Salt and pepper are vital for enhancing and helping to create flavours in our food

* Salt and pepper squid
* Black pepper chicken
* Peanut butter sea-salt biscuits with dark chocolate chips
* Salted caramels

Salt and pepper are served on our dinner tables so often that we hardly notice them, yet they are vital for enhancing and helping to create flavours in our food.

Salt instantly can be tasted on our tongue, the feeling it creates in the mouth enhances other flavours that it is paired with, we need this salt in our bodies to survive.

It was once such a precious commodity that it was used as a currency and it became key in helping to develop international trade. 

Salt was also used in rituals, magic spells and religious ceremonies and even used to help preserve mummies in ancient Egypt. 

Salt and pepper are vital for enhancing and helping to create flavours in our food

We use salt for preserving less dramatic things these days such as capers and courgettes. 

When used in preserves salt inhibits the growth of moulds and bacteria by pulling the moisture from the organisms and stopping their ability to reproduce.

I believe in eating as close to nature as possible so I chose sea salt over processed table salt, which very often has anti-caking agents added. 

Roman soldiers were paid in sea salt, or ‘sale’ in Italian, which is the origin of the modern English word for salary.

Black pepper is presently the world’s most traded spice and has taken a longer path to our table. 

It was the royal chefs in the court of Louis XIV that elevated black pepper to its current status. 

The king was said to be a particular eater and preferred his food as lightly seasoned as possible, he chose the lighter black pepper over chillies, it provided just enough kick for the king’s meals.

Salt and pepper are vital for enhancing and helping to create flavours in our food

These peppercorns, which are the fruit of a flowering vine were likely imported from the Middle East. 

Black pepper is the cooked and dried unripe fruit, where as green pepper is the dried unripe fruit and white pepper comes from the ripe fruit seeds.

The chicken recipe included here is one I adapted from Ottolenghi who has a variety of cook books available. He used tofu in the original recipe but I like it with chicken. 

I have also made the same sauce for darns of salmon. Like many of his sauces it packs a punch.

I enjoy combining sweet and salty flavours and experiment with the combinations in baking. 

The two recipes here are for when you want to treat yourself. 

You will need a sugar thermometer to make the caramel and be careful — it is very hot when molten.


Salt and pepper squid

Salt and pepper are vital for enhancing and helping to create flavours in our food

  • Rice for four
  • 600g of squid, cleaned and sliced by your fish monger
  • 4 tbs of flour
  • 2 tbs of cornflour
  • 4 tsp of sea salt
  • 4 tsp of cracked black pepper
  • ½ tsp of mild chilli powder
  • Zest of 2 lemons and 1 sliced into wedges for serving
  • Oil for frying

This amount makes a starter for four people.

Put the rice on to boil in lightly salted water and drain when cooked.

Score the inside lightly in a criss-cross pattern.

Crush together the peppercorns, chili and sea salt with a pestle and mortar then mix with the flours and lemon zest. 

Toss your squid in the mixture until it is completely covered.

Heat a pan with oil until it is quite hot. Lower your coated squid into the oil and leave until they turn golden. 

This should take a matter of minutes. Shake off the excess oil or drain the pieces of squid on paper towel.

Squeeze some lemon over the squid and it is ready for eating. It will go soggy if left too long so make it just before eating.

Serve with which ever dipping sauce you wish a chili sauce works well or a lightly flavoured aioli.

Black pepper chicken

Salt and pepper are vital for enhancing and helping to create flavours in our food

  • rice for four
  • 800g of chicken, I use legs on the bone
  • a dash of rapeseed oil
  • 50g of butter
  • 8 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 3 red chillis, thinly sliced
  • 10 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • a thumb size piece of ginger, finely chopped
  • 4 tbs of light soya sauce
  • 2 tbs of dark soya sauce
  • 2 tbs of honey
  • 5 tbs of crushed black peppercorns
  • 4 spring onions, sliced

Put the rice on to boil and drain when cooked.

Brown the chicken in a large pan and set aside in an oven proof dish to cool.

In the meantime heat the oil and butter in the same pan and saute the shallots, chillies, garlic and ginger until the shallots are completely soft.

Add both soya sauces, the honey and the cracked pepper.

Spoon half of the sauce over the cooking chicken and allow it to bake in the oven until cooked through.

Serve with the rice and the rest of the sauce spooned over.

Sprinkle with the spring onions.


Peanut butter sea-salt biscuits with dark chocolate chips

Salt and pepper are vital for enhancing and helping to create flavours in our food

  • 110g of butter
  • 110g of peanut butter
  • 100g of caster sugar
  • 100g of brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp of ground ginger
  • 110g of flour
  • 2 level tsp of baking powder
  • 50g of dark chocolate chips
  • a few generous pinches of sea salt

Cover a baking tray with parchment and preheat your oven to 180 degrees.

Beat the butter, peanut butter, and both sugars until combined.

Slowly beat in the egg.

Sift the dry ingredients and beat them in as well. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Roll the dough into balls the size of a walnut and place apart on lined baking tray.

Press each one with a fork and sprinkle with some sea-salt.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until golden.

Salted caramels

Salt and pepper are vital for enhancing and helping to create flavours in our food

  • 300g of sugar
  • 30 mls of water
  • 90 mls of cream
  • 75g of butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 tsp of sea salt

Prepare a square dish by lining it with baking parchment. 

Bring your sugar, and water to the boil, stirring just until the sugar is dissolved. 

Then continue boiling without stirring until the mixture is a light golden colour, use a sugar thermometer until it reaches 121 degrees. 

Don’t worry how long this takes, the important thing is that it reaches 121 degrees and is a light golden caramel color.

When this happens, carefully stir in the butter and cream. The caramel will bubble up, so be careful.

 Stir constantly and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 118 degrees.

Whatever you do do not be tempted to lick the bowl, it is extremely hot! Watch out for splatters, long-sleeve clothes and oven gloves will help protect you.

Pour into the prepared baking dish and let cool for at least two hours. 

Sprinkle the top of the caramels with a generous amount of sea salt. 

When the mixture has set, cut it into bite-size pieces.


Ciara McDonnell talks to four high-profile people about their festive traditions and favourite tracksHere's what has these famous faces rockin’ around the Christmas tree

More From The Irish Examiner