It’s Always Better — with Smoked Salt

I first heard about it in a cookbook by Eric Rippert — one of the top chefs in NYC. Don’t know him? He’s the low-key, French guy creating magic in the kitchen at Le Bernedin, that long-running, Michelin three-star, seafood restaurant on West 51st Street.

In his cookbook, Rippert uses smoked salt to finish some seared scallops. And that grabbed my attention. What a great idea. He calls for just a sprinkle. Adding a smidge of salinity and a subtle hint of smoke to the sweetness of the barely-cooked seafood.

Like a grace note, a small embelishment — but one that makes a big difference. And not only on scallops. On almost anything.

Smoked Salt. Who knew? Thanks, for the cool idea, Chef.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Salads, eggs, pastas, grilled anything — fish and chicken and vegetables, Greek meatballs, those Asian open-faced dumplings called shu mai, they all tasted better to me with smoked salt. Sometimes just a touch. Sometimes a lot more.

And then there was the night I tried smoked salt on popcorn. My wife and I both loved how the smokiness gave an appealing new depth to the the warm, just-popped white corn. You have to try it.

But before you do, you need to consider just what kind of smoked salt suits your taste. And then the specific dish you’re making. You might want to begin your affair with this dangerouly seductive condiment by first trying it on an old favorite. Maybe grilled asparagus. Seared tuna. Or your Sunday Brunch scrabled eggs.

Of course, you’ll find the best selection of smoked salt online — hickory, mesquite, applewood, alderwood. As a general rule, hickory and mesquite are the most intense. Still, I love ’em all.

If you’re up for adventure, why not get a small package of each and experiment away. You know that’s what I’ve been doing.

Add the smoke-infused salt while you’re cooking as you would any regular salt, tasting as you go. Keep in mind, you’re going to sprinkle on a little bit more right before you serve to finish the dish.

If you like mashed potatoes like I do — try them with smoked salt and a splash of truffle oil and be prepared to eat too many. I don’t use cream or butter in my potatoes, only milk and olive oil. Even so, these end up astoundingly rich, luscious and best of all, smoky.


A Greek Easter Dinner — I’ll Never Forget

There it was. I still remember it after all these years — sitting on a big, white, restaurant platter in the center of my Greek grandparents’ table. A roasted lamb’s head! Worse yet, it was staring straight at me.

When you’re five years old that can be a traumatic event. Eating spinach or mom’s favorite, lamb’s liver, couldn’t even come close.

But no one else at the table seemed to be bothered. That helped. In fact, everyone was in a festive mood, celebrating this most important of Greek holidays and they treated the “old-country” dish that was so shocking to me with the reverance due a very special delicacy.

Then I was really tested. Like never before. My grandmother reached over and offered me — an eye! She said it was one of the most delicious bites. And that it had miraculous powers to improve my sight.

Well, no way was I going to find out. Desperately shaking my head, I managed to shout out “oxi!” (No) And it worked. She pulled back the fork, gave a smile and popped the lamb’s eye into her own mouth.

Thankfully, I didn’t see that. My hands were over my eyes. At least that’s what I was told as my family happily recounted the infamous “tale of terror” at almost every Easter dinner in the years to come.

Back on that fateful night — even though I kept trying to avoid looking at the lamb’s head in the center of the table, or what was left of it, I had no problem enjoying the crispy, fat-drenched pieces of oven-roasted leg of lamb, dotted with garlic, that ended up on my plate.

I might have even asked for more.

And at the end of the meal when the deep red Easter eggs were passed around, I know my young Greek self was throughly convinced that roast lamb was, indeed, something special. Something delicious.

I feel the same way today. Especially around Greek Easter time.

Although red meat is rarely on our table, I’m always more than delighted when I taste lamb roasted like my family used to serve. Or spring lamb, cooked slowly on a spit, smoky and succulent. Or butterflied leg of lamb, marinated with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and Greek herbs, grilled to a crusty char in spots and thinly sliced.

Then there was the rack of lamb good friends so lovingly prepared. Slow-cooked at a low temperature to gently coax maximum flavor out of the elegant, medium-rare chops that absolutely enchanted me.

So with Greek Easter (and Easter) not far off, I’ve been thinking a lot about lamb. This year, I’m going to try a new recipe. Sort of like my grandmother’s, but a bit different. It’s from popular Greek chef and peripatetic cooking teacher Peter Minaki up in Toronto. I found the recipe on his website You might want to try it too.

Or if you’re not up for leg of lamb, Peter’s got a lot of other great Greek recipes on the site. The kind you want to cook over and over.

Slow-roasted leg of lamb

Here’s what you need for this recipe that serves 8-10:

1 leg of lamb (bone in) or 2 short-cut legs of lamb (6-8lbs.)
1 head of garlic
fine sea salt
fresh ground pepper
approx. 2 tsp. garlic powder
approx. 2 tsp. sweet paprika
2 medium onions, peeled & quartered
1 cup dry white wine
2-3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
10 sprigs of fresh thyme
2-3 tsp. dried Greek oregano
2-3 bay leaves
juice of 2 lemons
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
hot water
salt and pepper to taste

The preparation:

Peel the skins off the garlic cloves and slice them into slivers. Stick a paring knife into the lamb, then into the hole slip in a sliver of garlic. Repeat and insert as many slivers of garlic as you can.

Pre-heat your oven to 550F and place the rack in the middle position. Drizzle lamb with some olive oil and season with salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika. Place lamb in a roasting pan that just fits the leg. Place in oven and roast uncovered for about 10-15 minutes or until browned, then flip the leg over and roast for another 10-15 minutes.

Remove lamb from oven and reduce heat to 350F. Place quartered onions around lamb, add any remaining slivers of garlic, along with the herbs (thyme, bay, rosemary, oregano) lemon juice and the wine. Add the olive oil and enough hot water to cover third of the lamb.

Cover the roasting pan and put the lamb back in the oven for 2 hours (add more hot water if needed), basting once an hour. After two hours, flip the leg of lamb again (add more water if necessary and adjust seasoning of liquid in the pan with salt and pepper).

Total cooking time is approx. 3 hours — you’ll know it’s done when the lamb is a deep brown and the meat is separating from the bone.

Remove the lamb from the oven, baste and allow to rest. Serve with Greek roast potatoes or pair with roast potatoes tossed in lamb drippings. (Peter didn’t mention it, but I’m sure he’d apporve of adding a Greek Easter salad of chopped romaine and dill dressed with red wine vinegar and olive oil. For the recipe check a previous blog post.)

*TIP: Have some peeled potatoes (quartered) to roast in another roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Pour enough pan juices from the lamb leg to come up a third of the way on the potatoes and toss to coat. Taste, adjust seasoning and crank your oven up to 450F and place the potatoes in the oven to roast for 35-40 minutes or until fork-tender (the lamb will stay warm covered in the roasting pan on the stove-top).