There have been several big "ah ha!" moments in my evolution as an eater.
The first was when a boyfriend's Italian-American mom cut up a zucchini from her backyard garden, drenching it in egg and flour, and fried it in a pan for us for lunch. I didn't know you could do that. The only thing I knew to do with fresh vegetables was to eat them raw in a salad. I associated cooked veggies with cans (creamed corn, not bad, super sweet) or plastic pouches from the freezer (Green Giant's Vegetable Medley, made odious by the presence of lima beans).
Another transformation came after reading Michael Pollen's brilliant book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which introduced me to the politics of food.
And now, through Mark Bitterman, I've discovered salt.
Bitterman is the author of "Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral with Recipes." It is a compendium of different kinds of salts, with lush photos that I can only describe as salt porn. On the back is a close-up photograph of a glistening fried egg and two strips of curly-edged bacon, sitting on a large, smooth, pink block of Himalayan salt.
"Salt is the only mineral we eat," he writes. "It is the only universal ingredient, and it is the most potent one."
We know it as this commonplace substance in big cardboard boxes, something to be feared by those who worry about their blood pressure and their heart health. Bitterman knows it as a treasure, a pleasure; a food that tastes of its place in the world, and of the hands that helped bring it out of ocean and the earth and onto our tables.
I've been playing with the salts he brought to the studio for our Last Chance Foods talk.
I sprinkled shards of Black Diamond salt on my oatmeal. The black flecks looked a bit ominous. Black Diamond is shaped like little hollow pyramids, and they've got a mellow taste. I think I prefer the less dramatic, but more consistent seasoning I get by putting a big pinch of kosher salt in the oatmeal as it cooks.
I tried the Fleur de Sel, from Guerande, France, on a salad. This worked wonders.
"Salted vegetables is what a salad is. 'Salad' comes from the Greek word, salata, which means 'salted,'" Bitterman told me. "Salad dressing is essentially a salt-saturated liquid that you're going to shellac your salad with."
He recommended "deconstructing" your salad dressing. Make it yourself. (That, by the way, was another revelation for me, several years ago, that you can make your own salad dressing, ketchup, mayonnaise and tomato sauce.)
"Macerate some shallots in wine, add a little mustard, and some oil and vinegar," advised Bitterman. "Dress your salad ... then fling some salt on top after it's been served at the table. Now you've got this perching lacework, say, of flake salt across the surface of your salad. When you bite, it's got this beautiful pop -- it's explosively salted -- but then, the salt's all gone, and you get these vegetal flavors rushing forward."
Boy, was he right. And it doesn't take a lot.
I wonder if we seasoned our food this way, with this kind of salt, that we'd reclaim salt as something healthy and necessary, and not dangerous, and senselessly overused?
"It's what we found for ourselves," Bitterman said, referring to his wife, Jennifer. "It sounds ironic for people who own a store with 100-plus varieties of salt, but we don't like salty food. We like food that tastes beautifully of itself when salt comes to the aid of that."