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It’s white magic

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

But none of that complication is really necessary. I simply stirred water into the salt until it looked like gritty snow (one-third cup water to 2 cups of salt seems sufficient). When heated, this forms a crust sufficient to cook the food, but not so tough that you need a hammer to crack it. And although it may not cook as quickly as Cimarusti’s, it seems to function in about the same way.

Exactly how the process works is a bit of a mystery. Cimarusti credits it to “the combination of the absolute lack of moisture and the incredibly searing heat. The steam that is created in the cooking is forced inward.”

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‘Oven within an oven’

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Martina SABO of the Salt Institute, an industry trade group, says that’s about the size of it: The salt melts and forms a crust, making a kind of “oven within an oven,” she says. The effect is quite like steaming, but because salt is hygroscopic -- meaning it absorbs any moisture -- the surface of the food stays dry, giving a texture that is closer to roasted.

Sabo’s boss, Institute Technical Director Morton Satin happened to walk into her office when we were on the speakerphone and chimed in: “I have no idea how it works, but I can tell you that I lived in Italy for 20 years and always cooked fish that way. I know exactly what you’re talking about, but I never stopped to analyze it. It’s not steaming, and it’s not roasting, but it’s a kind of hybrid of the two. And it’s very, very good.”

Satin says the food doesn’t taste overly salty because of osmosis -- the salt pulls the water out of the food and then before it can be reabsorbed and make the food salty, it bakes into a hard shell that can be easily removed.

You can use pretty much any kind of salt. I did my tests with Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, my default salt at home -- I like the feel of its flake. But just out of curiosity, I baked some potatoes with extra-coarse ice cream salt and extra-fine iodized, and the results were similar (though the extra-fine did make the hardest crust).

Any time you have a main ingredient that has flavor as deep and pronounced as these salt-roasted meats, the best thing a cook can do is pair them with something complementary and leave well enough alone.

Stuff the belly of whole Tai snapper with some sliced lemon and parsley stems. Roast it in the salt crust for 20 minutes. While the fish is cooking, whisk together a simple sauce of parsley, lemon and olive oil. Bone the fish (skin it, too, if you prefer; the soft skin peels easily). Then serve it napped with the sauce. The sweet flavor of the meat is perfectly matched by the simplicity of the sauce, though it is so flavorful it would also be good dressed with nothing but a little good olive oil and some sea salt, a la Cimarusti.

Spiny lobster has a more assertive flavor -- particularly when salt-roasted. In addition to the intensely sweet, moist meat, there is an interesting hint of bitterness that reminds me of saffron. So make an aioli and whisk in some soaked saffron threads. The saffron not only strikes a similar flavor note, it also stains the sauce a shade of crimson that echoes the color of the lobster’s shell.

Maybe the biggest surprise of all, though, was when I revisited the pork tenderloin, searing it first and then roasting it in rosemary salt along with the fingerling potatoes.

I cooked the pork just to an internal temperature of 145 degrees -- still pink on the inside, though the muscle fibers were set and firm. Not only was the meat moist (and you know how uncommon that is with meat as lean as pork tenderloin), but it was also suffused with the same gentle perfume of rosemary as the potatoes had been.

Served with only some braised broccolini and lemon, it was a memorable feast that came together in less than an hour.

Now, if only I could get one of those serving carts and find a maitre d’ who makes house calls.

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russ.parsons@latimes.com

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Salt-roasted whole snapper with parsley sauce

Total time: 55 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

1 lemon

2 (1 1/2 - to 2-pound) whole Tai snapper, gutted and scaled

1/3 cup chopped parsley leaves

6 cups coarse salt

1/2 clove garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Halve the lemon lengthwise, then cut each half in half crosswise. Slice one of the lemon quarters very thinly crosswise. You’ll need 5 or 6 slices per fish. Stuff the cavities of the fish with the lemon slices and a few parsley stems.

2. Place the salt in a large bowl and stir in 1 cup of water until the texture is that of gritty snow. Line a jellyroll pan with parchment paper and spread some of the salt in a layer about one-fourth-inch deep that is roughly the size of both fish. Place the fish on top of that, then mound the rest of the salt on top, covering them completely in a smooth, even layer. Roast the salt-encased fish in the oven for 20 minutes.

3. While the fish is cooking, put the parsley leaves on a cutting board with the half garlic clove and chop them together fairly fine. Place this in a bowl and add the olive oil. Whisk in 2 tablespoons lemon juice from the lemon and adjust seasoning for salt and lemon. The mixture should be savory and slightly tart.

4. After 20 minutes, remove the fish from the oven and let stand 5 more minutes to finish cooking. With a sturdy metal spoon or chef’s knife, chip a crack around the base of the salt crust and carefully lift off the top. Use a dry pastry brush to brush away any salt on the surface of the fish.

5. Using a long spatula, carefully lift the fish onto the serving platter, turning it over in the process so you can brush away the salt on the underside. If you prefer, you can skin the fish -- the skin will be quite loose and come up easily.

6. Using a sharp knife, make a cut the length of the fish along the backbone. Carefully work the knife down the backbone until the fillet is freed. Make another cut right behind the head to free the fillet. Carefully lift the fillet to a warm serving platter, skin-side down, and remove any loose bones that are still attached.

7. Lift the tail of the fish, and the spine and ribs will come free. Cut behind the head again to free the second fillet. Transfer this fillet to the platter, skin-side down, and remove any loose bones. Spoon some of the sauce over the fillets and pass the rest at the table.

Each of 6 servings: 331 calories; 35 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrate; 0 fiber; 20 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 62 mg. cholesterol; 638 mg. sodium.

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Salt-roasted spiny lobster with saffron aioli

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 4

2 (1 1/4 -pound) spiny lobsters

3 teaspoons minced garlic

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 egg yolks, at room temperature (if necessary, warm the whole eggs briefly in a cup of hot tap water before cracking)

1/2 cup olive oil

Pinch of saffron threads soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water

1/4 to 1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

12 cups coarse salt

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Hold a lobster securely against the cutting board, wrapping your hand in a kitchen towel to protect you from the spines. Kill the lobster by piercing the head well behind the eyes with a heavy chef’s knife and then slicing down, essentially cutting the head in half lengthwise. Set the lobster aside for a minute until it is still. Repeat with the other lobster.

2. Meanwhile, make the aioli: Place the garlic in a large, heavy mortar along with the salt and pound with a pestle into a smooth, sticky paste. Using the pestle to stir, beat in the egg yolks and stir until the mixture is smooth and lemon-colored, about 30 seconds. (Alternatively, the mayonnaise can be made with a whisk. In a medium bowl, mash the garlic using the back of a large spoon. Whisk in the egg yolks, stirring until the mixture is smooth and lemon-colored, about 30 seconds.)

3. Switch to a whisk and stirring constantly, begin to beat in the olive oil, adding just a drop at a time, until the oil begins to emulsify with the egg yolks. Do not attempt to rush the process by adding the oil too fast. After you’ve added about one-fourth cup this way, you can increase the flow to a thin stream. If at any time you see oil beginning to gather separately from the yolks, immediately stop adding oil while continuing to stir vigorously. Very shortly the mixture should come back together.

4. When you have added about one-half cup of olive oil, and the aioli is quite thick, stir in the saffron threads and the hot water, which will loosen it considerably. Then begin whisking in the vegetable oil, starting again with a drop at a time.

5. When you’ve worked in about one-fourth cup of vegetable oil, whisk in the lemon juice and taste the sauce. The texture should be creamy, not stiff and sticky. The flavor should be very garlicky but sweet, with a balance of garlic, olive oil, lemon and saffron flavors. If it’s still too garlicky, stir in a little more oil. Add more salt and lemon juice if necessary. (If the sauce breaks -- the oil and yolks separate and won’t come back together -- it can be easily fixed. Add a whole egg to a blender and puree it until smooth. Pour the broken aioli mixture into a measuring cup and, with the blender running, slowly add it to the blender. When it is completely incorporated, slowly add more oil with the blender running until you have the texture and flavor you prefer.)

6. Cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to use, but allow it to return to room temperature before serving. Aioli should be made no more than a couple of hours in advance.

7. Place the salt in a large bowl and stir in 1 1/3 cups water until the texture is that of gritty snow. Line a jellyroll pan with parchment paper and spread some of the salt in a layer about one-fourth-inch deep that is roughly the size of the lobsters. Place the lobsters on top of that, stretching them out lengthwise, and trimming the long antennae. Mound the rest of the salt on top, covering the lobsters completely, and smooth the surface. Roast the salt-encased lobsters in the oven for 30 minutes.

8. After 30 minutes, remove the lobsters from the oven and let stand 5 more minutes to finish cooking. With a sturdy metal spoon or chef’s knife, chip a crack around the base of the salt crust and carefully lift off the top.

9. Transfer the lobsters from the salt to a cutting board. Separate the tail from the head. (Flex the tail and you’ll see a good place to cut just behind the carapace.) Use a sturdy pair of kitchen scissors to cut a slit through the shell the length of the tail. Using a kitchen towel to protect your hands, pop the shell in half and remove the tail meat. Carve the tail into medallions and arrange them on a tray with a bowl of saffron aioli.

Each serving: 533 calories; 60 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 28 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 250 mg. cholesterol; 576 mg. sodium.

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Pork tenderloin roasted in rosemary salt with fingerling potatoes

Total time: 50 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: The pork may be seared in advance.

2 tablespoons snipped rosemary leaves

6 cups coarse salt

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 (1 1/4 -pound) pork tenderloin

1 pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled

1 tablespoon butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon minced shallots

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the rosemary and the salt in a large mixing bowl and stir in 1 cup of water until the texture is that of gritty snow.

2. In a large skillet, heat the oil until the surface ripples. Pat the pork tenderloin dry with paper towels and sear it in the hot oil until it is browned on all sides, about 8 minutes.

3. While the pork is browning, spoon a layer of salt about one-fourth-inch thick in the bottom of a gratin or baking dish just big enough to hold the pork and the potatoes in a single layer.

4. When the pork is browned, pat it dry with a paper towel to remove any excess oil and place it in the gratin dish, laying it down the center. Arrange the potatoes around the outside and cover everything with the remaining salt.

5. Roast until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees, about 20 to 25 minutes. At this point, the pork will be quite moist but still a little pink. If you prefer the pork to be more cooked, push the temperature to 150, about 5 more minutes. Remove the baking dish from the oven and set aside 5 minutes to finish cooking.

6. With a sturdy metal spoon or chef’s knife, chip a crack around the base of the salt crust and carefully lift off the top. Use a dry pastry brush to brush away any salt on the surface of the potatoes or the pork, turning the pork over to brush all sides. Transfer the pork to a carving board. Slice the pork into medallions one-fourth-inch thick and arrange on a serving platter. Place the potatoes in a medium bowl and toss with the shallots and butter just until coated, discarding any excess butter. Arrange the potatoes around the outside of the pork and serve immediately.

Each serving: 305 calories; 30 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 86 mg. cholesterol; 906 mg. sodium.


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