Monthly Archives: February 2010

Let’s Do Lunch

Imagine this: it has been a busy week of working late and stressful deadlines.  You barely have the minutes to fit in friends, phone calls, not to mention laundry and the less pressing tasks of working out and brushing your teeth.  You barely have the energy to pull off your boots before you crash into your comfy bed (which never felt so good) and the last thing you have time or energy to accomplish is preparing a hearty, low sodium meal for your lunch the next day.  So what is one to do when noon thirty rolls around, the brain and tummy are craving sustenance, and there is nothing around you but sodium heavy, grab and go options?

When faced with this dilemma, I often opted for salad – a little boring, but it was better, or should I say “healthier,” than buying some bananas and chocolate from the Walgreens next door.  Which I admit, I did on occasion.  Some of my favorite downtown options were Mixt Greens and Harvest & Rowe where I could create a salad to my liking and load up my leafies with fillers like hard boiled egg, avocado, and jicama.  But usually, the most substaintial options, like roasted chicken, black beans, and even many of the vegetables were filled with sodium from being preseasoned or parboiled in salt water.  So to say these lunches were satisfying is a bit of an overstatement, but they definitely did the trick.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered a spot on the Embarcadero that is able to serve up a low sodium lunch that goes beyond my wildest dreams, or my best salad creation.  Boulettes Larder is an adorable restaurant that sits nestled in the Ferry Building.  You can order take out or relax at one of the two community tables inside its doll-house-like interior.  The menu is eclectic and the food carefully crafted and as a diner, you are privy to front row seats in the open kitchen where pots boil and breads rise before your eyes.  The atmosphere is warm and welcoming and a wall of old bell jars filled with spices and herbs beckons you to stay a while and explore.  But in the many times I have passed Boulettes Larder and smelled the rich aromas wafting from its kitchen, I never dared to step in through its curtained doorway.  Neither the lamb and potato hash nor the pulled pork sandwich seemed to scream “sodium free.”

But dare I say it, I spoke to soon.  While on a lunch date there two weeks ago, I was introduced to the kind owner and head chef, Amaryll Shwertner, who, after being given my list of dietary needs, said there was plenty of options for me.  And one of these options even included soup.  It turns out, she doesn’t salt her broth.  She personally believes that the natural juices from the meat provides enough sodium to flavor the stock.  So unless one of the other line chefs salts the soup later in the day, many times her fresh vegetable purees are sodium free.

On this particular day, the asparagus soup had been salted, but the broth remained sodium free.  And let me tell you, there is nothing I find more comforting than a bowl of home-made chicken soup that has clearly been cooked with love and patience.  To make sure I wasn’t just sipping on clear consume, Amaryll threw in some fresh kale stalks that slowly cooked as I ate.   She also assured me that next time, if I called ten minutes ahead, she would be able to add more vegetables to the pot.

I’m looking forward to taking her up on her offer and coming back to this unexpected, low sodium gold mine.  Just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover, or a restaurant by its menu, and if you are able to form a relationship with the people creating your food, the possibilities can be endless.  Chow on and have a fun and food-filled weekend.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under good eats

The Vampire Slayer

While I am not a Twilight junkie, I’ll admit that I am quite intrigued by the current living dead cultural phenomenon.  If I knew pale skin and stringy hair was “hot,” I wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to soak up sun and groom myself.  I also would have bought those Ray-Bans from the ’90s.  But it isn’t just the Vampire look that excites me, it is the social embrace of an aromatic that I dearly love.  Garlic, welcome home.

I rely heavily on garlic to infuse my low sodium foods with a deeper flavor.  A few cloves will bring a richness to a simple stir fry, stock, or sauteed vegetables.  This little powerhouse packs a lot of punch.  And what I really love most about garlic is its chameleon-like properties. The strength of its taste can completely change depending on how it is cooked and even the size of its cut.  If you want it spicy and tart, leave it raw and finely diced.  If you want it sweeter and more delicate, roast it or saute until soft and cut into larger slivers or chunks.

To celebrate garlic’s many facets, I decided to make a slow roasted, rustic garlic and white bean soup last week and then kindly subjected my poor friend Katrina (a non-Vampire genius) to this potent stew right before her dentist appointment.  That must have made for an interesting check up. While I would not suggest serving this soup as a main course, its mild taste and silky texture is a perfect way to start any meal.  It pairs very well with a heavier main dish, like pasta or pizza, and lingering whispers of garlic will arise with every bite.

So instead of learning kung fu or some other form of martial arts, stave off pesky night walkers with a few bulbs of garlic and a can of beans. And to make sure you don’t scare off those you love, have some mints readily available too.  Chow on…soup, not people.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (0 mg of sodium)
  • 2 cans of no salt added cannelloni beans, drained and rinsed (40 mg of sodium per serving)
  • 4 cups water
  • 4 cloves garlic, cut in 1/2
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream (0 mg of sodium)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • tablespoon fresh thyme

Directions:

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Cut bulbs of garlic in half and set in a baking pan.  Drizzle olive oil over the open top of the cloves and cover the pan with foil.  Let the garlic roast in the oven for 40 minutes to an hour.  When it is done, you should easily be able to remove the cloves by squeezing from the top of the bulb.  Use a fork tong to help loosen the garlic.  All of this can be done the day before you make the soup.

3. Place a medium, heavy soup pot over medium heat and add butter until brown.  Since we are using very few spices in this recipe, the brown butter will act as a flavoring agent and will add a smoky, nutty taste to the soup.

4.  Add the garlic, beans, thyme, and water and bring the mixture to a boil, about ten minutes.

5.  Take soup off of heat and blend with your immersion blender until smooth.  Return to a medium flame and allow to simmer and thicken for another 20-30 minutes.

6. Once the soup has reduce by a third, add cream and pepper.

7. Keep warm, covered, and over very low heat until you serve.

Leave a comment

Filed under brunch, dinner, recipe box

A Question of Spice

It was a wonderful discovery to realize that a “low sodium diet” did not mean a “no spice” diet.  Removing salt from my bag of tricks did not limit me from using the spectrum of flavors from around the world, but instead, made me more aware of their existence and willing to try their taste.  Most spices are seeds or roots that are roasted, toasted, ground, or used whole which means they are naturally sodium free.

But be careful, not all spices are created equal.  Most commercial spice blends will add salt as an ingredient and even some of the purebreds may contain sodium to boost the taste. So it is important to only buy spices that either have a nutritional label or say they are salt and msg free somewhere on the bottle.  Some of my favorite companies include Morton & Bassett, Penzey’s Spices, and even Mrs. Dash has a line of salt free spice blends.

As for the vibrant yellow-orange granules at the top of this page, this is my good friend turmeric.  The spice comes from the dried stem of a ginger-like root which was originally cultivated in India for its rich pigment.  While it is most commonly found in prepared curry powders, turmeric is also used as a coloring agent to dye the skin, clothing, and food.  It is used in the United States as a filler for many ground mustards.  Fascinating!  And I like to use turmeric as my secret ingredient (watch out KFC) when making fried chicken.  It has a woodsy, sweet, and slightly bitter taste which brings out the heat and nuttiness of a cayenne and chicken combo.  Now how’s that for some early morning education?  Get spicy and chow on.

4 Comments

Filed under cooking, food shopping, tips & tricks

Dough Re Mi

It may seem quite odd that I would begin this week with a post about something made of flour and water after openly admitting to my inability to bake, rattle, and roll.  But I assure you, when it comes to a round ball of dough, I think have a bit more skill, or at least confidence.  And in conquering this basic yeast bread, I was able to open the door to a sodium free version of something that I dearly missed: soft-baked pretzels.

I am a city girl.  I love the rush of busy streets and the buzz of passing cars.  I like tall buildings and commuting by subway.  Most importantly, I love street food.  Well, make that “loved” street food.  Toasted almonds, steaming hot dogs, and soft-baked pretzels with grainy mustard on top – these were a few of my favorite things.  While two of the three are long-gone loves, I recently began rethinking the possibility of the pretzel.  The only thing that was standing between me and this treat was baking powder or baking soda and I already knew there was a low sodium substitute for those ingredients.  So this twisted sister had low sodium potential.  It was just a matter of me putting on my apron and making it happen.

A year ago, I bought a low sodium soft pretzel mix (0 mg of sodium) from a low sodium website and it has been sitting in my cupboard ever since, waiting for its moment to shine.  I thought that this was it, the experiment that would bring my long-forgetten purchase out of hiding, but after a pang of prepackaged guilt, I decided to forget the mix and make these little ladies from scratch.  With a little help from Epicurious.com, I found a simple New York pretzel recipe that was easily altered to be sodium free.

I know what you are thinking: a pretzel is not a pretzel without the chunky sea salt on top.  But just hold your horses for a second.  There is a low sodium solution to this dilemma.  To make up for the flavor, I added granulated garlic, red chili peppers, and a dash of smoked paprika. And to mimic the texture, I covered the pretzels with dried onion flakes.  And there you have it.  Savory, soft, and low sodium.  Different but entirely satisfying.

These heart-shaped treats were a success and really fun to make.  One word of warning, though, they do go stale quickly and have a shelf-life of two to three days at most.  But don’t be afraid to use only part of the dough and save the rest for other baking adventures.  I used my leftovers to make some pizza dough that I covered in ricotta cheese (20 mg of sodium) and sauteed kale. It would also work well as bread sticks, hot crossed buns, and probably bagels.  Let your imagination run wild and conquer those low sodium barriers.  And the next time you hurriedly pass a cart of freshly baked soft pretzels, take a second to check out who’s manning it.  It might just be me.  Chow on.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 (1/4-oz) package active dry yeast
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
  • 1 teaspoon red chili pepper
  • 3 teaspoons dried onion flakes

Directions:

1. Stir together sugar, yeast, and 1 ½ cups of lukewarm water in your mixing bowl and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.

2. Add 3 ½ cups flour, chili peppers, granulated garlic, and smoked paprika to yeast mixture and stir until it forms a dough.  I used a stand mixer and the dough hook, but if you have large biceps and patience you could definitely do this by hand.  You will have to knead the dough after mixing, adding additional flour until the dough is smooth but sticky.

3. Leave dough in bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap.  Allow the dough to rise in a draft-free, room-temperature place for 45 minutes or until it has doubled in size.

4. Find a flat work surface where you can work with the dough.  Flour it well.  Lightly roll out the dough until it is a big square that is 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick and cut into 8 equal pieces. To make mini pretzels, cut into 16 equal pieces.

5. Channel your inner kindergartner and using your palms, roll 1 piece back and forth on a clean dry work surface into a rope about a foot and a half long. If dough sticks to your hands, lightly dust them with flour.

6. Twist dough into a pretzel shape and place finished pretzels on an oiled baking sheet and continue until you use all the dough.

7. Let pretzels stand, uncovered, about 20 minutes.

8. While the pretzels rest, put oven rack in upper third of oven and preheat  to 425°F. Bring a wide 6-quart pot of water to a boil.

9. Using your hands or a spider skimmer, slide 3 pretzels, 1 at a time, to boiling water and cook.  Turn over once with tongs, until pretzels are puffed and shape is set, about 3 minutes. Transfer parboiled pretzels to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining pretzels.

10. Return the pretzels to the oiled baking sheet and brush them lightly with some of egg and sprinkle with dried onion.

11. Bake until golden brown and lightly crusted, about 35 minutes. Cool 15 minutes, then serve warm.

3 Comments

Filed under quick fix, recipe box

Cupcake Fail

Just take a gander at this cupcake.  Okay.  Go ahead, take two.  Look at the creamy, white chocolate buttercream icing with dark chocolate sprinkles on top that look like lavender pollen dusted on by a group of fairies.  And look at the muffin top, brimming with just enough moisture but hinting at a bit of crunch.  Don’t you just want to sink your teeth into this treat?  Well, if you do, be warned.  You may lose a molar.

The truth is, I made these cupcakes for a dear friend’s birthday who happens to have a gluten allergy.  So these sweet muffins were wheat and salt free.  Pretty much a cupcake’s worst nightmare.  But the restricted ingredients were not the problem here, it was my inability to follow directions.  I consider myself a good cook because I am willing to experiment, to go commando without the aid of a recipe and alter flavors and more importantly, intentions, as I go.  And this is how I’ve been able to come up with low sodium versions of standard recipes – I’m not afraid to draw outside the lines.

But when it comes to baking,  lines and measurements and exact ingredients are of the utmost importance.  And on this fateful day of cupcakery, I had none of the above.  First, I couldn’t find a recipe I liked so I decided to combine two that looked intriguing.  Fail number one.  Second, I didn’t have the right amount of eggs nor the right amount of butter, so I “made up the difference” with orange juice and applesauce.  Fail number two.  And finally, when the batter looked too runny (and since my measuring cups were already covered in soap in the sink), I decided to haphazardly throw in some extra flour until it looked right.

The result: beautiful cupcakes that tasted like dusty cardboard.  And the fate of these failed treats?  Let’s just say the two dozen goodies held the birthday candle long after it had been blown out.  Luckily, I decided to take one for the team and I ate most of the frosting off of the tops, just so the cupcakes didn’t get self conscious.  You can’t really mess up white chocolate, cream, and butter.

The point of this sad and truly wasteful tale is that you will fail.  Many times.  Especially when you are constantly trying to cook without the crutch of salt and officially rewrite recipe history.  But failure is okay.  Maybe a little embarassing, but completely normal.  And with every failure you learn a lesson that will make you an even stronger cook the next time around.  I learned that I am not a baker and next time, this friend is getting a birthday meatloaf.  Chow on.

6 Comments

Filed under cooking, tips & tricks

The Best Part of Waking Up

I was lucky in love this past weekend – trapped in the snowy Utah mountains with my best friends from high school for four glorious days. Conditions could not have been more ideal.  We had gnar pow to ski in, a hot tub to soak in, and tons of fresh food to sink our teeth in.  Our daily routine was simple: wake up, ski, eat, ski, tub, eat, sleep.  Everything the body could possibly desire.

On Sunday evening, dinner prep was in my hands.  Or more accurately, I stole it from everyone else’s.  The refrigerator was outfitted with steak filets, some white onions, and a carton of button mushrooms.  So I figured grilled steaks topped with caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms would be a classic hit.  The real trick, though, came in marinating the steaks.  Although meat has its own set of natural flavors that are finger lickin’ good, it is always nice to surprise people with an unexpected taste.  To “kick it up a notch” if you will.

In my kitchen, I have every seasoning tool I could possibly need.  But in a foreign ski house?  Well, you can imagine that the sodium free flavorings were scarce.  But this was far from a hopeless situation.  Rather an opportunity for creative brilliance.  Because even in the most dire sodium free situations, I can guarantee you that there are plenty of punchy flavors available. You  just have to know where to look. Think outside the spice rack.

Even though I didn’t have salt free smoked paprika or salt free lemon pepper to rub on my steak, I did have two common household items to make the meat tender, juicy, smoky, and bittersweet: BEER and COFFEE.  Most houses, especially ski houses, will have these two ingredients and together they draw out the natural flavors hiding in the meat.  A quick sear on the grill and a spattering of onions and ‘shrooms and we had ourselves a meal worthy of any Chicago steakhouse.

So remember, interesting flavors are lurking everywhere.  Don’t be afraid to mix and match your everyday noshings with more complex recipes.  You never know what you’ll discover or how a few drops of brew will heighten the entire eating experience.  Crack a cold one open and chow on.

2 Comments

Filed under cooking, tips & tricks

All Sunchoked Up

There are certain foods that are in your cooking comfort zone – tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, even eggplant to a degree.  Then there are others which you know taste good – they said so on Top Chef – but are so alien to you, that any time you see them in the grocery store, you hurry past and hope they didn’t see you coming.  Sunchokes are one of those foods.

I most commonly have heard of sunchokes as the base of a creamy, wintery soup for which people hmm and haw over its delicate taste.  As a relative of the sunflower, sunchokes have a taste more akin to the artichoke and a shape that resembles bulbs of ginger.

I’ll tell you what made me most nervous about this vegetable – I had no idea how I was going to peel the little sucker.  With all its curves and pointy nubs, it seemed like it would take hours just to prep two handfuls of them, which didn’t seem worth it.  Sorry sunchoke.

But lucky for me, Boy thought very differently and came home one night with a bag full of sunchokes.  Our assignment – cook them.  But since we were both so unfamiliar with this ingredient, we decided to try not one, but two recipes: Sunchoke Soup with Pumpkin Seeds and Sunchoke Chips.  We kept the flavors of both recipes very simple so we could experience the full effect of the ingredient – we weren’t really sure what they tasted like.  Turns out, that on their own, sunchokes pack quite a punch.  And while the soup took some time to make, the chips could not have been easier.

Although peeling does take some time and effort, it moves along much quicker than I had imagined and for some recipes, like the chips, the sunchokes taste better with the skin on. I also want to add that I think artichokes are an even more time consuming vegetable – you have to cut the tips of their leaves and steam them and then take out the heart and so on and so on.  So when it comes to making a soup with that same earthy flavor, I would much rather grab a few sunchokes and get cooking.

So the next time you find yourself hiding from a mysterious, but intriguing ingredient, remember to set aside a few hours and give it a chance. You may find your new favorite flavor enhancer or go-to crowd pleaser.  You just have to be willing to take a leap of faith and see what happens.  Sometimes you will fail, but most of the time, you will come out on top with something really delicious to eat.  Chow on.

Sunchoke Soup

with Roasted Pumpkin Seeds and Fried Shimeji Mushrooms

Ingredients:

  • 10 sunchoke bulbs (0 mg of sodium)
  • 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter (0 mg of sodium)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped (0 mg of sodium)
  • 6 cups of water
  • pumpkin seeds, shelled and unsalted (0 mg of sodium)
  • shimeji mushrooms (or any kind that you have in your fridge)
  • 1 tablespoon of sesame oil (0 mg of sodium)
  • 1 teaspoon of any white vinegar (0 mg of sodium)
  • 1 tablespoon of crème fraiche or heavy cream (0 mg of sodium)

Directions:

1. Begin by peeling your sunchokes.  To make it easier, first cut off the knots on the sunchoke.  This will give you a more even surface for peeling without losing too much of the ingredient.

2. Cut the sunchoke into smaller, round pieces and set aside in a bowl that contains 2 cups of water and the vinegar.  This will keep the sunchokes from turning brown.

3. Heat butter in a pot over medium heat and carefully stir until the butter has been browned.  Without much seasoning in this recipe, the brown butter gives it a nice, nutty flavor that will enhance the whole dish.

4. Add the garlic to the butter and let saute until soft.

5. Add the remaining 4 cups of water and bring to a boil.

6. Add the sunchokes to the pot and allow them to simmer for 30-40 minutes, or until they are soft.  Be prepared to wait, so either pay your bills or play a game.  I hope your scrabble board never looks like mine.

7. When the sunchokes have softened, take an immersion blender to the pot and let it go.  Blend until the soup is silky.

8. While the soup is reducing – you want it to be thick (not gummy), like the consistency of a potato leek soup – heat a nonstick pan.

9. Add pumpkin seeds.  Watch them carefully.  They will plump up when they are toasted.  Remove the seeds and keep them covered and warm.

10. Add the sesame oil to the pan and heat over medium high flame.

11. When oil is hot, add the shimeji mushrooms and fry them until a golden brown.  Put them aside as well.

12. To serve, add a dollop of crème fraiche to heaping bowl of the hot sunchoke soup.  Top with pumpkin seeds and mushrooms and enjoy.

Sunchoke Chips

Ingredients:

  • 4 sunchoke bulbs, washed and unpeeled
  • 1/2 cup of canola oil

Directions:

1. Begin to heat a large, deep pan (like a wok) and add the canola oil.

2. Clean the sunchokes and then use a mandolin or knife to slice thin, chip rounds.

3. Use the spit test to see if oil is hot. (Spit test is when you flick some water or a small piece of the sunchoke into the oil. If it hisses and spits back at you, the oil is ready to go).

4. In small batches, add the sunchokes to the oil and let them fry for 2-3 minutes. You do not want the pan to be crowded.

5. Remove the sunchokes with tongs or a spider skimmer and let them cool on a paper-towel lined plate. Repeat step 4 and 5 until all the sunchoke slices have been crisped.

6. You can dust them with lemon pepper, cayenne, or smoked paprika, but they taste quite flavorful without any spice. To serve, scoop them into a paper bag (if you are taking them out) or a bowl (if you are staying at home). Watch out potatoes, these guys have your number.


5 Comments

Filed under dinner, lunch, quick fix, recipe box