Monthly Archives: May 2010

Clean Up on Aisle Four

You may be wondering, what is that?  Is that Sodium Girl’s worst nightmare?  A kitchen covered in ants?  Thankfully, it is not, or else I might have left the house never to return again.  I have a serious fear of the little guys.  So small.  I just don’t trust them.

While this scene is not my worst nightmare, it is my biggest pet peeve.  A huge spill during a hurried cooking session.  With a quick twitch of the hand, I turned this cute little 1/4 cup of quinoa

into a sea of grains bouncing all over my linoleum floor. In the brief moment, during which I quickly decided between screaming or staying clam, I realized that it is messes like this one that keep people from cooking.  As nice as it is to have a freshly made, home cooked meal, the sometimes endless pots and pans, not to mention splashes and spills, feel like way too much work than it is worth.

But here’s what I have to say about that point of anxiety: get a dustbuster.  No seriously.  Go out, grab a cordless vacuum that you can keep near your kitchen and get over it.  Messes are bound to happen.  And while they may sometimes send us over the edge – dropping your blush and breaking it in the bathroom sink was really the last thing you needed this morning, right Waiwa? – they are good reminders to breath and have patience.

Also, once you get out that dustubster, I’m sure you’ll realize your floor is covered in more than just quinoa and actually, that it needed a good scrub. Cleanliness is next to godliness, right?  So not only will you have a healthy, low sodium  meal to eat, but a kitchen floor that makes you look as sexy as those guys in Clash of the Titans.

If you need more convincing, check out this beautiful potato salad – the reason for the quinoa spill in the first place – and find the recipe on food52.com.

In the end, cooking low sodium meals from scratch is worth it.  Even if it costs you a moment or two of clean up.  Happy Holiday Weekend and I’ll see you on Tuesday. Chow on.

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Healthy Foods

Meet chard.  It is a beautiful, leafy green vegetable whose stems come in an array of colors, from red, to white, to gold, to even rainbow. Chard is super healthy for you and an excellent source of vitamin A and iron. It can be sauteed, steamed, even baked and I throw it in everything from pasta to frittata. The leaves have a slightly bitter, salty taste (which is actually a plus for a low sodium cook as it provides savory notes, naturally). The stems have a bit more of a buttery flavor and add a great a great crunch to dishes, especially if you are pairing it with a noodle or soft grain.

Now meet me. Sodium Girl, by day and now the SF Healthy Foods Examiner by…well, by day as well. By night, I’m usually asleep. But either way, for the majority of the day, I am your devoted guide to healthy eating in this wonderful city by the bay and beyond.

I kind of feel like I am suddenly balancing two personalities, like Clark Kent and Superman or Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana, and I kind of like it. But rest assured that these alter-egos, unlike my predecessors, will not lead completely separate lives. That just sounds exhausting and who has the time (or flexibility) to undertake major costume changes in a phone booth.

Instead, I’ve decided on the much saner schedule of linking to my new content on the Examiner each week as a part of Sodium Girl’s “Good Eats” category.  As the SF Healthy Foods writer, I will be reviewing restaurants and local food-related activities that are “special diet friendly” and of course, can accommodate any health related food need. So I promise, it is information that you can use, not just shameless promotion. Although, I’m not beyond that either.

If you’re ready to give it a go (and I am!) here is the first of the articles, a snap shot of supper at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar and Chef Jamie Lauren’s willingness to rethink her menu to meet her diners’ needs. And to see where else you can find Sodium Girl on the interweb, check out the new “Press” tab.  See, I told you I’m not beyond shameless promotion.

Now, I must be off to save the world, one sodium free meal at a time. ‘Til then, read freely and chow on.

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The Dehydrator

A few weeks ago, when I was having a minor operation, Boy was thoughtful enough to buy me a little get well gift. It was a totally unnecessary, completely adorable gesture that warmed my heart and really did make me feel better.

And I bet you’re thinking, he probably got her some flowers, a good book, or maybe a DVD set of the past 800 billion seasons of Lost (which I am so behind on that I think, like the Harry Potter craze, I will have to completely ignore instead of trying to catch up and admit to my complete, pop culture disconnection).

But I’m sorry to say you’re wrong. The gift was not a bouquet of lilies. Nor was it a book, a DVD set, or a box of chocolates. It was in fact something more useful, delicious, and entertaining than all four of those options. It was a dehydrator.

Now, Boy and I have only tested this monsterous machine once – to make dehydrated bananas, which look like slugs but taste like banana bread – but I see endless batches of low sodium fruit snacks and beef jerky in our future.  The dehydrator is first and foremost useful for making low sodium treats on the cheap – and thank goodness, because those plastic tins of dried fruit from Whole Foods were really starting to cut into my bank account.

But the dehydrator can do much more than slim down an entire 3-D pear to a 2-D slice of perfect proportion. The dehydrator is also a wonderful tool for making travel-freindly meals. For only $53, I am now able to make all kinds of dried, low sodium dishes that I can easily pack for the trips abroad and adventures in the wild.

While available backpacking food is incredibly space efficient, it is also extremely high in sodium.  So usually, when I travel or camp, I have to forgo these options and find flat, non-perishable items (like tortillas, granola, and sodium free nori sheets) that I can stick in my bag and nibble upon. These solutions work, but the low sodium, space-friendly choices are pretty limited and tend to not be very nutritious or filling.

With my new toy, though, I can now reduce entire pots of vegetable heavy, carb-filled pastas, rice dishes, and soups into travel-sized portions. And when I’m hungry, all I have to do is add hot water and chow down.

I am still not sure how to properly preserve the food without salt – and after my experiment with bacon, my stomach is a little reticent to risk another round of self-imposed food poisoning.  But as I have a four week back packing trip coming up in my near future, expect some major research in the coming months.

So its time to plug that dehydrator in and get plugging on some salt and moisture free recipes. And  no matter where you are, or what deserted road you’ll travel, you’ll be able to chow on.

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Friday Food Porn

Lock up your daughters. Shield your eyes. Pull out your one dollar bills. It’s time for Friday Food Porn.

Why a post of pictures, you may ask? Well, I’ve been traveling a lot lately, so my time in the kitchen has been few and far between (except when I took over my brother’s stove on Monday). So while I do not have a sodium free recipe or time saving tip to share with you today, I do have a library of gorgeous sodium free food pictures for your scanning pleasure. And you know you’re excited.

Today’s installment is from my recent menu tasting for my upcoming nuptials. And yes, this may be my favorite part of the entire party planning process (although hanging with mom while picking out linens is also a blast…hi Mom). But before I release you to feast your eyes upon the incredible dishes we “critiqued”/devoured, let me set the scene:

Twelve dapper looking family members, in his and her Thursday best, gathered around a rectangular table, anxiously awaiting the appetizers (dim sum and mexican-inspired bites), the first course (an heirloom tomato salad), the entree (a choice of spice crusted lamb, roasted halibut, or butternut squash ravioli with brown butter and sage), dessert (this is top secret information), and the post dessert/let’s keep ’em dancing food (also top secret).

Already sounds overwhelmingly delicious, right? Well, here’s one more important detail. While the eleven other guests shared plates of the previously listed courses, the wonderful, genius, totally accommodating catering company created separate, low sodium versions for me. But we’re not talking a few dumplings here and a chunk of fish there. I mean they made entire servings of each dish for me – two steaming baskets full of salt-free chicken shu mei and vegetarian potstickers, a whole plate of halibut, a whole plate of lamb, a whole plate of ravioli, and everything in between.

For some, the amount of food may have sent off a signal to that part of the brain (which I don’t have) that says, this is too much food and I should slow down, share with others, or save some for leftovers. But as I gazed across the sea of plates in front of me, I didn’t see a grossly large quantity of meat and vegetables, but an opportunity to eat an endless amount of flavorful, low sodium food. And I happily worked my way through each plate, giving my gracious hosts my honest opinions, which were pretty incomprehensible since my mouth was full of food. This is my kind of bridal diet.

So without further ado, enjoy six pictures of low sodium wonder. And if you haven’t been convinced yet that low sodium food can be extraordinary, just be prepared to have your mind blown.

Chow on!

To start, a basket of freshly made chicken shu mei dumplings and vegetable pot stickers in green colored dough (not pictured because I ate them before my camera could capture them).

And a plate full of plantain and guacamole chips, spicy pulled chicken in matzo meal crusted baskets, and plantain empenadas.

Next, a pinwheel of beautiful heirloom tomatoes, resting on a bed of arugula for a peppery taste, and coated in a low sodium balsamic reduction for a sweet balance.

And finally, the trio of lamb with a roasted tomato and herb pesto sauce, served over steamed asparagus and roasted fingerling potato shoots…

…the roasted halibut, surrounded by a medley of mushrooms, spring squash, fava beans, and purple carrots…

…and my personal favorite, the butternut squash ravioli, topped by a hat made from a roasted tomato and a gigantic roasted onion. It was so good, it deserves to be shown twice.

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Eating in the Emerald City

On Sunday, I followed the yellow brick road (a flight on Virgin Airlines), from Kansas (San Francisco) to the Emerald City (Seattle), to see the Wizard (my brother) receive his PhD in Astrobiology (well…that one is actually real).

It was only my second time in this waterfront town and, while I don’t know much about its history, I do know it is home to some wonderful food. As a side note, it is also home to some wonderful music and people as well – just in case you are in the area.

I was staying down the street from Pike Place, a roving system of open-air hallways filled to the brim with produce stands and husky men, lofting freshly scaled fish over the heads of awe-struck tourists. With endless, rainbowed rows of chard, rhubarb, squash, and the such, you can easily get lost in this culinary wonderland. And if it weren’t for the smell of smelt, you might just stay forever.

While I did have a chance to make myself some low sodium fare from the market – a medley of braised, baby purple artichokes and browned trumpet mushrooms to be exact – I also found time to enjoy some extraordinary meals on the town. The real standout was our first dinner at Tilth. While doing some restaurant research – i.e. watching Top Chef Masters – I discovered an adorable organic chef (Maria Hines) with an equally quaint restaurant set in an old Seattle home. Chef Hines specializes in fresh, local, organic food that is delicately prepared to bring out natural flavors. Which in my books translates to a perfect place for someone on a low sodium diet.

Before I launch into the food porn from the evening, though, I want to mention a few important details. On my behalf, my adorable mother called ahead to warn the kitchen that someone with strict dietary needs would be coming in that evening. Although they confirmed that they would take care of me, she wanted to make sure I had a meal that was as spectacular as everyone else’s. Not just a plate of steamed veggies and sauteed fish. So, as any proud mother would do, she directed them to my blog. Ok, that part is a little embarrassing and there is no way to know whether or not anyone from their kitchen checked, but the point is, the more information you can provide, the better service you will receive.

As for the food, it was incredible. Between the home-like ambiance and the shared, small plates, the evening felt overwhelmingly cozy.  What impressed me most about the food was the fact that the chef prepared a special, low sodium amuse bouche and a small, dessert bite (you know, the ones that come with the bill?) so that I was not left out of the pre and post meal treats. It was that extra care and attention that really put this dining experience over the top.

So with that, join me as I click my heals and launch into a dreamy, low sodium dinner that was beyond all expectations…

To start, a spoonful of single morel mushroom, bathed in a citrus vinaigrette with a leaf of peppery arugula.

Second, a mini cast iron casserole filled with baked broccoli and a few drizzles of fine olive oil.

And third, a pan seared halibut (with an impossibly perfect crunch) over herbed, artichoke heart orzo. As if that wasn’t enough, the fanfare of this dish continued with a citrus, wine, butter sauce (poured slowly by one of the waitresses) and a nest of fried artichoke leaves to top it all off.

And for the finale, we actually headed back to the hotel for dessert and dug our spoons into a pot of vanilla creme brulee, which is usually made with cream, eggs, sugar, and vanilla bean and is most likely sodium safe (but always check).

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Risotto, the San Francisco Treat

Creamy, warm, melt-in-your mouth delicious. I’m not talking about a chocolate fountain (although that sounds pretty good, even at 9am). I’m talking risotto, a traditional Italian rice dish that requires patience and love as you gradually coax the little rices to release their magical starch and create the illustrious, infamous texture that is good enough for the cooking gods.

Now if you are anything like me, you probably think/thought/still think that risotto should be left to the professionals. And I’ll agree that yes, indeed, the professionals can make a mean bowl of delicately textured risotto while yours/mine/everyone else’s ends up more like savory rice pudding – just as tasty, but a perhaps a little heavier.

But I believe that risotto is one of those dishes that you make according to your own likes and dislikes. Like pasta, the more you make it, the more you will come to realize the “doneness” you personally desire – some like the rice to be more on the melty (ie mushy) side while others wish it to be al dente, with a little more bite. Some like the risotto to be filled with cream and cheese, while others make it heavy with vegetables and the natural juices they release.

Although risotto has its culinary roots and traditional preparations, the mere idea of the dish is a great canvas upon which to play. And as a low sodium cook, it is a wonderful starting place from which to riff and ramble and create something really special.

So all of this talk of risotto naturally comes to one conclusion – I’m currently obsessed with it. First, there were the risotto cakes. Then I had the most unbelievable spring pea risotto at Incanto in Noe Valley (straight off the menu since they did not make it with broth and used mascarpone instead of traditional parmesan, kind of an unbelievable low sodium experience). Then I re-made the fennel risotto cakes for a friend’s bachelorette party. And most recently, I enjoyed a delicious low sodium, organic version of Farm & a Frying Pan’s Lemon Risotto at my blogger dinner. Perhaps this fixation is due to the spring season (quickly becoming summer), a time in which we have access to so many flavorful ingredients and foraged delicacies (it is morel time and I love it). But no matter the reason or the season, risotto is a great dish to try and something that definitely gets better with time.

So here is F & FP’s Lemon Risotto recipe with a few low sodium substitutions. Channel your inner Italian mama (or papa) and chow on. Magiamo!

Ingredients:

  • 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 1/2 cups arborio rice
  • 5 cups low sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup vermouth or 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 pounds fava beans, shelled
  • 1/2 cup low sodium mascarpone
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

1. Zest and juice the lemon and set aside.

2. Heat butter and olive oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and saute 7-8 minutes, or until tender. In the meantime, pour chicken broth into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add rice to dutch oven and stir infrequently for 3-4 minutes, taking care not to burn the rice. Add vermouth (or white wine) and stir frequently until absorbed, about 5 minutes. Stir in lemon zest.

3. Add 1/2 cup of chicken broth, bring rice to a simmer, and stir infrequently until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is thick. Continue to add 1/2 cup of hot chicken broth at a time in the same manner until rice is tender, about 30 minutes. When you have about 1 cup of chicken broth left (or after about 20-25 minutes), stir in fava beans.

4. Once rice is done, stir in lemon juice to taste, cheese, parsley, and season with lots of fresh cracked pepper. Serve immediately!

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An Altered State of Mind

For some reason, we have no problem buying a pair of pants (that are obviously too long in the leg and trail dangerously past your shoes) and taking them to the local tailor to be shortened, cuffed, and fitted.  But when it comes to following a recipe, we seem reticent (if not frightened) to change any detail to fit our needs, as if altering instructions from Julia Child’s cookbook is akin to telling Coco Chanel she got her pantsuit all wrong. But we have to get over that fear for two reasons: (1) adaptation is essential to low sodium cooking and (2) creativity is key to good cooking in general.

So today, I wanted to break down for you the method I use to morph normal recipes into delicious, low sodium versions. It is not as difficult as one would think and in doing this little exercise, you will realize that you already have the skills and imagination to make similar changes on your own.

Here’s the challenge: a traditional Chicken Parmesan. Why is this difficult? Between the bread crumbs, cheese, and canned tomato sauce, you are talking lots of sodium. But with a few substitutions, and culinary liberties, it is easy to get close to the classic without all the salt. And by making these changes, the classic becomes an original.

Let’s begin with some inspiration – a recipe from Food Network’s Tyler Florence:

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 3 tablespoons
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted
  • 1/2 bunch fresh basil leaves
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, drained and hand-crushed
  • Pinch sugar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 skinless, boneless, chicken breasts (about 11/2 pounds)
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 cup dried bread crumbs
  • 1 (8-ounce) ball fresh buffalo mozzarella, water drained
  • Freshly grated Parmesan

Directions:

1. Coat a saute pan with olive oil and place over medium heat. When the oil gets hazy, add the onions, garlic, and bay leaves; cook and stir for 5 minutes until fragrant and soft. Add the olives and some hand-torn basil. Carefully add the tomatoes (nothing splashes like tomatoes), cook and stir until the liquid is cooked down and the sauce is thick, about 15 minutes; season with sugar, salt and pepper. Lower the heat, cover, and keep warm.

2. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

3. Get the ingredients together for the chicken so you have a little assembly line. Put the chicken breasts side by side on a cutting board and lay a piece of plastic wrap over them. Pound the chicken breasts with a flat meat mallet, until they are about 1/2-inch thick. Put the flour in a shallow platter and season with a fair amount of salt and pepper; mix with a fork to distribute evenly. In a wide bowl, combine the eggs and water, beat until frothy. Put the bread crumbs on a plate, season with salt and pepper.

4. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high flame in a large oven-proof skillet. Lightly dredge both sides of the chicken cutlets in the seasoned flour, and then dip them in the egg wash to coat completely, letting the excess drip off, then dredge in the bread crumbs. When the oil is nice and hot, add the cutlets and fry for 4 minutes on each side until golden and crusty, turning once.

5. Ladle the tomato-olive sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with mozzarella, Parmesan, and basil.

Okay, so there you have the original. Thanks for your help, Tyler.

Now, let’s make our adjustments. First, the olives. There is no exact, low sodium substitute for the olives, but since their purpose is about adding a unique flavor to the tomato sauce, here are three alternatives that would achieve the same goal: (1) use low sodium anchovies; (2) use low sodium ground mustard; or (3) oven roast some tomatoes and peppers to give it a smoky flavor. All three of these choices will make the canned tomato sauce more complex.

As for the tomato sauce itself, there are plenty of low sodium products out there to choose from. My favorite is the Muir Glen brand (no salt added) with only 15mg per 1/2 cup. But it is also very easy to cut up your own tomatoes and boil them down if you wish to avoid any canned items. Fresh ingredients always pack the most punch.

Next, the salt. Obviously, cut it out of the recipe. And in its place, add spices like nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and dried orange rind. A blend of fresh and dried herbs will also add strong flavor (and more importantly, smells) that are especially appropriate for Italian cooking.

Then, we have the bread crumbs. You can toast low sodium bread and crumble it yourself or use no salt added matzo meal.  Either way, you have a quick fix that will provide the desired crunch.

And finally, there is the cheese – mozzarella and parmesan. Again, there are no exact replacements. But here is what I would do. If I had my low sodium, Helluva Good Cheese lying around, I would grate that and sprinkle it on top. But if I didn’t, I would look for some low sodium swiss cheese (Primo Taglio brand – found usually at Safeway – is quite low at 35mg per slice) and also sprinkle some ricotta on top (generally low as well, around 30mg of sodium per 1/4 depending on the brand).

And there you have it. A completely revised, low sodium version of a classic dish, without the salt but full of flavor. For your cooking pleasure, here is the altered recipe:

Ingredients – Low So:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 3 tablespoons
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup diced low sodium anchovies OR 1 tablespoon ground mustard OR 2 roasted tomatoes and 1 roasted pepper, diced
  • 1/2 bunch fresh basil leaves
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans low sodium tomatoes, diced
  • Pinch sugar
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 skinless, boneless, chicken breasts (about 11/2 pounds)
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 cup dried no salt added matzo meal bread crumbs
  • 1/2 slice of Primo Taglio swiss cheese per chicken
  • Ricotta cheese, to crumble on top of chicken
  • Additional spices to play with: nutmeg, cayenne, smoked paprika, fennel, dried orange peel

So next time you are hankering for something that is usually high in salt, put on your thinking cap and your apron, and start cutting, snipping, and sewing, until you’ve altered the recipe to meet your needs.

Happy eating, happy weekend, and as always, chow on.

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