If food is fashion, then there must always be a new "it" dish. This season, salt-roasted root vegetables are the Olivia Wilde of the culinary world.
They grace menus in Copenhagen (salt-baked beet with smoked marrow, pickled onions and elderberry capers), New York (salt-baked celery root with leek, ash and citrus cream) and Washington, where you can find salt-roasted carrots at Fiola, salt-roasted beet salad with spiced Virginia peanuts and goat cheese at Blue Duck Tavern and salt-roasted potatoes and beets accompanying the local pheasant at Equinox.
At Volt in Frederick, Md., chef-owner Bryan Voltaggio has experimented with salt-roasting celery root in a crust scented with celery seed and says the root's resulting silky texture is akin to that of sashimi.
Salt roasting is not new. Along the Mediterranean, it has been used for centuries to keep fish flaky and moist. In China, the Hakka people for more than 2,000 years have roasted chickens by burying them in hot salt. "No one is reinventing the wheel here," says Fabio Trabocchi, chef-owner of Fiola and Casa Luca. "This is one of those ancient culinary techniques that still resonates with us today."
The technique, which involves burying the vegetables in dry salt or beneath a crust of salt and egg whites, has obvious appeal to chefs. It roasts! It steams! It seasons! And wait, there's more. It also helps to gussy up the description of otherwise humble root vegetables on the menu. When a salt crust is presented and cracked open tableside, as chef Alain Passard does at L'Arpege in Paris, the technique might even justify a price hike.
"It's the closest thing to sous vide you can get for the home cook," says Dan Barber, chef at New York's Blue Hill, referring to that other fashionable cooking technique, in which meats and vegetables are sealed in plastic and cooked in a water bath at very low temperatures to seal in flavor and promote even cooking.
"The name of the game is consistency," says Adam Sobel, the chef at Washington's Bourbon Steak before moving this year to RN74 in San Francisco. "So if this gets you a perfectly evenly cooked beet, why wouldn't you do it?"
I found out the hard way.
A lot of effort
My first attempt was dry-roasting beets. I bought two bunches, making sure that the beets were of similar size. I scrubbed them clean but left on the skins to prevent the salt from penetrating too deeply. Next, I poured kosher salt about an inch thick in the bottom of a small pan and layered the beets on top. I covered the beets with more salt and stuck them in the oven, preheated to 325 degrees. So far, so good.
Recipes advised that the beets would take about 45 minutes. But the timer buzzed, and the beet I pierced with a knife to test for done-ness was still as hard as a rock. I checked again at an hour and then another half-hour later. I was afraid to check too often, lest too many punctures of the skin render the beets too salty to eat.
At one hour and 45 minutes, my tester showed they were done, and I pulled the beets from the oven. While they were still warm, I peeled them. I glazed them with butter, then topped them with chopped chives, chervil and grated ricotta salata.
They were … good. Nicely seasoned. But it was Sobel's inspired pairing of herbs and cheese that made them special. Disappointingly, a few of the beets still had a slight crunch. (So much for that promise of even cooking.) It would have been a whole lot easier to bake them in a foil packet.
I had higher hopes for the more traditional salt crust, a kind of igloo made with egg whites. Various chefs had suggested first whipping the whites to soft peaks or to stiff peaks, or just stirring them with the salt until the mixture resembled wet sand. I went for the simplest technique, blending about one pound of salt into eight egg whites, enough to roast three baseball-size celery roots. I packed the salt mixture around the vegetables until they looked like three lumpy snowballs in a roasting pan, then baked them for two hours at 350 degrees.
There was no checking for done-ness, because my sharp paring knife could barely penetrate the crust — at least without cracking the whole thing wide open, which would have been the point of no return. Thankfully, when I finally did crack it open, there was no resistance to the knife. The celery root was cooked evenly, and it had an intense sweetness I hadn't expected after my first flop. Rather than mix the root in with mashed potatoes, as I had planned, I sliced it thinly and served it in an impromptu salad with grapefruit, celery leaves and crushed hazelnuts and drizzled with olive oil.
But is it worth it?
Was it worth all the trouble? Food scientist Harold McGee says no. "Salt-baking root vegetables doesn't have much to offer beyond simple baking," he says. "The salt crust will moderate and even out the oven heat, and it may slightly reduce moisture loss. But the effects on flavor and texture will be minimal. Vegetables just aren't as sensitive to cooking conditions as meats and fish."
Grace Young, the author of three Chinese cookbooks, also doesn't bother with salt-baking at home, even for that classic Hakka chicken. "Salt-baked chicken is absolutely delicious. However, done in the home kitchen it is one pain in the neck," she says. "You need six pounds of salt. It's difficult to check for done-ness. I've always wanted to run a recipe for it in one of my books," but is afraid she will irritate her readers.
For me? It depends. During the 15 minutes it took me to scrub my roasting pan free of salt crust, I would certainly have said no. I might try it again if the vegetable were the star of the plate rather than a side dish or one component of a salad. On the whole, though, the latest fashion for cooking root vegetables seems best left to chefs, just as peep-toe boots and fedoras are best left to "it" girls.
My advice: Go out to eat salt-roasted vegetables while they are a menu must-have.
This makes for a delightfully moist fish and a dramatic tableside presentation. The original recipe called for a 2-pound black sea bass; if you use that fish, increase the oven time to 12 to 15 minutes.
Do not skip the step of letting the fish rest after roasting; it’s essential to achieving the silky texture that this old cooking technique imparts.
Adapted from “Classico e Moderno,” by Michael White and Andrew Friedman (Ballantine Books, 2013).
MAKE AHEAD: The salt crust mixture needs to rest for 30 minutes before roasting the fish.
20 stems flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons fennel seed
4 cups kosher salt
5 large egg whites
2 large lemons
1 whole yellowtail snapper, about 1 1/2 pounds, cleaned (scales can be left on)
2 large cloves garlic, smashed
1 stem rosemary
Extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
Combine half the parsley (including tender stems), all the fennel seed and the salt in a food processor; pulse until the parsley is coarsely chopped. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl; add the egg whites, stirring to incorporate. Rest at room temperature for 30 minutes so the salt has a chance to completely dissolve.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Spread half the salt crust mixture vertically along the center of the baking sheet.
Cut 1 lemon crosswise into thin slices. Juice the remaining lemon.
Fill the cavity of the fish with the lemon slices, the remaining parsley, the garlic and the rosemary sprig. Place the fish on top of the bed of salt mixture, then use the remaining salt mixture to pack/cover the fish, leaving the head free and open. Roast (middle rack of oven) for 8 to 10 minutes; the salt will be browned. Rest the salt-crusted fish, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.
To serve, use a serving spoon to crack the salt crust. Remove it and the fish skin, which will have fused to the crust during roasting.
Discard the lemon slices, garlic and rosemary from inside the fish. Use two spoons to lift the top fillet off the bone and transfer to a serving platter. Use your index finger and thumb to remove the bone, then tease away the rib bones. Transfer the remaining fillet to the serving platter. Discard all the salt crust.
Drizzle the fish with the oil and lemon juice. Serve right away.
Per serving: 190 calories, 3 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 2 g carbohydrates, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar, 37 g protein.
Slow-Roasted Beets With Ricotta Salata
You could roast the beets under a salt crust, but this method is neater and yields fine results.
MAKE AHEAD: The roasted beets can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Adapted from D.C.’s Bourbon Steak restaurant recipe.
2 bunches beets (1 red, 1 yellow and of similar size; approximately 1 ½ pounds total), greens trimmed off
2 tablespoons chilled salted butter, cut into small pieces (may substitute 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil)
2 tablespoons freshly grated ricotta salata
2 tablespoons chopped mixed fresh herbs
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lay two large pieces of aluminum foil on a work surface.
Scrub the beets well. Place the red beets at the center of one piece of foil and the yellow beets on the other piece of foil. Wrap each into a tightly sealed packet; place both on a rimmed baking sheet. Slow-roast for 1 hour and 45 minutes or until the beets are tender when pierced with a fork.
Unwrap the beets; when they are cool enough to handle, discard their skins. Cut the beets into quarters, still keeping the two colors separate (in two bowls). Toss the still-warm beets with the butter until the butter has melted, then arrange the beets on a platter. Sprinkle with the cheese and herbs.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Per serving: 130 calories, 3 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar