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Salt of the Earth

It can be black as coal or red as roe, redolent of sea air and pungent with herbs.

Increasingly popular in the home kitchen, specialty salt bears little resemblance to the acrid, washed-out mineral often abhorred by the health-conscious.

"They add different dimensions of flavor to the food," said Sandy Dowling, chef and owner of The Willows Cooking School in Central Point.

Sea salt has been a staple of European cuisine for centuries but has surfaced in American kitchens just within the past couple of decades, Dowling said. Locally, high-quality salt has been available in stores only for a few years, she added.

Now faced with dozens of specialty salt choices, local cooks started asking Dowling for some explanation and instruction of salts' various uses. Inspired, in part, by "Salt: A World History," by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin, 2003), Dowling scheduled a class for May 9. But not without reassuring prospective participants that the controlled use of salt can be part of a wholesome diet.

"People panic when you do a class on salt," Dowling said.

Natural sea salts, which contain trace amounts of vital minerals, are thought in some culinary circles to be healthier than granulated table salt, said Constance Jesser, owner of Jacksonville Mercantile. Jesser's gourmet food emporium on Jacksonville's East California Street stocks about two-dozen varieties of specialty salt.

"If you have something of a higher quality ... you're not overindulging," Jesser said.

Sea salt can be added to a dish in much smaller quantities than table salt to achieve the desired flavor, Dowling said. Not just a seasoning, salt also preserves food and seals in moisture, Dowling said, referring to the practice of coating an entire piece of meat or fish in salt.

"That fish does not taste salty," Dowling said.

Food prepared with kosher salt — as opposed to the granulated type — also tastes less salty because the larger crystal takes longer to break down, Dowling said. Chefs today tend to favor kosher salt, also preferred for its anti-caking properties, she added.

But Dowling, a French-trained chef has her own personal bias.

"If you're cooking French food, don't use anything but French salt," she said.

"The French always say 'sel de mer.'"

Dowling's kitchen contains several sea-salt varieties: "gros sel marin" (large-grained sea salt), finer salt packaged under the name Baleine and one of the world's finest sea salts — both in texture and quality — "fleur de sel," which typically costs between $10 and $20 per pound.

Cooks can expect to pay top dollar for other sea salts, too. The most expensive in Jesser's store is the black or red Hawaiian sea salts, which are priced at $29.50 for 12 ounces. On the lower end, $5 or $10 will buy several ounces of specialty salt, well worth the price if used sparingly, Jesser said.

"You'll have this for quite a while."

RECIPE: Fleur de Sel Caramels

2 cups heavy cream

10.5 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60 percent cacao), finely chopped

13/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1/4 teaspoon table salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

2 teaspoons best-quality French sea salt

Vegetable oil, for greasing pan

Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch, straight-sided, square metal baking pan with 2 long sheets of crisscrossed parchment.

In a quart-sized, heavy saucepan, bring the cream just to a boil over moderately high heat. Reduce heat to low and add the chocolate. Let stand 1 minute, then stir until chocolate is completely melted. Remove from heat.

In a 5- to 6-quart, heavy pot, bring the sugar, corn syrup, table salt and 1/4 cup water to a boil over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until sugar is deep golden, about 10 minutes. Tilt pan and carefully pour in chocolate mixture (mixture will bubble and steam vigorously). Continue to boil over moderate heat about 15 minutes, stirring frequently until mixture registers 255 F on a candy thermometer. Add the butter, stirring until completely melted, then immediately pour into lined baking pan. (Do not scrape any caramel clinging to bottom or side of saucepan.)

Let caramel stand 10 minutes, then sprinkle top with the sea salt, adding more if necessary. Cool completely in pan on a rack, about 2 hours.

Carefully invert caramel onto a clean, dry cutting board, then peel off parchment. Turn caramel salt-side up. Lightly oil the blade of a heavy knife and cut into 1-inch squares. Place on a wire rack to let caramels cool completely.

Remove caramels from wire rack and store, refrigerated, between sheets of waxed paper for up to 2 weeks.

Makes about 64 candies.

Recipe courtesy of Sandy Dowling, chef and owner of The Willows Cooking School.