Monthly Archives: August 2010

Going to the Chapel

Did you notice that a post was missing last Friday? I sure did and I guess it’s time for an explanation. For long-time readers, this will not come as a shock. But if you are new to the blog, well, you better sit down.

Sodium Girl is getting married. Hitched. Tied down. Wed to a wonderful man who wooed me with a home-cooked and salt-free meal of bok choy, chicken thigh, and sesame oil on our first date almost three and a half years ago. And now, as the journey down the aisle seems to be getting closer and closer, I see (with confidence and hunger) an adventurous, flavorful, and low sodium life ahead of us.

As we work on all the final prep though, the blog this week will take a bit of a pause. I promise to be back in full force after Labor Day with lots of pictures, food, and stories. So don’t worry, you haven’t lost me forever. And I won’t be changing my name either. I’ll always remain Sodium Girl.

But I do want to leave you (for the short time being) with a little taste of something for the coming days, to serve as a reminder to your eyes and taste buds that a brand new post is only a week away.

What I look forward to most about the wedding (besides seeing my lovely low sodium partner in crime at the alter) is not the wedding dress. Nor is it the flowers (which we don’t really have – my bouquet is made of kale and purple, baby artichokes). Nor is it the dancing (which, in all honesty, is a very close second).

What I look forward to the most is the food. A ridiculous amount of food. Endless appetizers of dim sum, miniature tamales, and plantain chips with guacamole.

A first course of heirloom tomatoes followed by an entrée of lamb and vegetable ravioli – I’m the bride, so I ordered two.

A special dessert (to be revealed next week). And finally, just as everyone gets tired, sliders and fries.

And the best part of all this face-stuffing goodness is that the amazing catering staff has prepared special versions of each bite – in bulk – that are sodium free. That’s right, dim sum sans salt. Thanks to this team of magicians, I will be assuredly fueled and full the entire night, from the time I am a single lady until I am a married woman.

So as your week rolls ahead and you are desperately missing Sodium Girl, slobber over this past post in which I detail the beauties of working with an amenable and creative catering staff.

Have fun, have a glass of champagne, and as always, chow on.

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Buy Me Some Peanut and Cracker Jacks

Hot dogs, burgers, and garlic fries – these were the treats that lured me to stadium seats when I was younger. I longed for the glutinous, processed, and salty flavors of ballpark fare and as such, I happily accompanied my father to any game that was accompanied by ketchup and squirt bottle of nacho “cheese.”

My affair with these lip-smacking snacks, however, did not last forever. When my kidneys quit seven years ago, so did my fast-food addiction. But my love for a sports outing on a sunny (or recently, foggy) day? That remained strong.

It was easy for me to steer clear of tacos with bells and jacks in boxes, but eating at a game became a bit of a low sodium conundrum. If you are on a low sodium diet, how do you go out to a ballgame and how do you join the crowd?

Well first, forget about buying some peanuts and cracker jacks, and bring yourself some low sodium snacks. Trust me, you’ll never want to go back.

Case and point, the preseason 49ers game.

As we knew a meal of beer and lemonade would leave me hungry, and would result in a seriously lackluster fan, the crew and I decided to get to the parking lot a few hours earlier and tailgate – a great solution to staying full at the stadium when on a low sodium diet.

I found out what the other folks would be eating – chicken wings – and made a salt-free version for myself. I also brought a bean dip for everyone to enjoy (and to give my taste buds some diversity). And to top it all off, we devoured a bag of fresh cherries. Everyone left happy.

But let’s say you don’t have time for or interest in setting up shop behind the hood of your car; what do you do then? Don’t be afraid to pack a snack pack. Sandwiches, with low sodium bread and low sodium roast beef, are great. But don’t just settle for simple. You can bring anything that fits into a plastic container and in your purse or man bag. I’ve brought more complicated dishes like pasta, hummus, home-made sushi, and of course, more wangs!

The beauty of bringing your own low sodium food to a sports game is that you aren’t beholden to the slim offerings. You can bring whatever floats your fancy and will keep you cheering through the fourth quarter, or that shoot-out, or that nail-biting 12th inning.

So root, root, root for a snack pack. If you don’t eat it’s a shame. It’s just one, two, three bites and you’re full at the old ballgame.

Chow on.

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You Say Potato, I Say Ricatto

This post begins with a lovely, late dinner at SF hot spot, Frances. Dim the lights, cue soft “yazz” music, and pour yourself a bottle of house wine.

The densely packed, haute diner offers a slim menu of seasonal delights. And while impromptu creation of two sodium-free dishes blew me away – a refreshing consume of tuna, cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, herbs, and jalapenos

and a bowl of perfectly roasted eggplant, zucchini, shredded basil, and tomatoes –

it was really my dining partner’s plate of fluffy dream clouds (i.e. ricotta gnocchi) that had me drooling.

Since I try to avoid being the jealous type, I decided that, instead of pouting over my lack of parmesan sprinkles and potato pillows, I would go home and make some myself.

So that’s where this post begins, but it is hardly where it ends.

As I’ve never attempted gnocchi before, I immediately called on my good friend, Epicurious.com, to teach me the ways of classic technique. I chose two simple recipes – one was potato-based and the other used ricotta – and with the basic instructions of boiling, mashing, mixing, and cooking, I thought I had this one in the bag (or the potato sac).

But little did I know that, much like baking, it is very important that you have the right ingredients and the tools to make the gnocchi magic work. Usually, a recipe instructs one to thoroughly boil the potatoes until soft (which I did not do since I only had an hour and so they were still pretty tough) and to mash them using a ricer, a fork, or a potato masher (all things I do not own). Thinking with my ad-hoc chef’s hat, I decided that I would solve this kitchen dilemma by simply putting my half-cooked spuds into my food processor. A quick press of the blend button and I could move forward with the whole operation.

The result? A horrible, sticky, glutinous mess. Who knew you can’t “mash” potatoes in a Cuisinart? Apparently most people do, including my friend Max at SeriousEats.com, who advised me to either buy the right equipment or use ingredients like sweet potatoes or gnocchi instead. And since ricotta tends to be quite low in sodium (some brands only having 24mg per 1/4 cup serving, that’s exactly what I did.

After cleaning up the potato paste disaster, I took out a new mixing bowl, some flour, and a tub of ricotta cheese. As there was no potato boiling necessary, this version of the Italian classic is much simpler to make and, I think, a better starting point for novices like myself.

The result this time? Perfect little ricotta pillows that became even more ravishing when sautéed in brown butter after they had cooked in boiling water. You can’t go wrong with the nutty taste or the slightly crisped texture of brown butter and cheese.

And while I do think that this particular batch of ricotta gnocchi was a bit too dense, it was successful enough that I will definitely attempt it again. Maybe I’ll even break out my brand new potato masher next time (thanks k lake) and really go crazy.

In the meantime, be sure to put away your food processor and buy some low sodium ricotta cheese. Give this recipe a try and make your gnocchi dreams become a reality. And remember, since we are removing the salt and the parm, feel free to add more “exotic” spices and herbs to the mixture: a splash of Banyuls for color; chopped up mint, rosemary, Douglass fir tips, or arugula for bite; some flavored oil for something rich; and even a dash of cayenne or clove for unexpected spice.

Mangiamo and chow on.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups whole-milk ricotta (24mg of sodium per 1/4 serving)
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten (0 mg per egg)
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 cup of freshly chopped parsley (or 1/4 teaspoon of dried herb mix)
  • 1 quick dash of chili pepper flakes
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter
  • 3 sprigs of rosemary

Directions:

1. Stir together ricotta, eggs, nutmeg, granulated garlic, black pepper, parsley, and chili pepper flakes.

2. Add flour, stirring to form a soft, wet dough.

3. Shape dough on a well-floured surface with lightly floured hands into two (1-inch-thick) ropes. Cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Layer on a lightly floured baking sheet or other large cooking vessel.

4. Cook gnocchi in 2-3 batches in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (you don’t want them to be crowded and you want to drop them all in around the same time so they cook evenly. Stir pot occasionally until they rise to the top and are cooked through (cut one in half to check), about 3 to 4 minutes per batch.

5. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain in colander. Place back onto a clean cooking sheet or large plate.

6. Meanwhile, melt butter with rosemary in a large pan over medium-low heat until it turns golden brown, about 5 minutes.

7. Toss the cooked gnocchi with brown butter. Sprinkle with leftover parsley or rosemary and serve.

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The Evolution of a Low Sodium Cook

As the Lupus Foundation of America ushers in part 3 of my guest blog today, I did a little reminiscing.

I can hardly believe that only a few years ago, I took my first stab at low sodium cooking with a simple stir fry. A few ripe vegetables, a quick chop, a sizzle of vegetable oil (as I had not yet discovered the power of toasted sesame), some slivers of organic chicken, and a few dashes of salt-free granulated garlic and cayenne, and I had a dinner that was fresh, springy, unfussy, and sodium free. It was minimal, but it was perfect.

With the confidence and the success of that first dish, I began to explore more possibilities, playing with new spices (oh, hello curry powder), new ingredients (paneer, sunchokes, and beets, oh my), and new techniques (roast, toast, grate, and eat). I quickly found that nothing – not even a roll of home-made maki – was beyond my low sodium capabilities. And, although most recipes take some time to develop and perfect, I truly enjoyed the experimentation, the failures and successes, that come along with seasoning sans salt.

Today, I attack the challenge of replacing soy and salty peanut sauces with the same fervor that I cooked that original stir fry – a recipe which also continues to transform alongside my culinary maturing. Whether it is Puerto Rican pulpos, Yakisoba, cold avoacado and crab(free) soup, or ricotta cheese gnocchi (post to come next week), I have learned that my sodium restrictions have not limited my recipes (or my life); but my needs have made them more exciting.

And from cooking beyond the boundaries, I have also realized that with enough passion and persistance, anyone can cook. Please note that I said cook, not bake, as that is still one hurdle this Sodium Girl has yet to overcome. Not because it isn’t possible without salt. Just because I hate following recipes.

For those that do like following recipes, though, here is one of my favorites and a great place to start if you are just delving into a low sodium diet: Caramelized Fennel Corn Chowder (seen above). Grab your blender and a few bulbs of the licorice-ish greenery, and see how, with the right ingredients and the right cooking methods, there is enough flavor to feed the world twice, without the need for salt.

Chow down and 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:

Spoiler alert: this recipe was so quick because I had already 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 step and simply sauté in some olive oil in your soup pot on medium heat.

1. 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.

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

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

4. Take pot off of the flame and plug in your immersion blender or transfer soup to your standing 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 smooth.

5. Put pot back on the burner, return soup to pot if you used a standing blender, and turn flame to low to reheat. 5 minutes before serving/eating, add the cream and stir.

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

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A Quick Peek

While low sodium cooking began as a part of a medical routine, I can say with full honesty that it is now a true passion. Maybe that’s already obvious by the fact that I blog on my adventures three days a week. Or the fact that I own an apron that says “Sodium Girl.”

But in a second bout of honesty, I’ll admit that low sodium cooking does take time and effort – at least at the very beginning. Your taste buds must adjust, you must adjust, your kitchen must adjust. Once you get started, though, and outfit your home and your brain with as many low sodium tools and as much knowledge as possible, you will find that living a successful low sodium life becomes a breeze. And ultimately, it becomes enjoyable.

So first, on this Hump Day morning, I wanted to give you a glimpse at my favorite kitchen accoutrements that make cooking low sodium food easy and fun.

First off, my wall of aprons. There’s no reason not to look your best while stirring a pot:

Then there’s my wall of spices. You can never have enough flavor, and everything tastes better when it doesn’t take up your whole counter:

Not to be out shown, there is also my wall of pots, pans, and other doo-dads (see a theme here). A red frame plus a peg board equals kitchen magic. While I believe you can never have enough equipment, I also know that it pays to have a place for each spatula, stock pot, and frying pan. That way you’re kitchen feels “cute” and clutter-free. I’m not OCD, just CAO – crafty and organized:

Of course, there’s also my trusty Dustbuster, which keeps me from losing my mind when I have a mid-cooking spill:

And finally, my ultimate, favorite kitchen companion – the immersion blender:

You can make anything, from soup to whipped cream, in seconds with this utensil. It requires no lifting, sifting, or pouring, which means less mess for you and more meals that are made in mere minutes.

I can’t say enough about this gadget, and trust me, I’ve talked about it before. And if you can only buy one thing to better outfit your cooking space, this secret weapon would be my first choice.

So now that I’ve given you a behind-the-scenes tour of what makes my low sodium kitchen tick, I wanted to also give you a VH1-esque, behind-the-music look at how I arrived in this enthusiastic, positive, and ultimately organized space. You definitely don’t get there in a day. It’s a journey. A full-fledged road-trip from the starting point of “oh my god, I have to do what?” to a final destination of “oh my god, I really did that!” with a lot of fun explorations and surprises in between.

I am honored to share that the Lupus Foundation of America is presenting a three-part series this week on my blog and my story.

If you’re hankering for more backstage glimpses of the Sodium Girl story, check out part one on their blog. And if you’re gearing up for a low sodium kitchen make-over, feel free to shoot questions my way.

Chow (and cook and clean) on.

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Sometimes You Feel Like A Nut, Sometimes You Don’t

First came Justin’s: a simple solution for the peanut butter obsessed. These individual packages of nutty goodness are great for snacking, traveling, even packing your kid’s lunch. And although the cute logo and even cuter website seems to be amazing enough, the best part of Justin’s is that the almond and peanut butter pouches also happen to be absolutely sodium free.

So, for the majority of you readers, this is jump-up-and-shout good news. But, if you happen to be like me, a sodium AND nut free girl (yes, I am allergic to macadamias, almonds, pea, wal, and anything else that ends in “nut” because, why stop at just one dietary restriction when you can collect them all?), you are still left without an easy, energizing, nutty snack in a pocket-sized package.

That is, until Artisana came to town.

Whole Foods must have only gotten these nutritious, nut-free goodies a day earlier, because, yes, that’s how often I survey the grocery store shelves and they weren’t there the last time I checked. But thank goodness they are there now for these are the perfect peanut butter solution.

Artisana has two sodium free products: Tahini Butter and Coconut Bliss. The coconut bliss is perfect for a sweet fix, and you can’t go wrong with a coconut and chocolate combination; think macaroon. And, as I’ve expounded it past posts, tahini butter is a great substitute for peanut butter – it is creamy and nutty, and, when mixed with a lumpy berry jam, it makes an awesome sandwich.

But what excites me most about these packets of crushed sesame seeds, even more than a TB & J sammy, is that they are the perfect amount for a single batch (i.e. one can of garbanzo beans) of fresh hummus. Ripping open one of these babies is eons better than being guiltily left with a huge tub of tahini butter after you have satisfied your hummus fix – a situation that just tears me up inside.

So there you have it, another sodium free treat that you can throw in your backpack, suitcase, purse, and earthquake kit.

Chow on.

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Take Your Tops Off

I apologize for getting a bit frisky this Friday morning. It’s just that last night I discovered something novel, something exciting, something that even some might call brilliant.

While making a fresh batch of potato leek soup (sweet butter + leek +  potato + blender), I was left with a bunch of hard, green leek tops.

Unless you want some sort of Dr. Seuss-ish soup, it is best to only use the white parts of the leek and put the darker green parts to the side. But right there is the big dilemma. What do you do with the discarded leek parts? Of course, you can always throw them back in the crisper and cross your fingers that you remember to use them within the next two days. But what if you want to use them right then and there?

Luckily, I had already turned the oven to high as I was preparing to make some kale chips for said soup. Ta. Da.

And as I pulled the crispy veggie crunchies from the oven rack, that’s when it hit me:

Leeks. Oven. Chips. Leek Chips!

I decided to prepare them as I would with kale, keeping the oven on at 400 degrees and using olive oil to grease them down. Then I peppered the leek tops with paprika, granulated garlic, and black pepper.

And finally, the leeks were left to frizzle and frazzle for 20-30 minutes in the oven (watch these suckers carefully), and in a blink of an eye, I had a batch of crispy yet luscious leek chips to munch while waiting for the soup to be done.

So there you have it. Something quick and easy to try this weekend and another ingenious way to keep food from going to waste and your belly full.

Chow on.

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