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Originally published Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 7:03 PM

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Taste

Cooking with salt blocks and bowls is hot — and cold

Mark Bitterman's love affair with salt began at age 20 during a motorcycle trip through Europe. When he tasted a simply grilled steak sprinkled with sea salt at a bistro outside of Paris, he diverted his journey to the Brittany coast to find the family that had been harvesting the salt for generations.

quotes Cool story. I think I'm going to get a bowl for myself now. Read more
quotes You can melt salt in a Solar Smelter and make very very interesting shapes. Few people... Read more
quotes Very interesting thesunman. Thanks for letting me know. Read more

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AS I PULL the Himalayan pink salt bowl from its wrappings, I'm struck by the sheer weight of the thing. Cool to the touch like marble, it reminds me of a rose-quartz mortar.

Just to be sure, I lick my finger, swipe and taste. Definitely salt. Still, I'm undecided about whether to cook in this beauteous bowl or put it on a pedestal and admire it.

I've ordered the vessel, sculpted from blocks of 500-million-year-old Himalayan salt, in order to prepare chocolate fondue, a recipe found in "Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes" (Ten Speed Press, $35), by Portland resident, shop owner, teacher and "selmelier" Mark Bitterman.

Note the "er" in his last name, and don't confuse him with Mark Bittman, the Minimalist of New York Times fame. Our Mark, along with wife Jennifer Turner Bitterman, founded The Meadow, an atmospheric salt/chocolate/wine/flower/specialty-food shop in north Portland's historic Mississippi District in the summer of 2006. It proved so popular, the couple opened a sister store in Manhattan's West Village last November, just in time for the holiday shopping season.

Bitterman's love affair with salt began at age 20 during a motorcycle trip through Europe. When he tasted a simply grilled steak sprinkled with sea salt at a bistro outside of Paris, he diverted his journey to the Brittany coast to find the family that had been harvesting the salt for generations.

I first met Bitterman last spring in Portland at the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) annual conference, where he hosted a Himalayan-salt-themed dinner.

Demo-ing al fresco for 60 food professionals, with torrential rain and winds whipping up the flaps of the big white tent, Bitterman and two intrepid cookbook author/chef friends cooked a multicourse meal atop long pink salt blocks glowing-hot over gas grills, everything from fiddlehead ferns to sea scallops to fried quail eggs.

I couldn't wait to get my hands on "Salted, A Manifesto," which won a prestigious James Beard Foundation award for 2010 and is now up for two IACP awards.

Bitterman's hefty tome is not only a "manifesto," it's a revelation. Its 340 pages include a field guide to 80 varieties of artisan salt and a quick-reference guide to more than 150 salts (all descriptions include photos), 55 recipes accompanied by food-porn-worthy photos and much, much more.

In the Cooking on Salt Blocks chapter, Bitterman says, "Thick slabs of Himalayan salt can be heated on the stove to temperatures in excess of 600 degrees to sear sea scallops, flank steak or duck breast. At the other temperature extreme, you can freeze the block to zero and whip up a lightly salted frozen custard on it."

The presence or absence of fat is another consideration when cooking over salt. In Bitterman's fondue recipe, the chocolate melts slowly (therefore safely, with no fears of scorching) in the bowl, without actually interacting with the saline surface (since salt isn't fat-soluble). Not until heavy cream is added does the subtly salty flavor blossom, like dark-chocolate sea-salt caramels, but in lusciously liquid form.

My bowl morphed after its first use, cracking and groaning through the initial heating process, then taking on a smooth, glazed look in the depths where the fondue had languished.

You can also serve cooked rice in a salt bowl, wipe its interior lightly with olive oil for guacamole or use it as tableware (for serving dry items only).

While some might quibble about the salt bowl's $46 price tag, you may get "from three to 300 uses, depending on what you do with it, how you do it, luck, et cetera," according to Bitterman. "Salt is a complicated, wily, unpredictable substance. That's what gives it much of its charm."

Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author, food and wine columnist and blogger. Visit her online at www.WithBraiden.com.

Himalayan Salt Bowl Chocolate Fondue

Serves 4

1/3 cup heavy cream

1 heavy bowl of Himalayan pink salt (pint or quart capacity)

1 dash old-fashioned bitters

2 cups dark chocolate chips (60 percent cacao or darker is preferable), divided

2 bananas

24 strawberries, washed and greens trimmed

1. Remove the cream from the refrigerator so it loses its chill.

2. Place the salt bowl on a stove burner over low heat and allow to warm for 30 minutes. (For first-time use, see the Cook's Hint, below.)

3. When the salt bowl is warm, about 125 degrees, add the cream and heat until just warm to the touch, about 3 minutes. Add the bitters and stir in 1 cup of the chocolate chips. When the chocolate is mostly melted, add in the remaining chocolate and stir until completely melted.

4. While the chocolate is melting, peel the bananas and slice into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Arrange the strawberries and bananas on a serving plate.

5. With oven mitts, remove the salt bowl from the heat and place on a trivet. Serve the fruit with long skewers for dipping into the chocolate.

6. To clean the salt bowl, allow to cool, moisten and scrub with a nondetergent scrub pad, rinse under cold water and pat dry with a clean cloth or paper towels.

— from "Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral"

Cook's hint: Before the first use, for gas ranges, preheat the bowl over low flame for 5 minutes (7 to 8 minutes for electric). Turn off the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Turn the heat back on low and heat for 10 minutes, then proceed with the recipe. If using an electric range, place a metal spacer (such as a wok ring or pastry tin with a removable bottom) on the stove so the bowl is at least 1/2 inch above and sits outside (not touching) the heating element.

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