Monthly Archives: November 2009

Get Stuffed

My tummy is rumbling in anticipation of my favorite day of the year…THANKSGIVING! And don’t be fooled, just because you are limiting your sodium intake this festive season, you do not have to miss out on any of the rich earthy flavors that make this holiday so memorable.

I was reminded again last night, as I was cooking dinner for a group of 8 stranger – Moroccan stew, couscous, and a cauliflower salad with apple and fig chutney – that it is easy to build rich flavors without salt.  The limitation of your ingredients will force you to become a more creative cook, dazzling your guests with spices and pairings they do not expect. The element of surprise will add exponential enjoyment to your sodium free meals.

This Thanksgiving, whether you are attempting a single sodium free side dish or gunning for a full blown, sodium free dinner, I challenge you to think not of what you can’t eat, but of what you can.  Can’t have cheese on your mashed potatoes? Make them silky with cream or mascarpone and add a kick of flavor with roasted fennel, browned butter, or truffle oil. Your masterpieces will have the other guests drooling and who knows, it may be a sodium free thanksgiving for everyone next year.

To get your inspiration engines started, check out these tips and tricks and recipe ideas that will have friends and families colonizing your kitchen.

Tips and Tricks: Foul Play

Since we (the royal we, that is) often spend the holidays at the homes of others, you will most likely need to bring your own bird, sides, and pies for the evening. Thanksgiving dinner can be a huge undertaking for the hosts and if you want to be certain that your meal is sodium free and safe, I suggest you spend time “getting your bird on” in your own kitchen.

I spent many years lugging along a bland piece of chicken breast as my entrée, staring longingly at the crispy, golden skin of the juicy, salt brined turkey on everyone else’s plate.  Clearly, cooking an entire turkey for myself was a little excessive and too big of an undertaking. If I was hosting the dinner and feeding a handful of other guests, an entire sodium free turkey would make sense. But for a single plate of Thanksgiving deliciousness (or let’s be honest, 3 to 4) a whole bird may be too much…Or not.

Secret Sodium Alert:

Most turkeys, even if you do not brine or salt them, may be injected with some sort of saline solution to keep them moist. So if you are cooking a whole bird, make sure yours is truly sodium free.

Then, a moment of holiday brilliance, I realized I could substitute the typical turkey for a much smaller piece of poultry: a Cornish game hen. Besides being easy to cook, these little juicy poultry nuggets also happen to be absolutely adorable and they are just big enough that there is plenty of juicy meat to nibble on the next day. These birds are rather flexible in terms of cooking technique – you can stuff and roast them, debone and sautée, or plop them on open beer cans and let the fun really begin – look at their posture!

This, year, I will be roasting my little friend next to my Aunt’s behemoth bird. They should get along quite nicely and can be roasted at approximately the same temperature, just a shorter amount of time.

Recipe Box: My Thanksgiving Menu

What you may begin to realize is that even when you are limiting your sodium intake, you can continue to use regular recipes. All you have to do is be conscious of where sodium may be hiding – butter, broths, brines, seasoning blends, dairy products, pie crusts/doughs/breads, baking sodium and baking powder, and packaged sauces – and then, get creative with your substitutions.

I love using Epicurious for recipe starters and find Cooks Illustrated to be one of the best culinary resources (for every level cook) available. Christopher Kimball, I heart you and your test kitchen.

Here are some of the recipes that I will using for my sodium free dinner. I’ve included my own substitutions, but if you have other flavor twists that you want to share, pass them along to sodiumgirl@gmail.com and I’ll be sure to steal them.

Appetizers:

  • A spread of sodium free pickles
    • curried, pickled carrots and dill pickled green beans and fennel
  • Sodium free spinach dip and crudite (fancy for raw vegetables)
    • substitute mascarpone, ricotta cheese, or crème fraiche for the sour cream and cream cheese

Starters and Sides:

Main Course:

  • Cornish game hen
    • Although I will be using an altered beer can chicken recipe – straight up succulent – I like the idea of this cider brine (sans salt). Although salt is an essential part of the brining process, I think the cider helps denature the protein, making it juicy and more melt-in-your-mouth delicious. If you can’t brine, but want to add an extra juice-assuring technique to your holiday cooking, I would give this a try. Plus, the gravy recipe also looks good!
  • Sodium free stuffing with wild mushrooms
    • I will be using sodium free bread and my favorite sodium free chicken broth to give this crunch and kick and have bought a bounty of wild mushrooms to give it a meaty texture

For more low sodium/sodium free Thanksgiving recipes check out Dick Logue’s Low Sodium Cooking Newsletter – the Thanksgiving issue.

Happy eating, happy holidays, and I’ll see you at the gym…if I can get off the couch.

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On the Road Again

Off again on another whirlwind adventure! I decided to make the most out of my Thanksgiving holiday on the east coast and head out a week early to visit my ladies who left the warmth of sunny California for the fall chill of Boston, DC, NYC and beyond. And I have to admit, although I am a Californian to the core, the holiday spirit combined with the comfort of bundling up has my heart singing show tunes.

Three plane rides, a train, and endless house visits along the way, I knew I needed to prepare a slightly larger-than-usual snack pack to keep me full and energized throughout the trip. So I prepped a few perishables: (a) a giant pack of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cooked in ground mustard and balsamic vinegar and (b) some Heidi’s Hens no salt turkey meat (30mg per serving).  And rounded up a cornucopia of non-perishables as well: (a) dried cranberries, (b) Enjoy Life Cinnamon Crunch Granola, (c) shelled, salt free sesame seeds, (d) salt free pop corn to pop, and (e) some delicious fruit leather – remember that stuff? Like fruit roll-ups without the chemicals. As an added bonus, I found at a Bostonian Whole Foods a new brand of low sodium lavash bread that has packed nicely in my bag and remained incredibly soft and fresh for the remainder of my travels.

As for eating out, it has been a breeze. In most restaurant kitchens, fish will be left naked (cat call whistles appropriate) until preparation – sans seasoning and sans marinade – and it is a safe bet that you can order a simply grilled or sauteed, salt free fillet for dinner.

If you have reservations somewhere,  it always helps to call ahead and ask the chef to set aside some meat or fish for you as well as some fresh veggies that have not been dunked in a pot of boiling salt water.

Perfect example: Rocca Kitchen and Bar. They were incredibly accommodating and delighted me with a roasted whole Branzino (wowzer) that was steeping in a delicate broth of roasted tomato juice. Although the flavors weren’t overwhelming, I have come to truly appreciate the simple enjoyment of fresh ingredients. The potatoes also happened to be cooked perfectly.  Slightly crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and thick enough to soak up the broth like a piece of fresh-out-of-the-oven bread.

It was delicious and impressive in its grand presentation.  Speaking of presentation, check out this pasta sampler.  Not sodium free, but definitely beautiful and inspiring.  Perhaps a low sodium version will grace the West Coast in the near future…

All and all, a wonderful trip filled with good eats and lots of fun diversions. Yesterday Boston, today DC, tomorrow Philly and a fantastic Thanksgiving ahead.

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Check Out My Cheese

Usually I try to come up with a somewhat intriguing title. But this time, the subject was so exciting that I had to rush past the presentation and skip to the good stuff.

I made cheese. No seriously, I did. All by myself. Most amazingly, it was really easy. And most surprisingly, people who usually eat salt, lots of it, liked it.

So the scenario goes like this: like I said in my last post, I signed up to attend the Jam It session at 18 reasons on Thursday night at which jamming, pickling, and DIY-fooding enthusiasts and professionals gathered to share their recipes and their home-made goods. I figured that this was a perfect testing ground to see how normal, everyday sodium freaks would respond to my no sodium food.

At this point, I feel pretty confident in my pickling ability. But to kick this conquest up a notch and give myself an extra special challenge, I decided to roll the dice, make cheese, and feed it to the masses.

Two friends sent me paneer and buttermilk cheese recipes which use milk, lemons, and salt to create the desired final product. For my first attempt, I decided to use hemp milk. I mean, I couldn’t look more like a crazy northern Californian if I tried. Hemp milk has virtually no sodium in it (5mg per serving), but it also has virtually no ability to curd and whey . So I threw the tie-dyed cartoon in the recycling bin and decided to use the real deal. Soy milk.

It has 85mg of sodium per serving and I knew, from an unfortunate previous experiences, that it indeed will curdle unlike its free-loving, hemp substitute. I bought a quart of unsweetened soy milk and used half of it for my cheese.

The entire cheese-making process lasted about 40 minutes, with endless hours of eating enjoyment to follow. I plan on bringing this winning recipe to the east coast for Thanksgiving Day appetizers along with some curry carrot pickles and dill and fennel green bean pickles. You better believe I’ll impress the pants off of those Pilgrims.

Ingredients

  • 1 quart of soy milk
  • 2 T lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons of smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons of cumin
  • 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons of fresh dill
  • Cheesecloth

Instructions:

1. Heat half a quart of soy milk in a heavy saucepan – but let’s be honest, I used a pot.

2. When it begins to boil and starts to rise, immediately take it off the heat. Be sure to watch for this, because the milk will rise quickly and if you don’t have cat-like reflexes, you will end up with one hot, sticky mess on your stove.

3. Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to the milk and stir for two minutes to help separate the curds from the whey.

4. Let the curdy milk sit for 10 minutes.

5. Pour the milk into a colander that is lined with 3 layers of cheese cloth. When it is cool enough to handle, close the cheese cloth tightly around the curds and squeeze out the extra liquid.

6. At this point, since there was no salt in the cheese, I added 2 teaspoons of smoked paprika, 2 teaspoons of cumin, 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and 2 teaspoons of fresh dill. Mix the spices in with the cheese and close the cheese cloth again to remove the remaining liquid.

7. Place the cheese (still in the cheese cloth) on a plate and flatten to about 1/2 inch thick.

8. Place another plate on top of the cheese and weight it with your heaviest (or two heaviest) cooking books.

9. After 20 minutes of flattening, you can refrigerate overnight or use immediately. If it turns out to be a little more chunky and loose, use it as a spread on some crackers with your fennel relish that you made. If it is harder, try preparing it like traditional paneer and fry it in some hot oil.

And just for fun, here is a shot early into the 18 Reasons event. A special shout to Karen Solomon for eating my cheese, liking my pickled fennel relish, and writing a kick ass book that I can’t wait to plow through. Chow on everyone.

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Pick a Pickled Pepper

Or carrots. Or fennel. Or grapes. On Monday night, I rushed home with vinegar in hand to prepare for the 18 Reasons Jam It event as well as create some down-home gifts for my relatives in Philadelphia. It’s Turkey Time people, and nothing says “thank you” on Thanksgiving like a jar of pickles. Am I right? I know I am.

Let me tell you this – sodium free pickling is not only possible, it is easy and can be even more thrilling than your typically transformed cucumber. Without salt, you become more creative with your seasonings and spices. And if you are a nervous to create your own pickling blend, lucky for us, salt free pickling spices already exist in cute little pre-packaged packages (available at your local Whole Foods).

So put your pot on the stove and get ready to infuse some veggies with sweet and sour tang. Here are three zippy recipes for mind-blowing treats that can be equally impressive as an appetizer or as an accompaniment in salads, side dishes, and main courses.

Pickled Fennel

Licorice never tasted so good” – Me

Ingredients

  • 2 bulbs of fennel
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2 dried chili peppers
  • zest and juice from 1 large orange
  • 2 cups white wine or champagne vinegar
  • 1/2 a cup of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of black peppercorn
  • 1 quart sized mason jar

Instructions:

1. Take two bulbs of fennel, cut off stems, and slice in to crescent shaped spears

2. Stuff fennel slices, some of the soft fennel fronds from the stem (packs extra flavor), three cloves of garlic, and two dried chili peppers into a small mason jar

3. Zest one orange and place in the mason jar with fennel

4. Heat 2 cups of white wine vinegar, 1/2 a cup of sugar, juice from one orange, and a teaspoon of black peppercorns in a pot. Remove from heat once it begins boiling

5. Carefully (it’s hot!) fill the mason jar with heated pickling liquid (step 4). The heat tends to reduce the size of the fennel almost immediately, so if you have left over slices, stuff more into the jar

6. For added punch, slice fresh ginger and put in jar as well. Once lid is closed, shake it up, allow to cool, and stick it in the fridge. In two days, it will be ready for munching.

Pickled Grapes

“Not jam, not wine, just plain delicious” – Me

As a quick disclaimer: I stole this recipe from Smitten Kitchen who was inspired by Orangette and tweaked it according to my sodium girl needs.

Inredients:

  • 5-6 handfuls of seedless black or red grapes
  • 2 teaspoons of yellow mustard seed
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 cups of white wine or champagne vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon of black peppercorn

Instructions:

1. Pick up some plump, seedless back or red grapes and slice off the belly buttons (the top part where the stem was) of five or six handfuls. By taking off this top piece of the grape, you will allow the pickling juices to seep into the fruit immediately.

2. Fill a small mason jar with the grapes, 2 teaspoons of yellow mustard seed, and one stick of cinnamon.  Or, as in my case, use 3 teaspoons of ground cinnamon if you forget to buy cinnamon sticks

3. Heat two cups of white wine or champagne vinegar in a pot with 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns. Remove from heat once it boils

4. Let the pickling liquid (step 3) fully cool before filling the mason jar. This will keep the fruit from becoming too mushy

5. Shake and shimmy your mason jar and put in refrigerator. The grapes will be good to go in two days.

BONUS TIP: on my quest to find a good substitute for olives, I realized that a savory grape pickle could do the trick. I think they could act as a mischievous doppelganger in tapenade and Mediterranean salads, fooling any palate. I can’t wait to test out this theory in the weeks to come.

Pickled Carrots

“Curry in a hurry” – Me

Ingredients

  • 1 package or 2 bunches of carrots (heirloom varietals are very pretty)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1teaspoon of freshly sliced ginger
  • 2 dried chili peppers
  • 1/2 a tablespoon of turmeric
  • 1/4 tablespoon of curry
  • 1 tablespoon of salt free pickling spices
  • 2 cups of distilled white vinegar
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1/2 a cup of sugar

Instructions:

1. To make this as effortless as possible, buy some previously washed and peeled carrots. I went with some beautiful yellow carrots and I think if I had more time, I may have even chosen to go with the more colorful heirloom variety

2. Stuff a small mason jar with carrots, 3cloves of garlic, teaspoon of freshly sliced ginger, and 2dried chili peppers, 1/2 a tablespoon of turmeric, 1/4 tablespoon of curry, and 1 tablespoon of salt free pickling spices

3. Heat 2 cups of distilled vinegar,1 cup of water, and 1/2 a cup of sugar. Remove from heat once it is boiling

4. Carefully fill jar with pickling liquid, wait until it is cool, and place in the fridge. Wait 2 days before cracking open and noshing on some healthy and spicy carrot nuggets

Now wasn’t that easy? Just wait until you taste them!

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Battle Citrus, No Sodium

There is a lot coming up this week: home-made pickles, homemade cheese (hopefully), an appearance at 18 Reason’s “Jam It” event on Thursday, and a starters list on how to create your own scrumptious and salt free Thanksgiving meal.

But while we wait for the pickles to pickle and for the cheese to curd and whey, I wanted to write a quick post about a groundbreaking event that occurred last March:

Iron Chef Battle: Citrus, No Sodium

The culinary smack down was the second in a series of two Iron Chef competitions, originally hosted by our good friends Kwame (who is now in cooking school, lucky) and Mei (who is now in London writing for Wired UK and igniting some Go-Game awesomeness across the pond). The first battle was centered on the delicious meat product we all lovingly call “bacon.” My attendance at this battle and my minor participation (Mei made me some sodium free, bacon free dishes because she is amazing) sparked discussion with fellow judges on sodium free cooking. To say they least, they were not convinced that sodium free food could be as flavorful or exciting as more traditional, sodium filled recipes.

So the challenge was set. 12 guests, with well-versed and discerning palettes, were invited to Boy and my apartment for an 8 course feast of sodium free food. Over a period of 24 hours, endless shopping for random citrus products (Yuzu juice to Buddha’s hand), and a brief period in which words were not exchanged, Boy and I poured our hearts and souls into making the most impressive no sodium dishes imaginable. What resulted was proof that cooking excellence or at least satisfaction could be achieved without salt.

But don’t take my word, judge for yourself.

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Bacar

The niners beat the bears (in a heart attack inducing finish) and it was date night. How could this evening get any more magical? I’ll tell you. A fresh, thoughtful, earthy meal at Bacar.

I called the restaurant around 3:00pm, when most begin answering their phones for dinner service, and made sure to forewarn of my dietary needs. They had walu on the menu (a meaty and juicy white fish) and I asked them to please save me a cut. I also made sure to have a few veggies left aside so that they were not parboiled in advance.

Tip: In many kitchens, prep includes blanching or parboiling the vegetables in salted water, leaving few green options. But if you call ahead, you usually can secure a handful of healthy nibbles for your meal.

Back to the restaurant – it is quite big (two floors) and urban feeling, but cozy due to its warm lighting and comfy booths. I was delighted to see that the wine list not only included your standard bottles, half bottles, and glasses, but tastings as well – how decadent.  So yes, I had a tasting of two white wines, an Albarino and a Sauvignon Blanc, making the start of my dining experience all the more entertaining and well, boozy.

Then the main course. When the waiter arrived at the table and I attempted to launch into my dietribe (that’s wordplay, folks), he sweetly interrupted and said, “Yes, no sodium.” Always a comforting start to know your call earlier in the day was passed on to kitchen and front of the house staff.

The waiter then assured me that the chef would happily accommodate my needs and asked if there anything in particular that I wanted from the menu. The fact that I was given options, and was not beholden to just one entrée, was very impressive. I’ll have to take them up on the offer some other time. But for this particular evening, I stuck with the walu. It looked delicious and I figured it was a safe bet.

As for the result – well, first of all, the presentation (see picture above) was meticulous. Clearly, this was not a flavorless piece of fish thrown on a plate. Roasted brussel sprout leaves and simply sautéed chantarelle mushrooms cushioned the walu which was delicately cooked with a strong smoky flavor, possibly from the use of liquid smoke or an actual smoker. The whole dish was then topped with a festive tapenade of what I thought was garlic and parsley. There was a burst of citrus flavor and of course, the always lively taste of fresh herbs. I realized by the third bite, however, that the garlic bits were actually olives and unless they were specially cured without salt, I’m pretty certain this beautiful topping had sodium.

Now, I write this fact to exhibit the importance of going over all the details of your dietary needs with the waiter, even if it seems repetitive and annoying. Do not be afraid to SPELL IT OUT. It took me six years to understand where sodium secretly lurks, so I surely cannot expect people to remember to look at the back of a bottle while trying to manage and cook in a busy kitchen.

Now if you’re thinking, damn, Bacar failed the sodium girl test, I assure you they did not. The care with which they treated my meal was obvious and there are multiple menu items I can order in the future, which is not often the case. In addition, when I ordered sorbet for dessert, the waiter rushed back to warn me that there were a few pinches of salt in the sorbet, demonstrating that they clearly understood my needs and that the olive situation was simply a blip.

And now, just in case you forgot what it looked like…one more look at the walu masterpiece.

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This Spud’s for You

I think potatoes are (a) utterly delicious and (b) really confusing to spell. I like them fried, baked, sliced, in soups and stews … but mostly, I like them fried.

At first, I thought it would be impossible to find low sodium or sodium free versions of these beloved potato products and I took to making my own sweet potato fries at home (which, if I say so myself, was not a bad substitute…recipe below). But I had completely underestimated the possibilities of no sodium/low sodium snacking and in almost 6 years of searching for a salt free French fry or a sodium free bag of chips, I’ve compiled the following list of delicious salt free options, which even have the salt freaks exclaiming snacking nirvana.

For A Sit-Down French Fry Fix:

Hop into Frjtz – a Belgium fry and mussel palace located in the Mission and Hayes Valley. Just ask the incredibly accommodating staff (yes, they know me by name) to hold the salt on your large cone of fries. Don’t hesitate to explain your reason for salt shaker resistance – the more they understand your situation, the more serious they will take your request.

As for the sauces – for which they are famous – they are all heavy in sodium content. So to be absolutely safe, ask for a wedge of lime to give it a zest of flavor. Or douse the fries in pepper. I’ve even recently seen malt vinegar available at the condiments counter – that has a nice kick too.

And if you’re really craving something more substantive, I have been known to bring my own bottle of low sodium mustard in my purse. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s totally cool and the people staring are just jealous. But if you’re not up for social defiance, you can eat the fries sauce free. They are so perfectly crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside that they don’t need any cover up. They are natural beauties.

Added tip: If you attempt ordering French fries at other restaurants, and I do, just remember to ask if they cut them fresh or if they come from a bag. If they come from a bag (i.e. frozen) they most likely have sodium. Also, make sure the potatoes are not blanched in salt water before being cooked.

For Out-Of-The-Bag Snacking:

My first experience with no salt/low sodium snacking was with Kettle Chips unsalted, proud spuds.

In 2007, during a crisp fall afternoon and a mostly unproductive work day, I spent an hour and a half crafting a heartfelt letter to the Kettle Chips crew thanking them for their bravery and leadership in the production of a salt free chip.  A snack which had filled a large void in my junk-food junkie soul.  I also asked if they would be so kind as to create another innovative saltfree chip product to dazzle my taste buds Balsamic vinegar and rosemary perhaps?

The next day, I received a kind response, but no mention of any future salt free lines and no shipment of a life-time supply of unsalted chips to my door.  While I continue to wait for my free box of Kettle Chips (wink wink), these other brands are also jumping on the salt free train and making my no sodium snacking dreams come true.

Utz has unsalted potato chips and no salt BBQ

Terra Chips has unsalted potato chips, unsalted Hickory BBQ (so delicious!), and unsalted Sweet Potato chips for a totally wild taste experience.

Added tip: When I make my own tuna tartar – yeah, you’ve got some drool on the side of your lip – I line the plate with salt free potato chips and use them to transport the dreamy, diced fish from the plate to my mouth. East meets west in a dazzling salt free appetizer.

For A DIY, At-Home Adventure:

When Super Bowl Season rolls around, grab a few sweet potatoes and follow these instructions:

1. Turn on oven, preferably to 400 degrees.

2. Wash and scrub your spuds, but no need to peel. I think the crisp skin makes them extra delicious.

3. Cut the sweet potato into fourths and then into thin strips – you want each fry to be about half and inch wide at the most.  Check out the picture here to get a good idea of size and length. The thinner they are the crispier they will get.

4. Put all of your potato sticks on a greased baking sheet that is large enough for a single layer of fries.  Sprinkle 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil  and a mixture of the following spices on the fries:

For spicy – cumin, paprika, white pepper, and cayenne

For herby – rosemary (fresh or dried), white pepper, ground mustard, a pinch of cayenne

For special – use a flavored olive oil (like orange, avocado, or truffle!

5. Toss the potato sticks so they are evenly coated with the oil and spices.

6. Bake for 20-30 minutes. Watch the first batch carefully and from then on you’ll know how long to let the potatoes cook.

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