Monthly Archives: January 2010

Friday Round Up

Well it is almost the weekend and what a great week it was: an interview with Chef Jamie Lauren, a posting on food52.com, and the long-awaited Faux Miso Marinated Cod recipe – I think I’m ready for a nap. So while we wind the week down and get ready to recharge over the weekend, I thought I would dedicate today’s post (and future Friday’s to come) to reader comments, food pornography, and other odds and ends.

Let’s start with bacon. One of Sodium Girl’s super readers found a very low sodium brand of the fatty good stuff at Costco and stocked her refrigerator full of it. The nutritional information on the MapleLeaf Brand (from Canada) claims that it contains a mere 105 mg of sodium in 2 slices and apparently, the taste is so savory and delicious that super reader could barely believe the label was true. So instead of worrying about the validity of the information, or worse, throwing away her low sodium treat, super reader got onto the world wide web and wrote Costco a note:

I have been buying MapleLeaf Brand bacon from Canada at my Costco Warehouse. According to the nutrition labels this bacon has 105 mg of sodium in 2 slices. It is wonderful bacon – so good I’m not sure if that nutrition information can be correct. As I am on a low sodium diet I would greatly appreciate any information you have about this bacon. I have researched the brand on the internet but haven’t been able to find any nutrition information. Thank you!

And their response?

Thank you for your email to Costco Wholesale. The information on the packaging is correct.

Well I’ll take that as an affirmative for low sodium goodness.  Super reader says that she’ll continue to “eat on” and enjoy her bacon, a well deserved treat, if I do say so myself. Great super sleuthing, super reader, and thank you for a fantastic low sodium discovery.

As for the food porn, I wanted to send you off into the world of weekend brunches with this shot of my new favorite breakfast – I call it the Jackson Pollock Fried Egg Sandwich. All it takes is an egg, a frying pan, and some balsamic vinegar that you throw on the white and yolk as it hardens. Add a few dried herbs and spices and you have a pretty picture that is good enough to eat. Just another way to dress up a quick fix.

With that, I sign off for the week.  I must go prepare for a lesson in low sodium, Japanese cooking.  That’s right, low sodium Japanese cooking.  Now how is that for suspense?  Have a good one and chow on.

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A Tale of Two Cods

One of my proudest achievements so far, as a low sodium cook, has been creating a recipe for Faux Miso-Marinated Cod.  If you have never experienced the real thing, a two-day, miso/sake/mirin bath gives this already fatty fish a sweet and silky flavor that really does melt in your mouth.  I personally believe it is one of the greatest ways to prepare fish.  The texture is satisfying and the taste overcomes any remnants of fishy-ness that might displease your palate.  It is an utterly decadent dish and as an added bonus, incredibly easy to cook.

The problem?  Miso contains over 700mg of sodium per tablespoon and the thick, fermented flavor and dark, mahogany color it provides is essential to mastering this meal.  But I wasn’t going to let that minor detail stop me from enjoying this dish and I was determined to find a way to mimic the taste of the miso without the salt.  So Boy and I put on our Chris Kimball thinking caps and created an America’s Test Kitchen of our very own to see if a low sodium version of Nobu’s famous Miso-Marinated Cod was possible.

On one side of the counter, we had a 3 ounce cut of black cod (also known as sablefish) that we soaked in the original recipe:

  • 3/4 cup miso
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup sake
  • 6 tablespoon mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine)

And in the other corner, we prepared a second, 3 ounce cut that waded in a bath of sake, sugar, and mirin.  I have to admit, this piece of fish looked pretty sad in comparison to the Boy’s more seductive slice and I anxiously stared at the gaggle of sauces and spices we had to see if there was anything I could add to better match my pale protein to it’s more handsome relative.  Then, suddenly, a moment of pure sensory genius.  Boy began scooping out the miso paste and with a quick sniff to the nose, I had a moment of olafactory deja vu.  The miso had such a familiar aroma – sweet and musky – I knew I recognized it, but from what?  I gazed back at my collection of sauces and there it was.  MOLASSES.  Dark, syrupy, and bitter sweet, it was the perfect substitute.

The end result was a true success, better than I could have ever imagined.  Although the two cods would not pass a blind taste test, the faux version came pretty close to the original.  The molasses helped balance the sweetness of the mirin and it gave the cod the customary, rich color that one would expect. And again, as you will see, the recipe is as simple as it is delicious.

To serve, I suggest some steamed brown rice with either sauteed leeks or wild mushrooms and garlic.  Anything earthy will pair nicely with the sweetness of the cod.  And do invite over friends.  They will forever be impressed and you there’s no need to reveal how easy it was.

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup molasses (0 mg of sodium)
  • 1/2 cup sugar (0 mg of sodium)
  • 1/4 cup sake (0 mg of sodium)
  • 6 tablespoon mirin (0mg of sodium)
  • 1 pound boneless black cod or sablefish (46 mg of sodium per 3 oz)

Directions:

1. Heat sake and mirin in a double boiler over medium flame and simmer for 30 minutes.

2. Remove from heat and add the molasses and sugar and stir until it is dissolved.  Allow the mixture to cool.

3. Cut black cod into 6 equal pieces and place in a shallow dish, large enough so that all of the pieces of cod can lay flat.

4. Pour half of the cooled miso marinade into the dish, add cod, and then pour remaining marinade on top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours to 2 days.  Turn the fish every so often so that they get an even coating.

5. Preheat broiler on high.

6. When hot, remove cod from marinade and place on a baking sheet on the bottom rack of oven.  Broil until caramelized, about 10 minutes. Turn cod over and broil until fish flakes easily, about 3 minutes more.

7.  Seriously.  That’s the whole recipe.  Amazing, right?  Now have a glass of wine and admire your work.  Chow on.

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Double Exposure

I know I promised some faux miso marinated cod today (and don’t worry, that lovely little recipe will be popping up later this afternoon).  But first, I have to send a huge thank you to Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, the two genius minds behind food52.com.  These ladies sure know how to cook, write, and bring a community of food lovers together and it was a major honor to show up on their Reciprocity blog roll this morning. I’ve had a blast submitting my recipes on their site and their weekly contests keep my culinary synapses firing.  I feel so alive!  If you haven’t been on food52 yet, you better book it on over when you have a few minutes or hours (you’ll get swept away by the gorgeous photos) to spare.  You’ll also find some great excuses to eat chocolate for breakfast.  Not like you needed one.

And since I may have a few new readers (welcome!) I wanted to also take this moment to briefly explain what this blog, and my cooking, is all about.  I’m bringing back one of my earlier posts on what it is like to lower your sodium intake and how, in reality, it isn’t all that bad.  Enjoy and as always, chow on.

A Terrible Parable…But Nonetheless, Helpful

Let’s face it, food tastes good with salt. French fries, pasta water, even chocolate – salt is everywhere and is the universally adored flavor enhancer. We are so accustomed to eating meals laden with the shimmering crystals that, to cook or eat a dish without them seems like an impossible feat, or at least impossibly boring. When people find out that I cannot have salt, they often react with horror and remark that, if they had to do such a thing, they “would commit hara-kiri.”

But this morning, I thought of an analogy that might illuminate the ultimately positive reality of eating low sodium. Although it takes some getting used to, not relying on salt has helped me discover other ways to heighten the delicious factor in my food. Eating low sodium does not mean eating without flavor. Sweet butter (when browned) can add nutty, earthy and delicious notes to your food. Vinegars, which are mostly sodium free and can help lower your blood pressure, come in many varieties – apple cider, rice wine, balsamic to name a few – and lend a tang and a zip to meats, greens, and even ice cream when reduced to a sauce. And don’t forget about spices – no one said you can’t have spices, you just have to look for the brands that are salt free. Cayenne, cumin, curry, star anise, coriander, fennel seed, mustard, white pepper, wasabi – holy mole, there is no shortage of options here. And then there’s wine reductions and beer baths, honey and molasses, citrus and fresh herbs. Choices abound, your meals will never fall flat.

So here is a small tale to help highlight the silver lining of low sodium living. And bare with me, this gets girly:

Limiting your sodium intake is like someone telling you that you cannot wear black anymore. Ok, at first, that seems like it would be difficult. People love wearing black. It’s slimming, it’s bad-ass, it’s professional, it’s easy. We all have the little black dress or the killer, I’m-going-to nail-this-meeting black suit. So at first, having to clear the closet of all your go-to black items feels like a bad, practical joke. And having to re-fill it with other things (what could those even be?) and re-style your wardrobe (what will I wear!) seems like an expensive and ultimately time-consuming venture.

Then, a moment of brilliance. You realize, a nice navy dress doesn’t look half bad and is just as snappy for business meetings. And actually, that metallic gold number you’ve had your eye on forever, but didn’t think you had the guts to pull off, is actually way more bad-ass than that cliché (and face it, fading) black dress.

The point is, in having to limit your choices, you begin to discover new worlds, new combinations, new possibilities that you would have never otherwise explored. And when that black tie event rolls around and you can’t put on the standard black outfit, you’ll just have to settle for the fuschia pink pantsuit.  And honestly, standing out never is a bad thing.

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Tip Jar: A Top Chef’s Top Five

A professional kitchen is usually quite hot.  And a good restaurant?  Most likely bustling and busy.  The words frantic, sweaty, and generally overwhelmed all come to mind when I ponder the life of a talented chef, at a popular restaurant, during its busiest hours.  So have you ever wondered what said chef might be thinking when you, the one who loves food but can’t eat salt, waltzes in and unveils a laundry list of dietary restrictions?  I did.  So last week, I decided to ask.

Today I unveil a new feature on Sodium Girl – investigative journalism at its best – in which we sit down with some culinary heavy weights to discuss the challenges of and solutions to low sodium cooking.  I figured these folks, with years of training and experience under their belts, may hold the holy grail of low sodium advice.  Plus, it seemed like a really great excuse to eat delicious food and talk to cool people.

First up, Top Chef Season Five contestant Jamie Lauren, the itty, bitty powerhouse, Executive Chef at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar.  Having never cooked for me before, Jamie was kind enough to take on the challenge and conquer my low sodium cooking needs with ease and creativity.

I called earlier in the day to give them my spiel on what I cannot eat – including nuts, salmon, and mango, because why not make it more difficult – and then left the rest to her whimsy.  Without breaking a sweat, Jamie served up a killer, three-course menu that was all low sodium but full of flavor:

Freshly cut and fried potatoes (and yes, this counts as a course)

Pomegranate and Blood Orange Salad

Grilled Bluenose Bass with Apple Brown Butter, Winter Root Vegetables, and a Specially Seasoned Sweet Potato Puree

When the plates had been licked cleaned and the restaurant began to slow (which is definitely an overstatement as the place seems continuously packed), Jamie joined me at my table to answer a few questions about her approach to low sodium cooking.  Beyond being a great chef, Jamie is also a wonderful person and was equally curious as to know my personal story.  Talented yet unaffected – it is a great combination of traits and I’m finding that most of our Bay Area chefs have a combination of the two.

So enjoy a brief look at the behind-the-scenes action of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar and the thought process behind one delicious, low sodium dinner.  Chow on

Sodium Girl: What was your reaction to cooking without salt and how did you approach altering the dishes?

Jamie Lauren: For me, because of being on Top Chef, I feel prepared for instances where I have 30 minutes or an hour to cook something.  You get used to it.  Tonight, I thought about what I had in the kitchen and how I could deconstruct the dishes and break them down without salt.  I made the squash puree without salt and then thought about what’s in season that goes well with squash, like root vegetables and brussel sprouts.  I then realized that apples go perfectly with this too and that’s where I got the apple brown butter idea.

SG: How did my order change the flow of the kitchen?

JL: Luckily tonight I had someone that could be on the line with me, so I could be back there prepping everything for your meal.  But had it been a Friday night and I was the only one on the line and I was short staffed, it would have been a lot more difficult for me to pull off.

SG: For those busy nights, what is most helpful for you as a chef?  What should diners with restrictions do to help make their request an easier task?

JL: If you are going to dine out, be communicative with the restaurant and give the chef a heads up. Lists are always helpful. Special orders can be a challenge, but I like that challenge.  It keeps me on my toes and keeps my brain moving. As a chef, I think it’s important to have that.

SG: For the home-cook, what are five things they can do to give their food flavor without adding salt?

JL: 1) Acids are awesome, like lemon juice, lime juice, and wine; 2) Spices are great too and tonight I used a combination of cinnamon, star anise, and cloves to build a more complex flavor; 3) Get spicy and use hot sauce and jalapenos; 4) Sweet is good too, play with fruit; and 5) Don’t be afraid to cook on your own and try things at home to expand your horizons.


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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the Lunch Edition

Last week, I played caterer to a very special guest.  Apron tied on tight, prep bowls aplenty, and a glass of white wine to keep me cool under pressure, I served a three course meal that was light, bright, and of course, low in sodium.  While my companion’s identity will remain anonymous – sorry, I’m keeping this one to myself – I will share with you the secrets that made this mid-afternoon feast  an easy success.

I went simple, choosing recipes that I could make the evening before, that required minimal attention, and that, well, honestly, had a lot of margin for error.  I’ve spent too many dinner parties cooking intricate dishes, with multiple steps, that resulted in uneven temperatures, a kitchen full of mess, and a pooped-out hostess.  I wanted this particular lunch to be effortless so that I could spend more time decorating my plates and entertaining my company.  Because that’s the real fun of hosting a lunch.

To start, I made a fennel corn chowder which I had prepared the evening before. The wonderful thing about soups, stews, and pasta sauces is that with every day they sit (within reason), the flavors become deeper and more pronounced.  So when entertaining guests, making a soup is one of the smartest things you can do.  Preparing it in advance will not only improve your recipe, but it may improve your day-of-party mood as well.

I dressed up each bowl with fried garlic chips, a few dashes of crushed red pepper, freshly chopped chives, and some mustard flower blossoms.  A little flair never hurts.

Since the soup was a little garlic heavy, I wanted to follow this first course with something that had a perkier taste.  I decided to make a roasted beet and grapefruit salad with an avocado mousse vinaigrette. I personally am not a huge beet fan, but trust me, the combination of these three ingredients will make anyone a convert.

The evening before lunch, I roasted five beets (three red, two golden of roughly even sizes) in the oven at 400 degrees for 1 ½ hours.

BEET TRICK: To make roasting and cleaning the beets a snap, simply wrap each one individually in tin foil.  Once they have cooked (and are soft to the touch, but not mushy), you can let them cool in their pouches and then use the tin foil to actually remove the outer layer of skin.

I sliced the beets into very thin rounds, which you can do using a mandoline or with a knife and a very steady hand, and allowed them to keep cool in the refrigerator.

To make the mousse, I combined one avocado with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of champagne vinegar, and juice from half of a grapefruit.  Blend and taste until it has the creamy zing you desire.  You want it to be thick enough that it sticks to the plate, but not so heavy that it looses its dressing consistency.  To plate like a professional, I put my avocado mousse in a little ketchup squeeze bottle and made circles on the base of the plate.  This was my messiest version (my first squeeze attempt) and once I had gotten my nerves out, the rest of the plates had more even circles that didn’t look like a fifth grade art project.

The most difficult part of this meal was supreming the grapefruit.  But this technique can be made a million times easier if you have a very sharp fruit knife.  It will make it much easier to slice the segments from the outer membranes and will result in crescents that retain both their shape and dignity.

To plate the salad, I lightly dressed baby arugula in olive oil and pepper and plopped a handful in one corner.  I then fanned three slices of beet, alternating colors, on the other side and topped with three slices of grapefruit.  And that was it.  Very simple and colorful, with a surprise avocado treat at the bottom.  A real crowd pleaser that I would easily serve again.

And to finish, I served up my new favorite dinner party dish – faux miso marinated cod.  Dark, mysterious, and low sodium.  It soaks in its marinade for two days and cooks under the broiler, uninterrupted, for twenty minutes.  The fatty quality of the fish keeps it moist and makes it difficult to dry out.  It is a great recipe when entertaining, because you know no matter what you do, you have a hit on your hands.  But for the real details on this dish, you’ll just have to wait.  In the meantime, chow on.

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Bad News Bears

Well, I guess distance makes the heart grow fonder, right? 

For the diligent readers, I wanted to quickly explain yesterday’s radio silence before, well, going silent once again.  My trusty computer companion caught some horrible cyber crud which has left both it and myself completely incompacitated.  But things are looking up and my little work station should running strong again tomorrow.  So I will be back and in full force, no virus is going to keep this little cook down.  And in the meantime, I will be cooking up some mean goodies to share with you next week, including:

  • A new installation of the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” Series featuring a very exciting lunch guest;
  • Some gooey mint chocolate cupcakes;
  • And two exciting inteviews with awesome Bay Area chefs on how they make low sodium meals full of flavor.  If they can do it, so can we.

So I’m out for now.  Must go tie on the apron and get cooking.  But I’ll see you bright and early on Monday morning with some delicious tales. Stay dry, have a good weekend, and chow on.

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Soup’s On

Say hello to a bowl of caramelized fennel corn chowder. It was noon thirty on Sunday and I was hungry. But it was raining, I was pretty full from breakfast, and what I really needed to focus on was cleaning the house. Never a good sign when your feet turn dusty gray from walking around barefoot. So I did what I always do when I want something healthy, light, and quick to eat. I made soup. But I’m not talking pour-it-from-a-can, chunky chicken and wimpy noodle soup. I’m talking about a delicate, earthy soup that is complex in flavor and simple in construction. I’m talking about caramelized fennel corn chowder soup.

Now before we continue in this discussion, let’s get a bit serious, or at least scientific, for a moment. If you have had your finger on the food media pulse lately, you know about the BPA blow up (surprise, it’s bad for you) and NYC’s movement to lower the sodium content in manufactured goods and chain restaurant menus. Basically, in sum, studies are showing that food in cans, while providing a cheap and quick meal solution, aren’t particularly good for us, especially in the long term. And while I do not know how much soup Americans consume annually, I do know that we have become addicted to the over-salted taste and convenience of canned goods. According to Dr. Marion Nestle:

“Companies have free rein to add as much salt to their processed or prepared foods as they like. The makers of processed foods do focus-group testing to see how consumers like the taste of their products. They invariably find that below a certain level of salt–the “bliss” point—their study subjects say they don’t like it. Soups are a good example. A measly half-cup portion of the most popular Campbell’s soups contains 480 mg of sodium or more than a full gram of salt (4 grams to a teaspoon).”

And nutrition standards only allow 480 mg sodium (the equivalent of more than 1 gram of salt) per serving. Let’s be honest, who’s only eating half a cup of soup? So if you are now becoming concerned with all those question marks you are consuming, let me propose an easy solution: let’s make soup at home.

As I have said before, what I think holds people back from cooking is not necessarily money, but a sense of comfort in the kitchen. And for the busy, on-a-budget, nervous cook, soup is a great way to get your feet wet and learn how to make healthy, low sodium meals at home.

Why? Well, two things make soup the ultimately easy homemade meal:

1) You can use pretty much any vegetables you have lying around – frozen peas and corn are hearty and nutritious, leftovers always work well, even leafy greens in a light broth can be comforting – which enables you to avoid grocery store wastefulness and make low sodium meals without spending much money.

2) With the right tools – I think you all know by now that I’m talking about an immersion blender – you can whip up fresh soup in a matter of minutes without making a mess. It can be a one-pot clean up.

Soup also doesn’t need much to be tasty, and if you want to add depth, there are simple no-salt tricks that can enhance flavor:

  • Roast or caramelize your vegetables first – this will bring out the natural smoky and sweet notes of your tomatoes, cauliflower, onions, corn, fennel….well you get the point.
  • Top it off with fresh herbs. Not only does it perk up your taste buds, it can turn a bowl of slop into something that looks refined.
  • Add a dollop of heavy cream or crème fraiche to lighten the taste. The cream may mute the color, but the taste will become richer.
  • Gentle citrus notes, like a squeeze of orange, can add a surprising brightness to soup and work well with root vegetables and squash.
  • A pinch of spice never hurts. Stir in some curry powder (great with pea soup and cauliflower) or sprinkle some red chili pepper flakes before serving. If someone wasn’t paying attention before, they will be now.

I created this particular caramelized fennel corn chowder recipe on the fly after assessing the ingredients I already had in my possession. It took me less than 30 minutes to make and consisted of only 5 products: fennel, roasted garlic, frozen corn, heavy cream, and low sodium bread. So take a spin with some homemade soup this week, the weather is perfect for it. If you need suggestions for good veggie combinations, my friend who currently resides in London Town loves this NY Times roundup.

Soup on.

Ingredients:

  • 1 head of garlic, roasted
  • 1 bulb of fennel, diced or sliced, either way it’s getting blended
  • 1 ½ cups of frozen corn
  • 1 teaspoon of olive oil
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 tablespoon of heavy cream (0 mg of sodium)
  • fresh herbs, chives and parsley work well, roughly chopped or torn
  • 2 slices of low sodium bread (10 mg of sodium per slice), cut into 1/2 inch squares and toasted

Directions:

1. Spoiler alert: this recipe was so quick because I already had roasted the garlic for a dinner party the night before. To roast the garlic, cut off the tops of the entire head of garlic and put into a little boat made of tinfoil. Drizzle a teaspoon of olive oil onto the garlic and throw it into an oven on 375 degrees for 40 minutes or until the garlic is soft. If you are in a rush though, skip the roasted garlic and simply sauté in some olive oil in your soup pot on medium heat.

2. Heat the tablespoon of olive oil in your soup pot over medium heat. When hot, add the fennel (and garlic if you are not roasting it). Stir constantly and allow the fennel to soften and turn to a nice, brown caramel color. Should take 5 minutes.

3. Add the corn and allow it to soften for another 5 minutes.

4. Add the roasted garlic (if you made roasted garlic) and the cup of water. Allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes to draw out the flavors.

5. Take pot off of the flame and plug in your immersion blender. Blend on low to medium for 2 minutes or until the consistency is nice and creamy. You can always add an extra step of running the soup through a sieve if you want it to be absolutely silky.

6. Put pot back on the burner and turn flame to low to reheat. 5 minutes before serving/eating, add the cream and stir.

7. Ladle steaming soup into a gigantic bowl or cup and top with fresh herbs, croûtons, and pepper flakes if desired.



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