Way More Than A Grain of Salt

Salt in the form of fish sauce adds umami to these easy kebabs.
Salt in the form of fish sauce adds umami to these easy kebabs.

Anyone who knows me knows that I gravitate to the sweet.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy and appreciate the salty.

After all, salt is one of the most essential ingredients in cooking. It boosts flavor and balances tastes. It can add moisture; and leech out excess liquid to firm up textures. It can also preserve and ferment.

For a real appreciation of all the forms that salt take and what they can do just pick up a copy of “The Miracle of Salt” (Artisan, 2022).

This comprehensive book is by Naomi Duguid, a writer, photographer and world traveler who has made a career out of immersing herself completely in the traditions and cultures of various foodstuffs in her award-winning cookbooks.

This fascinating book looks at how salt is harvested around the world, from Japan to Ethiopia to Gujarat in India. You’ll learn how to use salt in new ways, such as to make your own “Red Miso” from scratch and “Quick Salted Egg Yolks” that can be grated over pasta like bottarga.

The recipes run a wide gamut from “Hunan Style Salted Red Chiles,” “Small Batch Sauerkraut,” and “Gravlax” to “Duck Breast Prosciutto,” “Grilled Chicken Southern Thai Style,” and “Miso-Espresso Caramel Custard.”

Sometimes the best recipes happen by accident. Such was the case, Duguid writes, when she wanted to make Persian kebabs with pomegranate molasses and ground walnuts. The problem was she was out of walnuts. She ended up substituting fish sauce, which is made from fish that’s salted and allowed to ferment to create a briny, exquisitely savory liquid full of amino acids.

I used pork, but lamb works equally well.
I used pork, but lamb works equally well.

“Kebabs Marinated with Fish Sauce and Pomegranate Molasses” proved a keeper. It can be made with either lamb or pork. I went with the latter.

Just marinate cubes of meat in a mixture of pomegranate molasses and fish sauce for an hour. When ready to grill, wipe off excess marinade, and thread cubes on skewers to cook on a grill.

The deliciously charred pork ends up enhanced with a subtle fruity sweetness and a punch of umami. Duguid suggests serving the kebabs with “Salted Onion Salad,” a super easy condiment in which thinly sliced white or red onions are mixed with a little salt, then allowed to stand for 20 minutes before being rinsed and squeezed of excess moisture.

Mix coarse salt into thin slices of onion.
Mix coarse salt into thin slices of onion.
The salted onions soften and lose their sharp bite.
The salted onions soften and lose their sharp bite.
The vibrant onion salad.
The vibrant onion salad.

The onions end up shrinking and shriveling, and turn more purple, if you’re using red ones. Their sharpness dampens and their sweetness increases. The salted onions will keep well, covered in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.

As is, they would be dynamite strewn over sausages or burgers. With the kebabs, sprinkle the onions with some fresh herbs and pomegranate arils for a fresh and colorful accent.

Pile the kebabs atop rice or flatbread, and crown with onion salad. I like to add a small drizzle of pomegranate molasses to tie everything together nicely and add even more of a sweet-tart note, so I added that suggestion to the recipe below.

It’s a dish that makes you grateful for everything that salt can do.

A feast that couldn't be easier to make.
A feast that couldn’t be easier to make.

Kebabs Marinated with Fish Sauce and Pomegranate Molasses

(Serves 6 to 8)

1/4 cup pomegranate molasses

3 tablespoons Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce

3 pounds boneless pork or lamb shoulder, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

Suggested accompaniments:

Cooked rice


Salted Onion Salad (recipe below)

Pomegranate molasses, for drizzling

Stir together the pomegranate molasses and fish sauce in a large nonreactive bowl. Add the meat and turn and stir it with your hands or a large spoon to coat all sides with the marinade. Cover and let stand at room temperature for an hour, turning several times.

Prepare a medium-hot fire in a gas or charcoal grill.

Wipe off the excess marinade from the meat (this is important, because otherwise the sugars in the pomegranate molasses will scorch in the heat.) Thread the cubes onto metal skewers, making sure that they are not jammed together tightly, which would hinder even cooking. Place the skewers on the grill and cook, turning occasionally, until done to your taste.

To serve, slide the meat off the skewers and onto a serving dish. Serve warm or at room temperature, with your choice of accompaniments.”

Salted Onion Salad

(Serves 4)

2 large white or red onions (nearly 1/2 pound each), thinly sliced

About 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

About 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds, or more if desired, or 1/4 cup dried barberries

About 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint, tarragon, or sorel or 1 teaspoon dried mint

Flake salt or fine sea salt

Scant 1/2 teaspoon ground sumac (optional)

Place the onions in a bowl, sprinkle on the coarse salt, and toss well. Set aside for about 20 minutes.

In the meantime, if using barberries, place in a bowl and add lukewarm water to cover generously. Let soak for about 15 minutes, or until softened, then drain.

Rinse the onions with cold water, wrap in a cotton cloth, and gently squeeze dry. Place in a bowl. Add the pomegranate seeds or drained barberries and toss to mix. Add the herbs and toss. Sprinkle on a pinch of flake salt or fine sea salt, taste, and add a little more if needed. Toss. Sprinkle on a dusting of sumac, if desired, and serve.

Note: You can also add a dressing, for more intensity: Mix about 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice with 1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses, add a pinch of cayenne, if you wish, and pour over the rinsed and dried onions. Toss well. Add the pomegranate seeds or barberries, then sprinkle on fresh or dried mint. Omit the sumac. Toss, taste, and sprinkle on a little finishing salt, if you wish.

Adapted from “The Miracle of Salt” by Naomi Duguid

More Naomi Duguid Recipes to Enjoy: Chiang Mai Pork Patties

And: Green Tea Shortbread with Poppy Seeds

And: Miao Pork with Corn and Chiles

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