On with it!
Today I've decided is a good of day as any to talk about one of my favorite ingredients in the kitchen: salt. Ah, how I love it. You'll find it in almost any recipe, be it sweet or savory, and there's no denying that it's probably one of the most important ingredients to have on hand. Most people are familiar with basic table salt, or iodized salt, but there are dozens of kinds of salts on the market. Black salt, pink Hawaiian salt, sea salt, fleur de sel, grey salt, smoked salt (which is amazing, by the way), and of course my salt of choice, kosher salt. I stick with kosher salt because it's easy to find, it's not trendy or overpriced as a result, and it doesn't contain iodine which can leave a nasty flavor when you're using it in large amounts. That said, I do still try to use iodized table salt for baking because the crystals are much smaller, easier to mix, and most recipes are designed with table salt in mind.
One of the biggest mistakes of novice cooks is a fear of salt. While it's true that oversalting something can ruin a dish rather quickly (as unlike with sweetness or spiciness, there's not really an easy way to take the saltiness out of something) there is really no better way to get a dish to really reach it's full potential than to add just that right amount of salt. Don't believe me? Try making soup from scratch. Taste it before you add any salt, and then again after. Big difference.
After awhile, it's easy to acquire an 'eye' for how much salt you'll need to add to a dish. If in doubt, taste and try again.
And now I'm going to move on to one of my biggest salt pet peeves... cooking pasta. Oh yes, there are those who believe that to cook a delicious batch of pasta you need only a pot, water, a pinch of salt, and a few tablespoons of olive oil. WRONG. A million times wrong, get out of my kitchen, etc.
To start, grab the biggest pot you have. I mean the biggest. Mine is about 8-qt I believe and comes with slotted insert specifically for pasta. This is ideal, and I'll explain why later, but if you only have a pot that's fine too. Fill it with water, filtered or not it depends on which you prefer to cook with (I use filtered because Portland water is a bit sketchy). Put it on the stove, turn the stove to High and stick a lid on your pot. Yes, a lid. Why? Because the water will boil sooner if it's covered (perhaps that's where the phrase "a watched pot never boils" originates).
Once the water is boiling, add a gracious handful of salt and let it dissolve. Then, grab a spoon and taste the water. Yes, I said taste the water. Let's take a step back and remember that pasta is usually made of two or three ingredients: flour, water, and/or egg. Perhaps a pinch of salt. The pasta itself has little or no salt in it, which means to get a good flavor from it, the salt has to be absorbed from the water it's cooked in (osmosis, whoohoo). For that to happen, the water needs to be as "salty as the sea" as I've heard it described many times before. So keep adding salt until the water is damn well salty.
Very good. Now dump that pasta in and set a kitchen timer for the cooking time listed on the box. Put the olive oil away because you won't be needing it. Oh, and if your pot seems to be a bit full, as in quite a lot of pasta and perhaps not as much water as the box suggests, you might want to tack on a minute or so extra cooking time on to your timer.
The reason we salt the pasta water so much instead of just, say, salting the sauce, is because if the pasta doesn't taste good by itself, the sauce is only going to suffer with it when they're combined. There's a satisfaction I get out of fishing out a cooked piece of pasta and munching away on it and finding it quite tasty alone. Perhaps I'm just weird.
As for the reason I prefer pots with a pasta insert (this is what I'm talking about, by the way) is because pasta water is a magical thing. When your pasta is done cooking, the water is so full of delicious starch that it makes a great stretcher of sauces (meaning it can water down your sauce without making it taste, well, watery). I like to add a bit to my pasta sauce since I usually don't have time to cook my own, so I ladle a bit of the water in with a store bought jar of the stuff and add in a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Perhaps my mild obsession with salt is a bit odd, but I can't help it. There's nothing comparable to a piece of salted caramel, or the perfect batch of popcorn, or even just a well seasoned steak... but more on that next time. Eat well!