There’s a beautifully vague term found frequently in recipes: “Add salt to taste.” Or perhaps, “Salt and pepper to taste.” Usually hidden at the end of a recipe like an unwelcome guest, these tiny words go against the grain of everything that a recipe is — suggesting freedom, not followership, discernment, not exactitude, you, not them. But who could deny its importance to cooking?
Recently, I dined out in New Jersey for my father’s birthday. My family had chosen a new restaurant whose forte was simple yet elegant North Italian fare. So curious/nervous/excited I was about eating out, I barely ate lunch that day. While crossing the Hudson River on the train, I could hear my stomach growl, eagerly awaiting what surprises it might soon be filled with. When we arrived at the restaurant and took our table, everything was just as proper as I had expected. The waitress took our wine to be chilled (it was BYOB), the dishes on the menu sounded succulent. There were Venetian carnival masks on the walls, and the tables were dressed with understated polish. Everything was just right — the service, the meal. Except: It was just a tad too salty.
I first detected this in their fresh tomato bruschetta. But this could happen easily, I shrugged — you let the tomatoes sit for a while, saturating in seasoning, and it’s another league of saltiness in no time. Then my main course arrived, sea scallops in a thin white wine sauce with chopped tender asparagus and tomatoes. I sopped up a bit of the pale golden sauce with a stub of asparagus. I continued to the scallops, which were seared lightly and salted… heavily. There was no mistaking it now. It wasn’t horribly salty, mind you. It certainly wasn’t enough reason to send the dish back to the chef (though I doubt I would ever dare do this in my life). It was just this little nagging, annoying thing, though I still liked the dish enough to finish every bite.
Incidentally I also finished my ice water — twice. I’ve always thought my palate to have a high tolerance towards salt and spice — I’ll take salty over sweet any day. But for those with extra-sensitive palates, something like this could make or break a meal, rather than merely annoy it. And what to do if the dish isn’t salty enough? If it’s bland? Salt shakers on dinner tables are rare at any restaurant slightly more elegant than a diner, and at upscale establishments, it’s almost a crime to ask for one.
I can kind of see why, now, Gordon Ramsay hollered the way he did at the contestants of Hell’s Kitchen when it came to seasoning. As I rode the train back to New York that night — and, consequently, to not eating out — I wished I’d taken just one more sip of water. The dryness in my mouth intensified with each chug of the car. It wasn’t the spectacular quality of the food, but its minor imperfection that had managed to last well after the meal was finished.