Adventures in Saltware...

It doesn't take much effort for me to get excited about experimentation in my kitchen. I actually found it hard to sleep the other night after the Salt Block cooking class, just imagining what fun I'd have playing around the next day. My first order of business was to get some better looking photos with a full charge on my batteries and some much appreciated sun coming in the dining room window.

That miserable looking spider plant on the right may do well to soak up some much needed light in its new location: I've had it since high school, and this is the final piece.

The first thing I needed to do was bring the Saltware up to temperature slowly. Since this was my first experience, I may have been a bit overly cautious, and waited a full ten minutes from the time I heard the *beep* signaling the increase, before inching up 20 degrees at a time. As I had started at 200 degrees, this seemed to be taking a while. I used my favorite timer, pictured below.

Around 300 degrees, I started to notice that the incremental temperature change seemed to be speeding up. I started to increase by 25 degrees every time I heard the *beep*, and before long, I was finally at the 450 mark. I had formed my small round of bread (from my recipe of stored dough) prior to the oven heat, and made sure to use a small enough amount so it would fit nicely on the 8x8 salt block.

I also took Chef Malavenda's tip of letting the dough rise on parchment, and then sliding it out from under it about 5 minutes after it hit the salt - making sure that the dough was set enough that it wouldn't move. I think the bread turned out fine, but not too noticeably different than the breads I usually cook on a stone. I also noticed the flavor wasn't noticeably different, but I'm wondering if I shouldn't crank the oven up to 500 next time, and try and slide the dough right onto the slab.

It was delicious bread, and because I used no steam in the oven, the crust was nicely chewy. The interior texture was about normal, if not a little more moist, and it was very, very tasty. I even ate some today with butter (something that never happens in the privacy of my own home), after Chef Malavenda said to store unsalted butter on a slab of salt, since it slowly draws out the flavor.

I decided I had to make fried eggs for supper, since I had fresh bread, some local Saxon cheese, and a still warm salt slab. I began my oven heat increments a bit faster, since the block was still fairly warm to the touch, and when I hit 450 degrees I placed the stone stovetop on top of a sheet pan, just in case.

As soon as the salt slab was in place, I poured some extra virgin olive oil, and brushed it around evenly. I knew immediately this was the proper choice for my inaugural egg-frying experience. The fruity, mineraly steam that rose from the salt was intoxicatingly good. I quickly opted for further insurance, and used egg rings until the eggs were just barely set. I wasn't sure just how hot the stone actually was, and was a bit worried that they would run a little too much.

Just a quick sprinkle of Aleppo pepper, and a quick bat of my right hand by my left out of the salt dish... old habits are hard to change! You can kind of see in the above photo how the salt seemed to "crack" under the weight of the oil and eggs - it even seemed to have changed color when the eggs were removed. It is so interesting to see how natural products change as you use them! (It also reminded me of when GOP and I decided to crack an egg onto the black, hot asphalt of the next door bank parking lot one particularly scorching summer's day. It did not work, if you're wondering...)

After the photo, I remembered the cheese!

Perfectly salted fried eggs, with dreamily runny yolks were my reward! I was so excited at the taste of these eggs on their own, I couldn't even bring myself to add my usual hot sauce. I gratefully lapped up all of the yolks off the plate with the help of a bit more bread, and called it a night.

After a few hours, the Saltware was still warm, but cool enough to handle. I gingerly ran it under warm water to clean it, and towel dried it before leaving it to air on a wire rack overnight, again intrigued at the feel of such a mass of salt under warm, running water. I also remembered that in my last post about the Saltware class, I shamefully neglected to mention the POSH salt founder, Linda Castelli.

She was a Registered Nurse and then a lawyer before finding her passion for salt, and indeed inventing the concept of using the salt to actually cook food, instead of just flavoring the food with the salt. These slabs come in a variety of sizes, and even have been custom fit to line pizza ovens and table side grills of adventuresome restaurants. As long as you are careful, the slabs appear to last a long time, and I can't help but draw the similarity to a human being: resilient and sturdy, yet inelastic and fragile. Perhaps it's due to our own salt content that has increased our in interests in baking salts, cooking salts, finishing salts and now Saltware. Whatever the reason, you can be sure that the hype is very deserved, and that I certainly will be doing a whole lot more experimentation!

Passions and POSH...

I think I must begin with the Neue Gallerie. I went to this small but exquisite gallery on my trip to NYC in January, in company with E. who had been there before. We first saw the 2 floors of paintings and applied arts, wonderful clocks and chairs, lovingly collected from a swath in history that I could never have experienced firsthand. We then watched a short film on the Museum's founder, Serge Sebarsky, who was from Vienna, and had collected this Austrian and German art from the early 20th century, even when he was not always able to justify the costs. He was a humorous and knowledgeable man, but what stuck with me most about the whole experience, was what E. said after the film: "I just love learning about people who are so passionate!"

Just as Serge Sebarsky was passionate about his own personal history in Vienna, he was passionate about preserving the cultural effects of this area at a time when most Americans were quick to dismiss it. On a food related note, the Gallerie also had a cafe, serving traditional Viennese deserts and coffee, but the line was too long to justify for our museum-ing selves. I will make a point of visiting in the future, especially after attempting that Dobos Torte that ended rather poorly...I'd happily treat myself to baked goods of this caliber!

Where does E's quote at the Neue Gallerie play into my past two days? I'll tell you. (Though I warn you in advance this is a text-heavy post.) I am completely renewed in my excitement for learning. Last year, I declared (albeit silently) it the year of knitting. I had always wanted to learn this, and always rested on the laurels of my fantastic Gram, who raised sheep, sheared sheep, dyed wool, spun wool and then knit. I knew it was in my genes to have fiber arts become an obsession, and finally I made my dreaming a reality. First, with free library classes, and then more importantly, with Loop Yarn Shop classes.

Loop employees are passionate. They LOVE yarn, and anything to do with fiber arts. They are excited to hear your stories and are beyond excited to assist you on your way to becoming obsessed. It is a pleasure to learn from people who are truly engaged in what they are doing, and "walk the walk" so to speak.

When 2010 was on the horizon, (and I hate to admit that I saw those couple of shocking grey hairs), I silently vowed that I am going to do more learning outside of my home. I don't know if I'd say I'm a voracious reader, but I do tend to absorb as much as possible about the things that interest me. While I fell short of an actual degree in college, I poured facts and manual labor into my life concerning the things I loved. In a way, I regret not having the paper, but yet I can't dream of returning. If I were able to run into passionate teachers in every circumstance, I'd be first on line, but sadly this is not the case at most universities. The learning I've relied on has been solitary, though the passion to learn has remained.

It seemed God was holding me to this silent resolution, since I got an email early in January from a Spanish teacher who had held my information from when I had inquired last year. I am so happy to announce that this week, I finally began to learn Spanish. I have always wanted to learn a language, but unfortunately the opportunity in my small town high school wasn't so attractive at the time. It was taught by an old Czech woman, who was taken to fits of rage if a student were to be caught with gum in his mouth: I remember myself having to write out this poem a number of times too great to admit,

The gum chewing student, the cud chewing cow

They look rather different, but similar somehow

And what is the difference, I see it all now

It's the intelligent look on the face of the cow

Now, I'm the first to admit that cows do posses a rather intelligent look, but I could not base my learning another language in the hands of this woman. So, years have passed. My Husband lovingly got me a Spanish course on CD-ROM that I only got 1 disc through. I've met many Spanish speaking friends. I've longed for my tongue to be "loosed" as I always felt it could be; as if I could just listen to enough Regional Mexican music, it would somehow just click in my brain, and I would emerge a speaker. Monday night, I sat in a small class with 4 other students (all of whom spoke Spanish in some form - whereas my only Spanish knowledge is directly related to food), and began my journey to bilingulality with a native speaker who is passionate about her language. She has already instilled in my the confidence that I think is key to go about learning something that requires thinking in a way that is totally different than the thought processes used in my everyday life. I am so excited that I will begin to form a connection to that part of my own ethniticy that, until now, has only existed through food.

I left my camera at home for this event, and the batteries needed charging just after the one shot above.

So in keeping with my new vow of external learning, we come to the Meat of this post: POSH salt. Last summer, I saw these beautiful salt slabs at The Spice House @ the Milwaukee Public Market. They sat, piled on the table, looking as though they were lit from within. I read through the information on the table, and even talked to the shop attendant to glean a little more information. I remembered seeing Mario Batali win an Iron Chef battle when after serving on a mammoth slab of pink rock - and I remembered because Jeffrey Steingarten wanted to take the block home with him. When I read about a class in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week, I called right away. I have always wanted to take a class at the Public Market, and really, I don't know why I never have. Now that my Boy-O is 3, I don't have any more excuses!

I arrived 15 minutes early on the heels of empowerment that my Monday night Spanish class had given me, and found a half-full room! Tables were strewn with plastic silverware and more informational packets, and already smells of baking apples were wafting up from the stoves at the front. I went expecting a demonstration, but wasn't expecting to sample! (The apples were actually pies baked in salt bowls, and they were delicious!) Clearly everyone in the room was as excited as I was, which is a very cool thing. Imagine if all learning existed in this context: Students that are excited to learn, teachers that are more than excited to teach you everything they know! It's fantastic!

Chef Alisa Malavenda began the class by asking the names of more than 40 attendees, and then recited them back. I was not the only one amazed with this. She then continued to use our names throughout the class. If you ask me, I immediately pegged her as passionate. She wants to know her students, and wanted them to feel comfortable to ask questions, and it worked. I don't remember the last time I was in a class where so many people had questions answered, and without the worry of time constraint. Her experience with Salt Slab cooking was also completely comfortable, and she gave numerous tips on how to experiment in your own kitchen with salt block cooking. I found a nice article here of another account of a salt slab class with Chef Malavenda, and also be sure to check out the class list for other classes offered at the Public Market.

POSH is actually an acronym for Primordial Ocean Salt Himalaya, and the salt is actually mined in the Himalayas. There is another huge salt mine located in Poland, and the salt of both locations is considered a sustainable product. It is also considered a "whole" or "pure" food, as it is so old and protected by the Himalayas that pollutants were not able to infect and none of the naturally occurring minerals are stripped away in needless refining or in the mining process. The colors vary from nearly white to black, and the white and pink salts taste the same. It's interesting that the black salt, which was passed around, actually has a sulfuric smell. I personally didn't find it off-putting, but then again, I'm crazy about the smell of boiling vinegar. This black salt is popular in Middle Eastern preparations, where pungent tastes are celebrated. You will find a wealth of information on POSH salt on their website, or if you live in the Milwaukee area, at The Spice House.

I got my own 8x8 slab after class to begin my experimenting, and I can't tell you how excited I am to test drive this new piece of kitchen equipment. I'm planning to bake bread on it tomorrow, and I'm sure I'll let you know how it turns out. I stopped by the Outpost on the way home, and found myself wondering how the fruit I picked up would taste swiped first on blocks of beautiful, pink salt. I excitedly showed my Husband and Boy-O my treasures as soon as I walked in the door, and explained that the salt is naturally anti-microbial so they could lick it if they wanted. Both tried it, and Boy-O kept asking for "one more lick", until I finally said that he could help me with the bread tomorrow.

All of the samples I tried tonight were great, however my favorite was a gravlax. If my preliminary excitement waxes, as I'm sure it will, I may invest in a second slab to make this. The salmon is simply pressed between two slabs of salt for 2 days, until it is fully cured. Fully cured and fully delicious! Now to eagerly await the upcoming cookbook!

It is so refreshing to find people that are passionate about life and about what they do, be it in food or other things. I seem to find that foodies are a good breed, easy to befriend, and good conversationalists, but I'm sure the same would apply to people in a whole host of other interests. Life is such a short experience to waste on not being fully excited about the little things that generate happiness, and how sad to arrive at the end unfulfilled with what you have put in. I only hope in my small way I can inspire others as I am so greatly inspired.