Herb-scented salt is often all you need to bring a dish to life. Here are two recipes to put a crunch in your cooking.
I have been using herb-scented salt for some time, most often by chopping dill into the dry salt marinade for making gravlax, which I usually do at Christmas and Easter. The salt preserves, the dill flavours. But seasonings like this are too good for special-occasion cooking alone.
Earlier in the week I flavoured a packet of sea-salt flakes with lemon and orange zest, both finely grated and stirred through the white flakes with a little chopped dill leaf. Mixing them with black peppercorns, mint leaves and gin, I used it as marinade for sea bass. Sliced thinly, it looked clean and smart against a white plate and needed just a triangle or two of treacle-coloured rye bread at its side. The second day we served it with a salad of paper-thin slices of fennel, blood orange and black pepper.
Flavoured salts are good with grilled meats, too - and making them is easy. You chop the herb leaves (thyme, rosemary, fennel or lavender buds, perhaps) and mix them one-third to two with salt, let the mixture dry a little, then keep it in a stoppered jar. The process becomes even more interesting when you marry a couple of herbs together or introduce a little spice, or even garlic.
Right now my favourite is a salt that has thyme leaves and crushed juniper folded through it. In the last couple of weeks its cold Nordic notes have seasoned lamb cutlets from the grill and a sea bream baked whole. The salt also had an outing with sautéed potatoes, scattered over as they finished cooking.
Rosemary needles, dill fronds, fennel, thyme, savory and celery seeds can be used to add a herbal note to salt. But less popular herbs are interesting, too. Lavender works nicely with grilled chicken. I grew myrtle last year, a herb that has seen less of the inside of my kitchen than it could. Its slight bitterness needs to be tamed. It worked well enough in a pork casserole (with apples and cider) but I like the leaves best when they are pounded with salt (use a pestle and mortar), then used to bring life to a beef casserole.
We can crank the herb salt up with other flavourings, too. Serving grilled chicken skin, salty and crisp, with a dish of mayo is one of the better ideas I have come across lately - but we can take it on a bit. By grilling the skin until it crunches, then crushing it into a coarse powder and tossing the result with sea salt and a few herbs, we have an original and extraordinary seasoning that can be used with both green and root vegetables, potatoes and, as I do today, popcorn.
Of course you can do the work in a food processor, but I prefer to chop the herbs by hand or to mash them with a pestle and mortar. Herb-flavoured salts will keep in a sealed jar for several weeks (though not the chicken-skin one below). The crucial detail is to let them dry for 24 hours first. The most successful way to do this is to scatter the pounded herbs and salt on a tray, in a shallow layer, and leave it in a warm but airy place. Bottle tightly, then keep it near the cooker, using it as the mood takes you.
Cured sea bass with mint and citrus salt
Get your fishmonger to fillet a whole sea bass for you, leaving the skin on. Serves 4-6.
a medium to large sea bass filleted
sea salt 8 tbsp
golden caster sugar 25g
black peppercorns 1 tbsp
gin 4 tbsp
lemon zest of 1
orange zest of 1
mint leaves 10g
Check the fish for any stray bones or scales. Wipe it with a piece of kitchen towel. Put the sugar and salt in a mixing bowl, then coarsely grind the peppercorns and stir in. Add the gin and the lemon and orange zest.
Roughly chop the mint, then stir it into the salt and sugar mixture. Place the fish on a large flat dish or platter, then spread the salt mixture over with your hands. Lay a piece of clingfilm over the fish then place a flat weight, such as a chopping board, on top.
Place the fish in the fridge and leave for at least 24 hours. Just before serving, remove the weight and film, and pour off any liquid that may have accumulated around the fish. Wipe the fish with kitchen paper, removing all the salt. Slice the fish thinly, like smoked salmon, or into thicker pencil-thin strips.
Serves 4 as a snack
chicken-thigh skins 4
popping corn 150g
rosemary leaves 1 heaped tbsp
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Remove the skin from the chicken thighs with a small knife, place it flat on a baking sheet, then lightly season with and pepper. Bake for 20-25 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove from the oven and place on a piece of kitchen paper to fully crisp. (You can use the chicken thighs in another recipe.)
Melt 50g of the butter in a pan, add the rosemary and cook very briefly until fragrant. Crumble the chicken skin into small pieces and season generously with salt. (Only you know how salty you like your popcorn, but start with ½ tbsp of sea salt flakes.)
Melt the remaining butter in a deep pan. Add the popping corn and cover with a lid. Over a medium heat, cook the corn until it starts to pop, shaking the pan vigorously from time to time to ensure it doesn't scorch.
As soon as all the corn has popped - there may be a few stubborn ones that refuse - pour in the remaining melted rosemary butter and chicken skin.
Email Nigel at firstname.lastname@example.org
Flavours to savour: Nigel Slater's cured sea bass with mint and citrus salt. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer