously but not always by the books. These elements shape and tweak ingredients so that they can be shown at their best. We use salt to bring out flavor as well as add a base seasoning to ingredients, savory and sweet. Pepper adds both heat and bitterness which accentuates flavors. Sugars both granular and liquid bring richness and sweetness forward. Vinegar acts to frame the palate. It keeps flavors in line, pulling them together. Similarly it acts as a conductor of flavors when used sparingly, allowing for less salt or sugar to be used. It is with an understanding of these four ingredients and their siblings which enables our use of simple seasonings to pique our cooking.
In our kitchen we use fine sea salt for seasoning proteins and vegetables. Sea salt has a clean flavor free from extraneous chemicals and allows for a consistency in our cooking. Its fine delicate texture disperses quickly over ingredients for an even distribution of salt. The salts fine grain is extremely useful when seasoning salads and delicate greens for the grain is small enough to evenly coat and distribute the flavor base we are looking for—allowing for consistent seasoning on every level.
Similarly we use tamari soy sauce to season and highlight ingredients. While it is not a pure salt its saline quality and rich rounded flavor keeps it right next to our salt cellars. Soy sauces versatility from enriching mushrooms to seasoning raw fish keeps it in the forefront of our base seasonings and it is essential to our cooking.
We also use several finishing salts: fleur de sel, sel de geurande, haiwaiin black and red salts, and our own house made flavored salts. These salts are used for their textures, aesthetics and underlying flavor notes. Fleur de sel, flower of the sea, adds a delicate crunch to vegetable ragouts, foie gras au torchon, raw tuna as well as chocolates and caramel. Sel de geurande is a coarser heartier salt. It is a salt with moxie. It has a larger mineral content and its petite pebble like structure guarantees it is noticed. We garnish roasted and braised meats and fish with this salt. Also whole roasted vegetables and confit potatoes benefit from the textures and flavors of sel de geurande. Other salts we use are dish specific—from a fish or vegetable carpacio to a particular foie gras or offal preparation. These salts are fun and we play with them.
In fact, the many varietes of salt have sparked our own interest in infusing salts. For our infused or flavored salt we use fleur de sel for its texture and porous nature which absorbs and gently carries our individual flavors. Our first—and now a standby—flavored salt came about by an abundance of herbs gone to flower in our garden. We harvested and dried the flowers and then sifted the flowers through a fine tammis to capture just the pollen—an intense focused flavor the herbs. We mixed the pollens with the salt and produced our garden herb salt. Its intense herbal aroma and flavor carried by the delicate salt enables us to add poignant seasonings from our garden all year long. We use our herb salt mostly as a finishing salt, yet at times we use it so season fish or vegetables which are to be gently cooked and thus would benefit from the intense herbal flavor. While our herbal salt is our first we have since expanded. Next we began smoking salt, again for an intense focused delivery of smoke to certain ingredients. Since then we have incorporated spices, citrus zests, mushroom powder and even honey powder for an interesting seasoning. The choices are close to limitless, and that is exciting to know.
In cooking most people think of black pepper first. Unfortunately that vision is usually linked to a fine ground powder which must be violently shaken out of minuscule holes from the top of a pepper shaker. That vision must be erased or at least filed away. Pepper should be freshly ground—we use Peugot pepper mills. We primarily use two black peppers, Lampong and Telicherry. The Lampong is hotter and its flavor is more focused. The Telicherry has heat but also some sweetness. We also use a variety of other peppers to accent and heighten our cooking: white, green, red, espelette, long, The use of pepper should not be used without discretion. We usually add it at the end of cooking so the flavors are bright and intense. In cooking pepper subtlies are muted and an unwanted bitterness comes to the forefront of the dish. So what pepper to use? The choice is dependent on the flavors preferred, the amount of heat desired, and on culinary aesthetics. Thus our choice is based on the flavors of raw ingredients and where a dish is going. The flavor of the pepper can drive or be driven by the ingredients we use.
The addition of a sweet element in cooking helps highlight flavors and ingredients. Sweetness, inherent in all ingredients, can be manipulated and calculated with the addition of sugar, honey or another inherently sweet product. Depending on an ingredients flavor and the dish being assembled determines what type of sugar we will add: refined, raw, muscavado, honey, maple syrup. The quality and characteristics of varying sugars determines there use in our cooking. Sugars like salts and peppers have distinct qualities which are instrumental in our cooking. It is our choice to use these sugars to highlight in ingredients.
Vinegar adds acid to food which tightens and focuses flavors. It has sharpness and some sweetness. While pure acid puckers the tongue, several drops pulls the palate together. Ingredients dance in the mouth, unified and framed by vinegar. A vinegars individuality defines its use in our kitchen. White wine vinegar, sharp and focused, is a general purpose vinegar. It can be used almost anywhere. Red wine vinegar has its own strengths which influence but do not limit its use towards heartier preparations. Sherry and balsamic vinegars have repectively bracing and sweet undertones. Japanese rice vinegar is delicate, a key to lighter dishes. In our approach to cooking we realized that whenever possible we try and become directly involved with ingredients, allowing us to shape and guide our cooking. We were able to achieve that in the field of vinegar with our house made vinegar. We began with an old bottle of wine, a vinegar mother—the starter for vinegar—and a glass jug. From there selective unfinished bottles of wine get poured into our vinegar: red, white, dessert. After several weeks a base vinegar developed. It is not overly acidic. It has a flavor of wine, not aparticular wine but a rounded wine flavor shaped by the various vinous donations we have added. Our vinegar is delicate enough for vinaigrettes while still possessing enough character and acidity to shape and direct dishes. The vinegar, like our cuisine, is personal and instrumental to our cooking.