Bayberry Salt

Flavored salts are an excellent way to make use of some of the wild spices that are available to intrepid gatherers. Various fruits, cones, nuts, mushrooms and leaves can be used, anything that can be dehydrated and combined with salt. This often helps preserve more unstable wild spices, and prolongs the life of their flavor beyond the season of their emergence. A good example of this would be hemlock salt, in which the green cones of Eastern Hemlock are combined with salt to preserve the unique, robust, citrus-y flavor they possess in their green state.

Bayberry leaves are available almost year-round, so preserving them isn’t at a premium. The leaves do tend to grow dark and unappealing in winter, although they may linger on late in warm winters or coastal locations (see photo below). The leaves of Myrica pensylvanica and other Myrica species are often mentioned in field guides and foraging books as a substitute for bay leaves (i.e. the Laurel Bay, Laurus nobilis). While this is certainly an option, I’m not a huge fan of “substitution” as a principle for utilizing wild food. I would prefer to exploit the flavors of the ingredient itself and craft recipes that reflect that flavor.

To my taste buds, Myrica leaves have a more complex and “bright” flavor than Laurel bay, with a less pronounced potency. In other words, if you’re substituting for Laurel leaf in a recipe, double up the amount of Myrica leaves used. If you are just enjoying them on their own merits, the following seasoning salt is a far more effective method. This is one of my go-to salts, perhaps the go-to salt, although juniper, black trumpet, roasted tomato and hemlock salts all get an enthusiastic nod for adding to dishes in lieu of ordinary sea or kosher salt. But bayberry leaf salt seems to be the crown prince of them all, serving as a final sprinkle to dishes instead of salt and pepper, but also being used in recipes themselves. In spring I roast whole chickens sprinkled with bayberry salt, after slipping pushki leaves under the skin. In the fall, grilled mushrooms and onions explode with flavor given a simple dusting of the stuff. You get the picture.

Grind together in a food processor :

6 cups bayberry leaves, dried

1 cup salt, preferably sea salt

Store in a well-sealed glass jar at room temperature. Lasts at least one year.

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Some Northern Bayberry still clinging on in a coastal location in January.

Tuong ot toi (Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce)

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Combine in a food processor :

24 oz cherry bomb or fresno chile peppers, or other medium-hot to hot red chiles, destemmed but not deseeded and cut into quarters, halves or chunks as appropriate

1 head garlic, crushed and peeled

a pinch or two of salt

Pulse until chopped into smaller fragments, stopping to scrape and redistribute if necessary.

Add :

2, 4 or 6 tbs sugar (see note)

1/4 or 1/2 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar (see note)

Process until chile and garlic and finely enough diced. Place in medium to large saucepan over medium heat.

Bring to a simmer and cook at a low simmer until the liquid has mostly evaporated.

Allow to cool, then refrigerate and serve with EVERYTHING.

Note on proportions :

It’s best to play with the proportions of this recipe to suit you or your fellow diners taste. In particular sugar and vinegar should be tweaked : 6 tbs sugar makes something close to what is purchased in asian markets as shelf-stable tuong ot toi, 2 tbs is more like what would be served on the table at a restaurant. The larger amount of vinegar will make it take longer to cook and reduce but easier to process everything initially. And naturally it will make it more sour. I usually use 2 or 4 tbs of sugar and 1/2 cup of vinegar.

Ideally, you should play with all the other proportions as well, and even what kind and color of chiles to use, to suit yourself and your diners, and the dictates of the moment. I often replace 4 oz or so of the red chiles with green chiles, it ruins the impressive red majesty of the original, but it reminds me of when I used to buy it in the Asian market, where there is usually a bit of green since the peppers are pulled in big farms and often still have a hint of green. I used to think it was scallions 😐

This is undoubtedly the world’s finest table sauce. There is simply nothing finer in any cuisine that goes so well with so many cuisines and especially with so many simple foods. Raw and cooked vegetables, eggs, noodles, soups, sandwiches (unbelievable on banh mi), salads, tofu, pork, fish, and really pretty much anything is enlivened with a little dab of this. Butter, noodles and a spoonful of this with maybe a little cilantro would probably be my final meal if I had to have one. But I won’t! I will live forever, making millions and millions of batches of tuong ot toi! At least, that’s the plan.

Spiced Daikon Pickle

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Another year-round staple of my kitchen, this is pickled radish inspired by the Vietnamese do chua pickles, served with noodle dishes, salads and banh mi. I specifically made this to pair with my sweet-hot pickled carrots. I was introduced to the combination of pickled carrot and radish threads (sometimes with cucumbers added) in the Vietnamese restaurants and sandwich shops of Houston, and have made some variation on do chua ever since. My love of variety gave me the idea a few years ago to separate the pickles into two different treatments, adding chile and more sugar to the carrots and a mix of savory spices to the radish.

Place in a glass quart jar* :

2 star anise

2 tsp sichuan peppercorns, whole

2 tsp black peppercorns, whole

1 stick of cinnamon or a few pieces of cassia

*You may choose to place these spices in an infusion bag, so that the flavors get into the pickle without having whole spices scattered amongst the pickle. You may also simply leave them in, and enjoy the intense flavor of crunching into whole spices. I like both, and will vary according to my mood or what I plan to serve this with.

Slice into shreds / julienne with a mandoline or knife :

1 lb. daikon radish or other large asian radish

Heat in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar and salt are dissolved :

2 cups white vinegar, brewing vinegar or other mild vinegar

3 slices of ginger, about 1-2″ inches long and wide

2 tbs sugar

1 tsp salt

Place the shredded radish into the quart jar with the spices, then pour in the seasoned vinegar while it is still hot.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.

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This is another fairly straightforward quick pickle, once which will be ready to eat once it cools, slightly more flavorful after 24 hours, and which will develop in flavor over time and last at least a month or two.

It does, however, come with a warning. Pickled radish has a very strong odor. When I serve this pickle for a buffet of noodles or banh mi, or any other occasion, I always make sure to open the jar a couple of hours before the guests arrive. Another option is to place a serving of the pickle in a small bowl and return it to the fridge, uncovered, which will keep the pickle cool and let it air out. Once you make this pickle, you will quickly understand how important a step this can be. It doesn’t bother me much, but for some the smell will permeate the pickle board and inhibit their appetites. None of the odor really permeates the flavor of the dish, which is spicy and mildly sweet.

Excellent served with sandwiches, salads, noodle bowls and so on, either as a component of the dish or an optional garnish. Because of the complex, savory spices used this pickle doesn’t necessarily register as specifically “asian” in flavor and can be used to accompany a wide variety of dishes and cuisines. An especially enjoyable use of them that might not be readily obvious is to pair them with hard cheeses such as gruyere, cheddar or gouda. They also make an excellent foil for sweet or spicy cold meats and sausages.

Fermented Sriracha (Tuong Ot Sriracha)

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Making a homemade version of the popular sriracha hot sauce couldn’t be any easier : a simple fermented version can be made that is far more flavorful than any commercially available one. You could also make this sauce fresh, simply omitting the fermentation stage, but I think you will find that the extra time really adds a strong depth of flavor not present in the fresh version. For such a simple preparation, this sauce has a zesty, complex taste that far outstrips the somewhat one-note heat of Huy Fong and other store-bought brands.

I like to make two versions of this sauce : one red, one green. They have quite different characteristics from each other, the red one possessing a much deeper, more complex heat and the green one a sharp, fresh heat. Neither is really superior to the other, and both are worth trying. I use the green one more often with salads and raw preparations, the red in soups and hot noodle dishes. Both are outstanding in cold noodle bowls, with the green getting the nod if I am using a lot of raw vegetables and herbs and the red if the majority of accompaniments are pickled or preserved. Fish? Green. Pork? Red. Tofu dishes? Both harmonize quite capably.

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First, you will need to choose appropriate chiles. I would avoid extremely fire-y chiles like Thai bird or habanero chiles, as they tend to be somewhat overpowering in a sriracha. Remember, this sauce is almost entirely chiles with only a smattering of other seasonings. What is wanted here is a deep, resonant, complex heat, not a pain-inducing power sauce. For a green sauce, jalapenos are completely appropriate. With red, look for either fresno chiles (sometimes erroneously called red jalapenos) or hot red cherry peppers. Cherries are my favorite, they have a perfect balance of hot and sweet that shines in both this sauce and the related chile-garlic sauce known as tuong ot toi. In fact, I have grown these chiles in the past couple of years explicitly for the purpose of making these particular sauces. You will want to experiment with this recipe, using the chiles you can grow or buy locally and that suit your particular taste. My only word of advice would be to avoid being overly macho the first time you make this. Use jalapenos or medium-heat red chiles and see how you like it before stepping up the heat.

Roughly chop :

1 lb medium-hot chiles, green or red (but NOT a mix of the two), de-stemmed and NOT de-seeded

.5 oz crushed, peeled garlic (a few cloves)

Combine in a food processor with :

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1.5 oz palm sugar (regular white sugar can be substituted but the taste is inferior as well as less authentic)

Pulse until well-chopped but not liquified.

Place into a glass or plastic container, cover with a towel and allow to sit at room temperature for several days.

When the sauce begins to take on a fermented smell and begins to bubble ever so slightly (you may find this is easier to SMELL and HEAR than SEE), usually about 3 or 4 days (less in hot weather, perhaps more in cold), place in a saucepan with :

1/3 cup vinegar (I use Korean brewing vinegar for this, but white vinegar is also good. Seasoned rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar CAN be used but they impart more sweetness to the finished product.)

Bring to a low simmer and cook for five minutes or so.

Puree in a blender or food processor. If the mixture seems to thick add a spoonful or two of water, but be conservative.

Strain through a wire mesh sieve into a squeeze bottle or jar.

Use with, on and in everything.

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N.B. : You may find that you have quite a lot of seeds and pulp that will not fit through the strainer. I strongly encourage you to make a fermented salsa or sambal from this remainder, you will not find that it lacks heat or flavor.