October 30, 2002

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Salt early and often!

SO JUDY RODGERS'S splendid Zuni Café Cookbook (Norton, $35) formally lets out of the bag a cat that had informally been roaming the streets of common understanding for years. The cat is the practice of salting meats, poultry, and fish well before they're cooked. Two conspicuous examples from Rodgers's own repertoire at Zuni: the roast chicken for two and the hamburger – a pair of "compelling cases for the method," as Rodgers writes in her introduction.

It is a misconception, Rodgers says, that salting draws the juice from meat, leaving it tough and dry. "Initially, salt does draw moisture from cells – whence the widely accepted belief that it dries food out," she writes. "However, the quiet trauma of osmosis is temporary. With time, the cells reabsorb moisture in reverse osmosis. When they do, that moisture is seasoned with salt.... A little salt in a marinade seems to assist in the movement of other flavors into food.... What is more, that intruder salt changes the proteins – they 'open up,' enabling them to entrap more moisture than before." Hence, tasty juiciness.

The practice of early salting is "nearly ubiquitous in traditional cuisines," in which preservation of food is a paramount concern. And it was in two of those cuisines – French and Italian – that Rodgers began her education as a chef. (Like other prominent protégés of Alice Waters – not to mention Waters herself – she has had no formal, cooking-school instruction.) As a teenage exchange student in France in the early 1970s, she found herself working with the Troisgros brothers, whose eponymous restaurant in Roanne, Les Frères Troisgros, was then considered one of the best in the country.

Rodgers's earliest experiences in the Troisgros' kitchen had to do with miraculous efflorescences of flavor – a simple ham sandwich on country bread, for instance, enlivened with spicy mustard and tarragon cornichons – and with the performance of such straightforward tasks as sorting spinach leaves. But clearly her most vivid experience was meeting the patriarch, Troisgros père, who dismissed the idea of pretentious, celebrity cooking ("cinéma dans le cuisine," in his scornful phrase, though perhaps "cuisine dans la cinéma" more nearly captures the sense of today's Food Network reality). Good was, for him (and soon became, for her) honest food, "généroux."

Those pronouncements plainly echo in Rodgers's mind today when she reminds us that cooking – necessary and collaborative – "is not an art, but is artisanal." It's a useful reminder in a time when (salt in the wound?) so many people are eager to lay claim to "art" that art's honorable cousin is in constant danger of neglect.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com