Monthly Archives: June 2010

Biting Mr. Bittman: Succotash in Disguise

It’s officially summer! And between a few warm afternoons in San Francisco (made even more spectacular by parades and baseball games) and now the sweltering heat of the New York City streets (yes, I’ve left the best coast for the east for a quick work/pleasure getaway), I’m slapping on sunscreen, putting on my jumper, and soaking in all that this season has to offer–which above all else includes perfectly ripe, summertime produce.

Two of the poster children for this season’s pantheon of vegetables include corn (yum) and summer squash (yummer). And when you put them together, you have a dish that literally bursts with sunshine: SUCCOTASH!

Now, succotash is not traditionally made with squash. Or carrots, or tomatillos, or a handful of ingredients that I decided to use. In its original form, it includes corn (sometimes hominey) and lima beans as the main ingredients and usually a tomato-based broth for some background noise. But people often riff on this equation, building around the classical framework, to give it an individual twist. And as usual, Mark Bittman happens to be one of those people.

Mark’s version of this southern staple not only forgets the lima beans (who needs ’em), but includes some Italian flare with noodles that cook along with the rest of the pot of vegetables. Mark advises the rest of us home cooks that succotash “is flexible not only in its flavorings but in its ingredients,” and that we should “think of it as a delicious mélange of whatever is on hand.” Like a frittata or a casserole, this dish is a great way to celebrate (or use up) the veggies waiting in your fridge, and even though substitutions may alter the succotash from its standard look, it still counts.

With endorsement like that, I didn’t need much else convincing to give it a try

Mark’s recipe calls for the following ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or 2 tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup corn kernels (from 2 or 3 ears)
  • 1 cup diced zucchini or summer squash (from 2 or 3 small vegetables)
  • 1 medium onion or 3 or 4 shallots, diced
  • 1/4 teaspoon minced garlic, optional
  • 1 or 2 sprigs tarragon
  • 4 plum or 2 large tomatoes, diced

Because the majority of the ingredients are fresh vegetables and herbs, there is not much to alter in order to make it low sodium–just make sure your butter is unsalted. But, Mark does say, in the intro to his recipe, that succotash can definitely withstand a “Southwestern treatment,” and he suggest adding “good chili powder, a little bit of cayenne, and perhaps some cilantro.”

So, to give it my Sodium Girl spin, I took his Southwestern cue and added a fresh poblano pepper and a tomatillo to the pot. And in order to up-the-anty in terms of flavor, I cooked these ingredients and the corn on the grill, adding a bit of char and smoke flavor as well. Once all the ingredients are prepped, all that is left is leaving them to stew. Throw them over a medium flame and let the heat do the rest of the work, coaxing the veggies to release their natural juices and spices in order to create a silky sauce with bite.

Succotash can be eaten on its very own–served hot or cold–but also works well as an accompaniment or sauce for your main dish, like this beautifully seared piece of halibut.

So head out to your backyard garden (i.e. local market), and pick up a few ears of corn and some summertime produce to make your own version of succotash. You’ll quickly discover that, when your ingredients are in-season, they need very little else but the sunshine to taste good. Chow on.

Ingredients:

  • 2 ears of corn, husked
  • 1 tomatillo
  • 1 poblano pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 cloves of garlic – diced
  • 1 small shallot – diced
  • 3 carrots, cut into small circles
  • 2 large, juicy tomatoes, heirloom if in season
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1 or 2 pinches of red pepper flake
  • 2 medium sized, summer squash – diced
  • 1 lime

Directions:

1. Start by washing and prepping all of your ingredients: dice the garlic, shallots, and squash; cube the tomatoes; and cut the carrots into circles. Get your grill burning (or if you don’t have a grill, turn on your oven – you can roast the corn, pepper, and tomatillo in there to achieve a similar smokey flavor).

2. Wrap pieces of foil around the corn and throw it on the grill for 15 minutes. Put the pepper and tomatillo directly on the grill – allowing the skin to char – for five minutes. Turn the pepper and tomatillo and cook for another five minutes. Remove corn, pepper, and tomatillo from grill and allow to cool.

3. In a medium pot, over a medium flame, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil.

4. Once hot, add the garlic and shallots, and remember to stir so that they do not stick to the bottom of the pot and burn. The garlic will become a nice shade of tan and the shallots will soften when ready.

5. Add the carrots and allow them to brown as well.

6. Add the tomatoes, 1/2 cup of water, and the spices (ground black pepper, ground mustard, and red pepper flakes) to the pot. Bring to a boil and then allow the vegetables to cook and reduce (over medium flame) for another 15 to 20 minutes.

7. Remove the charred skin from the pepper and tomatillo and dice (removing the seeds from the poblano first). Add them to the pot.

8. Remove the kernels carefully from the cob and add those to the pot as well.

9. While the vegetables cook and release their juices, heat the other tablespoon of olive oil, over medium heat, in a small saute pan.

10. Add the summer squash to the pan and allow to brown for 5 minutes on each side. Turn off heat, but do not add the squash to the rest of the vegetables yet.

11. Right before you serve, add half of the summer squash to the pot of vegetables and squeeze in juice from half of the lime.

12. Plate by scooping heaping spoonfuls of the succotash into a wide-brimmed bowl and decorate the top with leftover squash. Enjoy.

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Pasta Gina

Because of my dietary sensitivities, there are certain foods that I avoid when dining out: pizza, dim sum, Philly cheese steaks, and most Italian food. True, my choice to not eat these delicacies is based on culinary stereotypes. But they are not unfounded and the majority of these dishes, especially when prepared by someone else, will be full of cheese, cured meats, soy sauce, and other salty ingredients. So if you’re thinking about picking up some ravioli take-out, fuggedaboutit!

But as it often happens, I was wrong. And no, I’m not afraid to admit it.

Thankfully, after seven plus years of low sodium detective work, I defied my instincts and walked into a small, Italian corner store. I had a few minutes to spare and something was telling me that I had some low sodium snooping to do. It turns out, a lot of Italian food, made in the traditional Italian fashion, contains very little salt. Surprising, sì?

Basic tomato sauces, Tuscan bread, and most pastas are all made without salt due to the fact that other critical Italian ingredients–like cured meats and cheeses–contain enough sodium for the entire dish. So in reality, many of these small, Italian delis are low sodium hot spots, selling products that you cannot find in normal grocery stores. And if you live in the city, chances are that you have an Italian delicatessen no further than a tomato’s throw from your doorstep, and I highly suggest doing some urban adventuring to find the specialty markets that lurk nearby.

My particular neighborhood favorite is Pasta Gina, just blocks from my own San Francisco villa (slash condo). And for the past year, I have frequented Gina’s counter for pounds of fresh pappardelle, rigatoni, and fettucini, that come in a rainbow of garden-fresh flavors, from simple pepper and garlic, to lemon, herb, and spinach–all salt-free.

Beyond the salt-free pastas, though, Gina’s counter is also filled with an olfactory festival of prepared Italian foods–from Panko-crusted chicken, a refrigerator of sauces, a flurry of desserts, and always tubs full of roasted garlic–dishes that I look at longingly and try to recreate in my own kitchen. But it was upon a recent visit, for my latest Examiner.com article, that I noticed something strange about Gina’s offerings. The words “dairy-free,” “vegan,” “gluten-free,” and even “tomato-free” crowded her menu board, like tourists on the Ponte Vecchio. Clearly, it was strange enough to see Italian food made without such customary ingredients, like tomatoes; but the spectrum of choices on Gina’s diet-friendly menu was even more intriguing.

So how did this little Italian market become a haven for those with dietary needs? Turns out both Gina and her husband have culinary limitations of their own. Gina was diagnosed with Chrone’s disease when she was nineteen and her husband is lactose-intolerent. And as a result, they have learned to expertly navigate their cooking challenges while creating authentic Italian food that is so good, it would even knock off the orange clogs from Mario Batali’s feet.

From personal experience, Gina knows how hard it is to eat out with health-related, dietary needs, and so she tries to make food that will suit anyone’s requirements. She always keeps fresh ingredients in the back kitchen and she told me, that if there is something you want made in a specific way, “just ask.” Even more wonderful, it turns out Gina does not roast any of her vegetables with salt. Instead, she uses a clever combination of oils, herbs, and citrus to give the them the texture and flavor she desires. So fuggedabout a simple pound of uncooked pasta and grab a pound of orange-roasted beets. Or ask Gina for a sodium free version of her gorgeous raviolis.

The next time you think something is off-limits, give it a try. These days, it seems more and more people are sympathetic to (or aware of) health-related, dietary needs, and simple, fresh cooking is becoming the norm. Which makes cooking, eating, and ordering all the more simple and all the more delicious.

Mangiamo and as always, chow on!

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Through the Grapevine

You know what doesn’t have any sodium in it? Having a glass of wine with good friends. It is as sodium-free as sodium-free can be. And sometimes, after a rough week, when medical needs seem to swoop in unexpectedly like a rainstorm in June (seriously, what is going on with this weather?), what you really need is some quality hang time with your buds while sipping on something that can be directly ordered off a menu.

The truth is, although completely possible–and just wait until you see the incredible restaurant reviews coming next week–dining out with a restricted diet can get exhausting. So it is nice to be in a social setting without worrying about whether your pinot was previously blanched in salted water or your cab was sauteed in salted butter.

But while this tale of crushed grapes and lifted spirits is a great reminder to take out some time to treat yourself, no post would be complete without a satisfying, low sodium recipe for your belly. For while a glass of wine may perk up your taste buds, it is not a meal replacement. But a glass of wine is a great source of flavor when cooking and I often tell kitchens to use the sweet elixir to make a simple, low sodium sauce. Little culinary suggestions never hurt.

So here is a peppercorn, cream sauce recipe that uses a base of white wine to create a rich aroma and taste. Ladle the velvety sauce over pork, pasta, fish, or even steak to give your meal warmth and elegance. And remember, that although dining with restrictions can be challenging, it enables you to be more creative and to look at everyday ingredients–like that well-deserved, glistening glass of wine–in a whole new light.

Chow on.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup chopped shallots
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 3 tablespoons white wine (or brandy)
  • 2 tablespoons black peppercorns

Directions:

1. In a skillet or sauce pan, cook the butter over medium heat and allow it to brown. The butter is ready when it turns a nice tan color and smells slightly nutty.

2. Add chopped shallots to the pan and sauté 2 minutes.

3. Reduce heat to low and add the white wine, whipping cream, and peppercorns.

4. Increase the heat and bring the mixture to a rolling boil and cook until the sauce thickens, about 6 minutes.

5. When the sauce is slow to run off your spoon, turn off heat and add to your dish (whether it is pasta or protein).

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Biting Mr. Bittman – Creamy Chicken Curry

Pack your knives and hop into your time machine, because we are heading back to 2008. It’s time for another installment of the Biting Mr. Bittman, series and today we take a recipe from Mark’s Diner’s Journal column, in which he remixes an Indian classic – Creamy Chicken Curry.

Before I launch into the recipe for this dish, I will take a second to add a small disclaimer: I’ve only eaten real chicken curry once before in my life, and that was almost eight years ago after a few bottles of beer (I was in Europe, so it was legal). So, I cannot say, with any confidence, that I know what a traditional curry should taste like. But with help from some native cooks with native noses, I was informed of the spices which are pertinent and should be prominent in the dish. With that knowledge, I marched onward to create a low sodium version of the classic, anxious in my understanding of good curry, but confident in my aptitude for good food.

And as an additional side-note (I promise we will get to the food at some point), Mark’s version of curry is a far cry from the labored recipes of true Indian chefs. His dish aims to be quick and satisfying, and if that means taking a few shortcuts–like purchasing blended curry powder rather than mixing his own–then so be it. I admire Mark’s gusto for making a recipe his own and for unapologetically making changes as he sees fit. And I will attempt to do the same.

As Mark’s recipe is somewhat simple, I had to do very little to make it low sodium. The real big changes lie in choosing a low sodium spice blend and low sodium yogurt. While Mark’s curry mix most assuredly had salt in it, I used a flavoring called Maharaja Spice from Penzey’s that was sodium free. But in order to boost flavor, I also choose to sauté a few extra spices–like mustard seed, cardamom pods, black and red peppercorns, fresh garlic cloves, fresh ginger, and a cinnamon stick–in the heated oil at the very beginning of the cooking process. By cooking these spices in their whole state, I was able to make the expected aromas stand out and use the pre-mixed curry powder like a subtle backdrop in the dish, rather than an overwhelming cloak.

The only other low sodium swap I had to make was to use low sodium coconut-based yogurt (10mg of sodium per serving) in place of a milk-based product (approximately 100mg of sodium per serving). The coconut yogurt adds a nice sweet taste to the curry. But do be careful to not use too much as you do not want the coconut taste to overwhelm the more mild flavors.

Now, as for my personal flare: I like using a little tomato in my curries–I may not know what they are supposed to taste like, but I make them a lot–so I chopped up a handful of heirloom goodies and I added them to the pot. When tomatoes stew, and release their juices, I think it makes a really subtle broth. And if you really want to get fancy, or maybe daring, use chicken on the bone. I took a cleaver to my legs, thighs, and breasts and actually chopped them in half, carefully removing any bone shards. By cooking the chicken on the bone, you will increase the richness of your curry broth as the marrow and other natural seasonings mix with your ingredients.

Other than that, this is a home-cook-friendly recipe for a classic Eastern comfort food. Steam up some rice for the bottom of your soup bowl, and you have a low sodium meal that will transport you all the way to Mumbai. Or just back to 2008. Chow on.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons canola, corn or other neutral-flavored oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
  • 5 garlic cloves, diced
  • 2 tablespoons of fresh ginger, diced
  • 1/8 teaspoon of yellow mustard seed
  • 1/4 teaspoon black and red peppercorn mix
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 large tomatoes, diced
  • 1 tablespoon of no salt added curry powder, or to taste
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into chunks–or legs, thighs, and breast on the bone, cut in half
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 cup low sodium, coconut yogurt
  • Minced cilantro or parsley leaves for garnish

Directions:

Mark advises: Begin cooking white rice, the natural accompaniment, before cutting the onion.

1. Place oil in a large skillet and turn heat to medium high.

2. A minute later, add onion, garlic, and ginger. Cook and stir until onions are translucent, about five minutes.

3. Reduce heat to medium and add the cardamom pods, mustard seeds, peppercorns, and cinnamon stick. Cook for five more minutes.

4. Add the tomatoes and cook for five more minutes.

5. Push all ingredients in the pot to the side–so you create a circle in the middle– and add the chicken pieces and curry powder.

6. Sear chicken, five minutes per side, and then add water.  Bring broth to a boil and cover and cook (reduce flame to medium heat) for another 20 minutes.

7. Right before serving, turn heat to low and wait a few minutes for broth to cool. Then add in your yogurt, constantly stirring over low heat.

8. Scoop 1/4 cup of rice into each bowl and ladle chicken curry over each mound. Garnish, serve, and savor. Enjoy.

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Welcome to Sodium Girl

Okay, don’t panic.

I know that you come to this blog to see pretty pictures of food and to find mind-blowing low sodium recipes. And today, you open your inbox to find a picture of a black dress.

“What is this about?” you say, furiously slamming your cold coffee on the table.

Well, I can promise you that I haven’t totally lost my culinary mind and I do not plan on giving you a recipe for stewed cocktail dress. Nor will this blog transform into a barbie-doll site about fashion, or the fashion I wear while enjoying low sodium food. I mean, let’s be honest, this dress looks a bit tight and I require elastic-waisted pants when I eat.

But this post does indeed involve a dress. A little black dress, in fact, that I believe sums up my thoughts on low sodium cooking and the joy you can find from the challenges of a dietary restriction.

You see, this past week I was honored with a profile in Arthritis Today magazine that featured my story, my blog (the one you are reading right now), and some of my favorite, mind-blowing, low sodium recipes. Which means that suddenly, loyal Sodium Girl fans are being joined by handfuls of brand new converts. And just as much as I love defying the odds of low sodium cooking, I am equally infatuated with making people feel welcome and at home. So to all the newbies, I say, welcome! And make yourself feel at home.

Now, a quick introduction to the site: Blog, meet new readers. New readers, meet blog.

Other than this particular post, you’ll find that, three times a week, Sodium Girl is filled with recipes, tips, and restaurant reviews that make living on a low sodium diet easy and enjoyable. As the writer, adventurer, and overall merry-maker in charge of this blog, I am determined to make sure that dietary restrictions do not keep anyone from enjoying anything – whether it is eating pickles or traveling abroad – and that instead, they open up more kitchen doors and enable people to explore places and foods that they may have never otherwise tried.

So with that, let me present to you one of my earliest posts on The Little Black Dress Theory. I hope you enjoy my follies, shenanigans, and successes and feel free to write with comments, questions, and tales of your own. You never know when they may end up on the front page.

Later this week, we will be back to the stove with some low sodium cooking and a recipe for pantaloon pot stickers. Just kidding. I’ll leave fashion to the fashionistas.

Eat well and as always, chow on.

The Black Dress Theory

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 illuminates 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 moly, 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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Biting Mr. Bittman – Yakisoba

For the second installment of the new, Biting Mr. Bittman series, I figured I should stop fooling around, take a big risk, and attack a recipe that relies heavily on salt. You know, just in case Mr. Bittman is actually reading this blog–good morning, Mark!–and wants some proof that this Sodium Girl really knows how to cook everything, without salt.

So I scoured his recent recipes for a true challenge–searching for a dish that usually comes in a take-out box and that uses a lot of soy sauce–basically, something of Asian origin. And after sifting through asparagus pesto and laid-back risottos, low and behold, the angels did sing: make Mark Bittman’s Yakisoba! So I did just that.

Now, Mark describes yakisoba as the following:

Yakisoba is one of those dishes with roots in several countries. Although it’s from Japan, it is Chinese influenced, similar to chow mein and lo mein. However you define it, there are thousands of ways to make yakisoba, many of them good. All contain noodles and vegetables, and usually some protein. The dish is always fried in a pan and finished with a somewhat sweet sauce that is put together quickly, from condiments. All of this provides plenty of leeway.

With that introduction, I took Mr. Bittman’s recipe–and its sense of “leeway”–and made adjustments to turn his yakisoba into my yaki-low-sodium treat.

Bittman points out, in this most adorable video,

that it’s the sauce that makes the dish. The dressing is a mixture of salty products (like ketchup, soy sauce, Worcestershire, mirin, and, oh my kidneys, Tabasco) which lend a silky texture and sweet, savory, spicy, and yes, salty flavor to the noodles. But even with these condiments at play, I knew exactly how to replicate the texture and the taste of Bittman’s thick sauce without compromising my health needs.

For the ketchup and mirin, the good news is, these products already exist in no-salt added versions. But if you cannot find the low sodium mirin–I’ve only found the Shirakiku brand in obscure Asian markets–then you can always mix ½ cup sake with a 1/6 cup of sugar. So those substitutes are easy.

Then there’s the soy sauce, a product that is basically liquid salt. While home-made soy sauce substitutes are lacking when eaten on their own, they provide the perfect flavor when used in a larger recipe. In place of Kikkoman, make the following:

Soy Sauce Substitute

Mix the following:

  • 2 tablespoons sodium free beef boullion (0 mg of sodium)
  • 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar (0 mg of sodium)
  • 1 teaspoon molasses (o mg of sodium)
  • 1/8 teaspoon brown sugar (o mg of sodium)
  • dash of garlic powder (o mg of sodium)
  • 3/4 cup water (o mg of sodium)

Then swap out Worcestershire for a (slow) splash of molasses. And to mimic the heat provided by the Tabasco, simply use a few shakes of chili oil. With that, you have a sweet, spicy, savory, no-salt sauce that will stick to every noodle and bring flavor to every bite.

Like Mark says, Yakisoba is “good cheap fast food.” And now it can be low sodium, too. Chow on.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp grape seed or sesame oil
  • 2 tbsp fresh ginger, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, diced
  • 1 pound of chopped pork shoulder (ask the butcher for stir-fry size)
  • 1 cup of mushrooms – shimeji, enoki, or shiitake
  • 4 cups of Napa cabbage, shredded
  • 2 cups of carrots, shredded
  • 1/2 cup of scallions, diced
  • No-salt added wheat udon noodles
  • Low sodium yakisoba sauce

Low Sodium Yakisoba Sauce

Mix the following:

  • 2 tablespoons of no-salt added ketchup
  • 4 tablespoons of sodium free mirin (Shirakiku brand)
  • 1 teaspoon of molasses
  • 4 tablespoons of low sodium soy sauce substitute (above)
  • a few shakes of no sodium chili oil

Directions:

1. In a medium-sized pot, bring water to boil and cook your udon noodles. This should take about 10 minutes. Once they are softened (but not mushy), drain the water and let the noodles cool. Sprinkle them with some sesame oil to keep them from sticking together.

2. In a wok or a large frying pan, heat the grapeseed or sesame oil until it is hot. Add the garlic, ginger, and mushrooms until they have taken on a golden-brown color. Add the pork. Cook until the pork has turned from pink to white, about 10 minutes.

3. While the pork is cooking, mix up your yakisoba sauce, and make sure all the other vegetables have been chopped and diced.

4. Add the carrots, cabbage, and half of the scallions to the pan, and let cook on medium-high heat for another 5 minutes. If the ingredients start sticking to the pan, feel free to throw in a few teaspoons of water or a little more sesame oil.

5. Add the udon noodles to the pan and the low sodium yakisoba sauce, and cook for another 2-5 minutes.

6. Spoon heaping portions into big beautiful bowls. Sprinkle scallions on the top and serve to a grateful audience. Enjoy.

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Salads, Dressed Up

Here’s the thing about salads. On the most basic level, I find them boring. I’d much rather order (and eat) a large bowl of steamed chard than graze upon a bed of butter lettuce.

But I have to apologize, for this is a gross stereotype. Not all salads are made equal. And as I’ve learned from watching various episodes of Top Chef, making an outstanding salad is one of the most difficult accomplishments on the cooking scale.

So why do I bring up this leafy subject? Well, there are two salads in my life that have almost brought tears to my eyes. Between flavor and presentation, these simple tosses of garden-fresh vegetables were so tasty that I prayed throughout that meal that they would last forever.

The first of these exemplary salads was created by the husband-wife team at New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro in Talent, Oregon. In this hidden little gem, Vern mans the wood-worked, wine bar in the front, while his lovely lady, Charlene, makes magic in their kitchen and adjoining garden. It is a small restaurant with limited seating – so make reservations today – but this makes it possible for them to create special meals that meet even the most difficult dietary need. And upon our first (unplanned) visit, Charlene did just that.

As we ordered, and I went through my list of low sodium needs, Vern apologized that most of everything had already been blanched in salt water or seasoned and that the best they could do was to make a low sodium salad. My heart sank while my companion ordered a lobster ravioli (with some extraordinary butter and shellfish sauce), and I realized I was stuck with a bowl of rabbit food.

But when the plate arrived, my assumptions were shattered. The white basin (ok, it was a bowl, but a big bowl) was filled with chopped tomatoes, asparagus, yellow crookneck squash, avocado, and freshly-steamed corn. It was topped with a simple dressing of lemon and olive oil, and the presentation exploded with a confetti of garden-fresh herbs. Every bite was a journey through the seasons. I tasted summer, spring, and fall, and I desperately wanted time to stand still. My companion can vouch for me – the meal literally moved me to tears. One big, sweet tear to be exact.

So that was the day I decided to reassess my feelings on salads and accept that a well-made dish of garden vegetables could not only be filling but an extraordinary circus of flavors. But I hadn’t experienced a salad like Sammy’s since that fateful afternoon and it seemed like this may have been a once-in-a-lifetime meal. But then walked in Barndiva – a homey restaurant with spice and sass – and once again, I had to take back all of my criticisms of salads.

There I was, driving through downtown Healdsburg, looking for a place to grab some grub during my five-hour road trip. And there was Barndiva, an inviting wooden barn with a garden in the back that promised extraordinary food made of sustainable, seasonal, farm-fresh ingredients. But since I arrived unannounced, I was once again very limited in my low sodium choices, and the waiter apologized for the slim pickings of their offerings – another salad.

I thought my meal would be a snooze fest compared to the pickled beet salad,

chicken dumplings (with morel mushrooms),

and tempura asparagus that was steaming in front of my face.

But then, the plate arrived and I had in front of me a colorful palette of the freshest ingredients one could find on this side of the rainbow – golden and red beets, fava beans, asparagus, tomatoes, avocados, kumquats, grapefruits, Banyuls vinegar, and herbs. My options may have been slim pickings, but when the food is freshly plucked, it doesn’t matter. Every bite was filled with unexpected bursts of flavor, and I wanted the pops to never stop. For a second time in my life, a salad skyrocketed to the heights of my top ten list of best low sodium meals I’ve ever eaten.

So the lesson here is that simple food does not equal dull food. It can actually mean the exact opposite. For if you have the right ingredients, and interesting flavor combinations, the natural taste of the food really stands out, and it can blow you away. And when it comes to salads, don’t limit yourself to the basics, but be creative – like the rest of your low sodium cooking. Put blueberries with slices of beef or celery with garbanzo beans. Salads are a great place to test the boundaries of your imagination. And I think you’ll quickly find that, in reality, the rules of good food are boundless.

Chow on.

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