Kristina Morando-Stewart remembers fresh, pungent basil plants basking in the sun on the porch of her grandmother’s home in Western Pennsylvania. She’d visit her nonna—Italian for grandmother—every weekend as a kid, traveling down the familiar dirt road to the home where Non, as they affectionately called her, raised four kids.
Non taught her grandchildren how to properly pick the basil—and the leaves and other herbs would fill the kitchen table—as she hunched over, wearing an apron, in the midst of some strange alchemy, fussing, and mixing.
There’s no cooking involved, just a finely tuned blend of fresh herbs and non-iodized table salt.
Even so, Non fiercely guarded the secret recipe of the family salt, passed down over four generations from Morando-Stewart’s great-grandmother, Adelicise, who emigrated from the small Italian town of Finale Emilia in 1914.
“She would never reveal the recipe,” Morando-Stewart says. “It took until she was late in her years.”
After Non passed away, Morando-Stewart kept the recipe alive, filling jars of the spice for relatives at Christmas. When she moved to Raleigh with her husband in 2015, she wondered if the salt could take on a new life. Labels were printed and health inspections were passed, and a year later, Morando-Stewart found herself setting up shop at farmers markets and small pop-up events.
All of the herbs she uses are locally sourced, which necessitates small batches. The salt, in effect, cures the fresh herbs that are mixed in. The result is a powerful punch of flavor in every pinch.
“It’s concentrated because that salt has drawn out all the oils from the fresh herbs and garlic,” Morando-Stewart says. “There’s no additives. The preservatives is the salt.”
Here, I must confess: I am personally obsessed with the stuff. I can’t explain why, but two years ago, I stumbled across Morando-Stewart’s booth during some downtown event as she was handing out samples—just a pinch of salt on a tomato. It blew my mind, drawing out the flavors of the fruit while infusing it with depth from the basil and pepper.
During the pandemic, as my cooking became more experimental, the salt went on my eggs, my toast, in my sauces, and sprinkled on my meat until I found myself scraping the bottom of the jar to get at the final few grains. Inexplicably, it made everything I cooked better.
I’m not alone, Morando-Stewart says. The salt has grown a small following in Raleigh. You can now find it at places like Raleigh Provisions or at bona fide dive bar Johnson Street Yacht Club, where they use Non’s coffee rub to coat the rim of the glass for Bloody Marys.
Morando-Stewart hasn’t just stuck to her Non’s original recipe. She’s been experimenting too, creating batches that awaken the senses with a peppery punch or the soothing fragrance of thyme. Her latest creation, Tenebroso, is a dark and spicy concoction infused with Carolina Reapers that hit the palate with heat that fades into a smokier flavor.
For now, she’s continuing to make small batches like her Non did, about two dozen jars at a time.
“This is not meant to be mass-produced,” she says.
Maybe that’s the secret.
Non’s Sunday Salad
1/8 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 olive oil
3-4 pinches Non’s Original
Kristina: This is a simple favorite that my Noni would prepare for Sunday family dinners. Toss all ingredients in a bowl and let sit 30 minutes at room temperature before eating.
Fresh sourdough bread (toasted and buttered)
Cherry tomatoes (cut
Non’s Pepper Complex
Place the Avocado and tomatoes on toast. Squeeze fresh lemon, drizzle olive oil and finish with a pinch of Non’s Pepper Complex.
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