Monthly Archives: April 2009

Blog Love and Bready Goods

Before I launch into a much-belated and long-awaited blog post, I wanted to give a quick shout out to Marcia (sounds like “Garcia”) Gagliardi, San Francisco’s very own Tablehopper. This online maven and frisco foodie always has the skinny on the best bites and dining deals in town. Her e-column is a weekly crash course on the hottest restaurant news in our corner of the world and by regularly perusing her witty and informative musings, you will impress your friends and become the go-to for recommendations. Why the accoclades? Marcia is not only a great food reporter but an awesome person too and after a short email correspondance, gave your very own Sodium Girl a shout-out on her site. Thank you, Marcia! And for all of you looking to spice up your dining habits…take a second to sign up for her newsletter and change your life forever.

So now onto the sodium 411.  I have a long laundry list of products, spices, and substitutions that makes eating sodium free a virtual cinch. I have been a bit overwhelmed by the process of compiling (and mostly remembering to include) all of these items…so I’ve decided, to be more consistant in my blogging and actually provide information that is immediately useful, to post a new Tip & Trick every Friday and slowly, I will reveal all that is good and magical.

Bread and bready goodies.  Be well warned that your favorite floury treats tend to be high in sodium.  This is not only caused by the actual salt included in most recipes but is also a result of the baking soda (which contains between 100-200 mg of sodium per serving and is commonly known as “sodium bicarbonate”…um, woops!) and baking powder (which also contains between 100-200). Until your favorite bagel shop, cookie spot, and pizza joint start making their goodies without baking powder or baking soda (Noe Valley Bakery, care to give it a shot?), you’ll have to bring the bakery to your own kitchen.

But this is easier than it sounds.  First, you can always substitute yeast for our two baking culprits – this live ingredient acts as an equally effective leavening agent, producing bubbles in your wet ingredients that expand the mixture.  Yeast works very well for pizza and breadmaking.  Be warned though, it can produce a somewhat fermented taste (think beer). So for sweeter recipes, the best solution is NO SODIUM baking powder and baking soda. What? This exists? Yeah. it does. And while it used to only exist online, I have actually seen it sold in Whole Foods – which, by the by, apparently publishes awesome dietary-need-based grocery lists for their stores. The two products I use are Hain Pure Foods Sodium Free Baking Powder and Ener-G Calcium Cabonate.  And to really blow your mind, they are also gluten free.

Now, let’s say you want to make a sandwich or a Toas-Tite and making your own bread sounds too laborious. Lucky news, sodium free bread can be easily found in most grocery stores. Food For Life’s Ezekial 4:9 low-sodium sprouted grain bread (which has no sodium in it and is truly godly) is my go-to. And since I know for a fact that I do not hold all the sodium-free answers, check out this neat-o skeat-o website for an expansive list of no and low-sodium bread products and their sodium/serving amounts.

I’m pretty excited about some no-sodium salsas I just discovered on this site! Mexican pizza anyone?

Thanks to signalite1 for an anwesome flickr photo of a delicious baked goodies!

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Contigo Mi Amigo

Contigo (“with you”) may be one of my favorite Spanish phrases, and after visiting its Noe Valley location, it may be one of my top San Francisco go-to’s as well. The official name, Conitgo Kitchen + Cava, sums up the whole experience of dining in this adorable, bright, and homey eatery. It may be a bit pricey, but its fresh ingredients and incredibly attentive and understanding staff makes this restaurant a must for people with dietary needs.

Even though we intended to stop in for a glass of wine (and they have a gorgeous list of reds, whites, rose, and cava) we couldn’t help but stay for a few small tapas. A beautiful wood counter top, with a sushi-bar view of the entire kitchen, greets you as you enter. If a restaurant has seating near an open kitchen, I want to be as close as possible. There is nothing like watching culinary genius in action.

The only thing separating customer from chef are bowls of sliced stalks of asparagus, prepped jamon and queso sandwiches (called a “bikini”), bundles of green garlic, and other fresh-from the garden goodies. And speaking of garden, the restaurant boasts a feeling of green – both in color and practice – and they have their very own vegetables growing in the back.  The display of fresh ingredients is the best sign that a restaurant will be able to accommodate dietary requests and I felt incredibly confident that I would find something on the menu to satisfy my appetite.  Other counter-view delights included: a wood-fire stove and an incredibly large, red meat slicer – cured meat slicing action! Can’t eat it, but fun to look at.

While ordering, two waiters and the hostess come over to discuss my dietary restrictions and they all assured me that they could accommodate health needs and flavor desires.

Several menu items were easily transformed into sodium-free options:

the little gem salad
asparagus with sieved egg

beets with clementines

snap peas and garlic chips
chard and beet greens

Steelhead with leeks

I know this is going to be a restaurant that I can cultivate for the long term and am excited to return and try more of the delicious tapas. Contigo promises loads of Spanish flavor and no-sodium goodness.

Picture care of: In Praise of Sardines

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Eating Out

Dining out is a majorly attractive activity for several reasons: it relieves you from cooking your own dinner (you do all the eating, they do all the cooking and cleaning), you experiment and experience new foods and new flavors (tuna heart? sure, why not), and generally, you get to enjoy the whole evening amongst friends.

I am happy to say, that even with strict dietary needs, eating out is not out of the question. But it does require some pre-planning as well as willingness to be quite forward with your needs. There are some simple steps to take that will ensure an entirely delightful and delicious meal that is sodium-safe. Remember, though, that as a diner with such particular needs you are entering a serious tree of trust with the restaurant and chef: you trust them to prepare food that meets your health requirements and they trust that you are not just a picky eater. And a part of building that trust is also building customer loyalty. If you have been served well, you will most likely return. And the more you return, the more creative and comfortable chef’s become with creating altered variations of their standard menu items. So follow the tips bellow and go enjoy the many delicacies that your city has to offer.

PRE-GAME

Choosing the right restaurant

Fast food joints or grab-and-go spots will most likely be unable to meet your dietary needs – food is usually pre-marinated or pre-seasoned and the likelihood of fresh, unprepared items is low. Instead, look for places that make the plates to-order. If a restaurant boasts local and organic ingredients, even better – from my experience, this usually means they have a lot of fresh product on hand and can whip something up from the kitchen cupboard.

Sodium S.O.S.

The best way to guarantee sodium-free menu options is to call ahead. I usually try to call the morning before my reservation (if it is at night) but it is even more helpful to the restaurant to call the day before. This way, you can ask the kitchen to set aside a piece of meat or fish and veggies without any marinade or seasoning.

Travelling tips

Vacationing (especially outside of the US) can be a daunting experience if you have dietary needs. But in all likelihood you will have made reservations ay hotels or restaurants before you leave and you can send ample warning to these kitchens before you arrive. Send the hostess or concierge a list of your dietary needs, talk to the chef before you go, or if there is a language barrier, have hotel staff translate for you. It takes a little prep work, but taking the time to make these calls ensures some good eating in foreign lands.

GAME TIME

Taking orders and taking it seriously

The best way to explain your needs to a waiter or waitress is to be as honest and open as possible. I start every order by saying,

“I have strict dietary needs. My kidneys failed five years ago and I cannot have any sodium in my diet.”

This usually makes their ears perk up and I know I have their full attention. Just saying, “I can’t have salt,” doesn’t ignite the same amount of gravity nor does it end in a successful, sodium-free meal. Admittedly, this kind of candor can be a little intimidating, especially when dining with a group of people, new friends, or while on a first date. But…get over it. Because if you are kind, grateful, and engaging, chances are you will (A) receive a great meal and (B) be remembered by the waitstaff.

Standing out is not a bad thing. I have formed many great relationships with San Francisco restaurants that I am no longer a nameless customer. Chefs and waitstaff know me and when frequeting these familiar spots, eating out and eating sodium free becomes less and less of a hassle. So own it and be frank with your needs – it will end up benefiting you in countless ways.

The List

Here is what I cannot have – and of course your needs may vary, but this is a good place to start:

no salt * no salted butter * nothing pre-seasoned or pre-marinated * no shellfish * no pre-made broth or sauces with salt * no vegetables that have been blanched or boiled in salt water * no soy or Teriyaki * nothing pickled, smoked, or braised * no pre-canned, pre-packaged veggies * no dairy or cheese

Here is what I can have – and this is equally important to list as it gives the chef more creative license and you will end up being served a more flavorful meal:

meat: beef, poultry, fish, oysters (from the pacific only!), and clams

for flavor: olive oil, most vinegars, citrus, garlic, onions, fresh herbs, reduction sauces, wine, sweet butter, and cream

all fresh veggies

all grains (rice and pasta) that are cooked salt-free water

POST-GAME REVIEW

Send your thanks

Whether you walk over to the kitchen or write a hand-written note, giving some thanks never hurts. Chances are, a busy kitchen went out of its way to meet your needs. A smile goes a long way and those simple words makes a restaurant want to serve you again.

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San Fran Favorites

So this blog will be divided into three main sections that cover: finding salt-less goodies, making salt-less goodies, and eating at restaurants that provide salt-less goodies.

Posts titled “Good Eats” will be reviews (raves mostly) of those dining establishments that have gone out of their way to produce safe and delicious, sodium-free meals for me. Much to my surprise, eating out has not been as much of a hassle/challenge as I had expected it to be. There are definitely some steps to take that make it much easier (see the next Tips & Tricks post) but I do want to give one big shout-out to all those chefs and waiters who have enabled me to enjoy the many delicious eats in this town – SAN FRANCISCO, I love you.

So here are some of my absolute favorite spots that have been consistent and generous with their cooking skills:

Maverick: Without a doubt, this is my number one – great ambiance, amazing wait staff, inventive dishes, well priced, and an extraordinary wine list. I have dined here about 7 or 8 times and every time, I am served something flavorful and satisfying. The first time I went, they made me seared duck and special, salt-free gnocchi. Hand rolled potato dumplings are definitely the way to my heart – and a sizzling piece of duck fat on the side doesn’t hurt either. The attention to detail and casual atmosphere make this an ideal spot for any occasion. Plus, their wait staff is small and friendly and you really feel like you are eating amongst friends.

Delfina: Not really breaking news here, but Delfina consistently serves up hot, steamy plates of pure deliciousness. And without fail, they have accommodated my dietary needs. I do have to admit, I always end up having the steak here (it is the only item on the menu that I can eat), but every time I have it, the chefs at Delfina have some new trick up their sleeves/aprons to make it special (red wine reduction, slivers of garlic, thickened pan juices, savory olive oil, or scoopings of BONE MARROW!) I have often thought about what my last meal on earth would be – and Delfina’s superb execution of a good steak definitely puts this fine piece of meat in my top five.

Spork: When I can just walk into a restaurant – no pre-planning, no day-before phone calls – and get served a sodium-free, flavor-full dinner, I am impressed and forever grateful. Spork is just that place. I have been there 4 times now – and three of these experiences were extraordinary. There was one miss (time number three) when the meal was most definitely drenched in salt – but I have to admit, I was with a big party, had not called ahead, and had a rather new server. So luckily, I decided to try out this spot one more time, and I was once again overwhelmed and delighted by the great service and great food. I generally order the fish, and like Delfina, the chefs at Spork have continuously shown their creativity with new sauces (like fennel sautéed in lemon and garlic) and sides (olive oil roasted cauliflower) that make a plain piece of fish pop.

Sauce: The name of this restaurant kept me from exploring its premises for at least a year. After glancing it its menu though, I realized that it was a dining possibility. When I called the afternoon before my reservation, I was immediately transferred to speak directly with the chef (who also came by the table as soon as I arrived). I had had my eye on the spectacular sounding mushroom fries but didn’t think it was a possibility. When I asked coyly if this fried delight could be re-imagined for me – the chef whispered those magic words (“of course”) and whipped up my very own basket of mushroom fries with a home-made, spicy mayo sauce on the side. It was a busy night, a big group of girls, and the staff at Sauce still went above and beyond the call of duty. Mushroom fries…I’ll be back.

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Paneer is Here

While at the amazing foodie wonderland that is the Berkeley Bowl (or the “Nerkeley Bowl” as some may call it) I discovered a new addition to my sodium-free arsenal:

PANEER

This delicious cheese is popular in South Asian and Persian cuisine – it is sturdy and can be grilled and fried and stays firm in a variety of delicious sauces. Although it is referred to sometimes as an “Indian cottage cheese,” I think it tastes is much more like mozzarella (and goes well with a spectrum of flavors from spicey curry to a traditional tomato sauce). It is completely vegetarian, can be served hot, cold, in a salad, on rice, or just snakced upon on its own – its versatile, available in stores, and you can easily make it at home! All you need is whole milk, acid (lemon juice or vinegar), a cheese cloth, and this simple wiki how article.

Last night, I attempted a hybrid version of Paneer Masala and Kadai Paneer (I think…)

I have to apologize as I really do not use any sort of measurements when I cook (must be something I picked up from my grandmother), but here is a rather ad-hoc recipe from the dish I made last night and continue to eat well into the next day:

Step 1: Heat about 2 tbsp of sesame oil in a frying pan (medium-high heat).

Step 2: Cube paneer (for two people with big tummies, I had about 15-20 cubes) and when oil is ready (flick some drops of water in the oil, if it “spits” it is ready) throw in paneer. Be careful to move around with spatula so cheese does not stick to pan. After about 2-3min, flip over to other side. After 2-3 more min, take out paneer and put aside in another bowl

Step 3: Wash a bunch of spinach (2-3 fistfulls) and cut off stems. Roughly chop 6 cloves of garlic and dice half a medium size yellow onion. Open a can of salt-free tomatoes or roughly dice six medium sized red guys.

Step 4: Turn heat back on to frying pan with sesame oil (medium-high heat). When oil is ready again, throw in onions and garlic.

 

Step 5: When onions become transparent, put in spinach and tomatoes. Stir and sautee for about 5 minutes. Add some Indian spices to taste (curry, turmeric, cumin, white pepper, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika) and some chopped ginger.

 

Step 6 (optional): For a creamier sauce, transfer spinach/tomato/garlic/onion mixture to a separate bowl use an immersion blender (or regular blender if you’re old school) to puree mixture. No need to make it completely smooth, blend until your desired texture is achieved. Put sauce back into frying pan and add about 3 tbsp of cream.

 

Step 7: Continue on medium-low heat and add back paneer cubes.

 

Step 8: Right before serving, for extra texture and color, dice one large pepper (red, green, yellow, or orange) and put into the peener/sauce pan.

 

Step 9: Serve paneer over a steaming bowl of white rice and garnish with parsley if desired.

 

*after-thought additions: As discussed last night with fellow test-eater, this simple dish would be extraordinary with some roasted eggplant, peas, and cubes lamb as well…

 

Get er done!

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