A fresh take on salt

Every restaurant chef that has come through the BU kitchen loves to sing the praises of salt. It's the biggest difference between home cooking and restaurant food. Whether seasoning a steak, water for pasta, a soup or a sauce, just use more of the stuff. Since the first few classes where we were let in on this trade secret, I've tried to oblige. But to be honest, sometimes I find restaurant food too salty.

We learned something crucial on this subject from chef Dante de Magistris and his perspective was a breath of fresh air. He's still a proponent of salt (he is a restaurant chef after all), but he urged us to keep context in mind when seasoning food. A chef's taste buds are different than those of a diner. Chefs in a busy kitchen taste things all day long, causing their palate to become somewhat "spent". Of course, more salt is going to seem bolder and better. But the guest out in the dining room is tasting that sauce for the first time and they aren't going to stop at one bite. The dish needs to taste perfectly seasoned until the last morsel. For a chef's single taste, the seasoning may seem just right, but for the guest who wants to clear his plate, it might be too much.

This lesson on understanding the context for which I am seasoning food was a valuable one. And we were able to take it into consideration when putting the finishing touches on Dante's favorite family dishes. We made "minestra" which for his Campanian family means braised bitter greens served over a corn flour "pizza". It was unlike anything I've ever cooked. Masa flour was quickly mixed with water and salt to form a thick paste and dropped into a sizzling hot skillet. It was cooked carefully until a golden brown, slightly charred crust was formed, then flipped for the same on the other side. The end result was something between an arepa and polenta—crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside. We ate wedges of the "pizza" with ladles full of escarole and chicory that had been braised in chicken stock. Delicious peasant food that reminded me of my grandmother.

 The corn flour "pizza" shortly after it went into the pan, a steam vent was poked with the handle of a wooden spoon

The corn flour "pizza" shortly after it went into the pan, a steam vent was poked with the handle of a wooden spoon

 Flipping the pizza revealed a beautifully charred crust

Flipping the pizza revealed a beautifully charred crust

 The finished "minestra" included braised greens and a bit of broth

The finished "minestra" included braised greens and a bit of broth

The steak pizzaiola—another example of making the most out of cheap, available ingredients—braised for hours until the tough flap meat could be cut with a spoon. With tomatos, capers, parsley, and Parmigiano, it was homey, satisfying, and had just the right amount of salt.