no matter what some people will tell you – salt in indispensable to good food and good cookingJeffrey Steingarten in his essay ‘Salt’, taken from The Man Who Ate Everything
I never met a potato that didn’t respond warmly to the addition of a bit of salt. I suspect that there are few, if any, who would disagree. Salt is an essential addition to spuds, as well as to many other foods. However, there are those who would contend that you can have too much of this particular good thing.
The other day I received two separate communications about campaigns afoot both here and in the UK which aim to “raise awareness … that our diets are still too high in salt and that the majority of dietary salt is from processed foods such as processed meats, sauces and bread”. They have introduced salt calculator applications to help the consumer to identify high-salt products, and also provide advice on reducing our consumption of salt in the home. The impetus for such a reduction, of course, is the apparent correlation between high-salt diets and high blood pressure, which leads to an increased risk of, among other things, stroke and heart disease.
That much of our salt intake comes in the form of highly processed foods is true, and that these campaigns should encourage us to eat less of these foods is no bad thing. If it’s a case of arguing for more boiled spuds and less instant mash, then I am absolutely on the side of home-cooked taters.
However, I am less convinced about the need to make drastic reductions in the use of salt when it comes to home-cooked foods. That there is a correlation between high salt intake and high blood pressure would appear to be the subject of much debate. A 1998 article in Science magazine entitled “The (Political) Science of Salt” discussed in detail the state of the research on both sides at that time and observed that:
While the [U.S.] government has been denouncing salt as a health hazard for decades, no amount of scientific effort has been able to dispense with the suspicions that it is not.
That there was even any debate on the matter was something that I came upon by reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay ‘Salt’ and, more recently, through Nina Planck’s excellent book Real Food: What To Eat And Why. Both note that 20% or so of the population is salt-sensitive, meaning that blood pressure goes up when they eat salt and down when they don’t, but the rest of us are not. Meanwhile, there are other factors which appear to be more clearly linked to high blood pressure, such as lack of potassium, stress, smoking, lack of exercise and obesity.
I appreciate that the salt-reduction campaigns are well intentioned and if they succeed in moving people away from processed foods and towards home cooking, then that is to be applauded. However, their suggestions for salt avoidance in the home are not going to do anyone’s home cooking any favours. One campaign suggests using freshly ground pepper instead of salt. I would respectfully argue that these two are not the same thing and that your dishes will simply end up tasting peppery and under-salted. Another suggestion advocates choosing foods which have been flavoured with herbs and spices “so you shouldn’t need to add any salt”. Of course herbs and spices will impart flavour but, more often than not, they will need at least some salt to marry those flavours together.
The fact is that I feel distinctly uncomfortable where such campaigns portray salt as the ultimate villain of the piece, rather than the highly processed foods, from which most of our dietary salt emanates and which probably contain other ingredients that aren’t exactly poster children for a healthy diet. Just because a food label indicates that a food is low in sodium does not automatically mean that it is good for you. As far as I am aware, the campaigns do not attempt, for example, to direct us towards using unrefined salts, which, as Nina Planck points out, will contain many other vital trace elements and, as it happens, generally taste better too.
Now, anybody for some spuds cooked on a bed of salt?
Salt-baked Baby Potatoes
In my recent wanderings around cyberspace, I came across these little beauties – baby spuds covered with salt and baked. It’s a method of cooking often associated with fish, but can be applied to many things. The theory is that the salt layer seals in steam, flavour and nutrients and the potatoes (or fish) cook through what is effectively a combination of steaming and roasting, becoming infused with salt flavour but not overly salty. I ate these little guys straight out of the oven and I didn’t even feel the need to add any butter, that’s how good they were. Moister than roasties, but with some of the same flavours. I will certainly be making these again (and reusing the salt I used first time to do so).
- around 400g to 500g coarse salt
- approx. 500g baby potatoes
You’ll also need:
- An ovenproof dish – I used an oval earthenware dish, about 28cm x 20cm x 5cm
- Preheat your oven to 200C
- Scrub the baby potatoes. If you like, you can cut some of them in half, so that you have roughly even-sized pieces. Dry the potatoes well.
- Scatter your ovenproof dish with a thin layer of salt. Lay the potatoes on the salt layer, cut side down for any that have been cut in half, and allowing a bit of room between each spud. Switch to a larger dish if your potatoes are squashed up against each other.
- Cover the potatoes with enough salt to cover them completely and bake for around 45 minutes to an hour or until the flesh is soft throughout. To test, just poke a small knife through the salt crust and into one of the spuds, it should slip through easily.
- Dig the little potatoes out from their salt bed, dust off any excess salt and enjoy.
- Heidi from 101 cookbooks discusses a variation where the salt is mixed with some egg white to get more of a crusting effect on the potatoes. She also suggests sticking a few cloves of peeled garlic into the salt, which is worth it for the aroma alone. You could also chop some rosemary or thyme into the salt, which should result in a gentle infusion of those flavours into the spuds.
- This amount should give you side-dish servings for 2-3