Monthly Archives: April 2011

Blast from Past: Fuel Efficient

Today, my non-work task lists includes the following items: 1) find wetsuit somewhere in “organized” sports closet; 2) pick up mountain bike from shop downtown; 3) pack up cooler with an extravaganza of low sodium carbohydrates; 4) buy sunscreen; and 5) get on the road by noon thirty.

Pretty standard for a Friday, really. Or at least a Friday before race day.

Tomorrow, I’m swimming, biking, and running at the wonderful Wildflower triathlon – my sixth tri event in the past three years – and I can’t wait to be surrounded by beautiful bushels of mustard buds and amazingly chiseled athletic bods.

While most people would keep my little Lupus body wrapped in a bubble, it is challenges like these that make me feel truly alive, like a fighter, and capable of doing anything. Even if I have to stay in bed for a week afterwards.

This is how I approach low sodium cooking. This is how I live a full low sodium life. This is how I say, I accept you Lupus and Kidney Disease, but you’re not gonna stop me from having fun. Or being awesome.

And when it comes to racing, it is not just about the physical strain of the event to consider and prepare for. But as someone who must cut the salt, you must also find safe ways to stay hydrated and electrolyted without consuming too much sodium.

So while I try to find my racing booty shorts, warm up and cool down with last year’s post on low sodium fuel solutions for the racer inside us all.

Tomorrow is race day. For the last few months you have been training for (insert here – a triathlon, aquathon, marathon, or any activity that brings you further than the walk from your refrigerator to your couch) and your muscles, mind, and spirit are set to crush the course.

In the last few hours, before the start whistle blows, you gather all the tools you need to finish this test of physical endurance. You’ve packed the tennies, the padded shorts, the swim goggles, and an extra pair of socks. But don’t forget one of the most important items you need to keep your body moving – fuel.

The majority of sports snacks and drinks are very high in sodium. A vanilla Power Bar? 200mg of sodium. Chocolate CLIF Bar? 140mg of sodium. And the old standard, orange Gatorade? 270mg of sodium.

Avoiding the high sodium, energy snack issue may seem like an impossible feat that is worse than climbing an 11% grade. And if you don’t know what that means, your thighs thank you. Packing a bag full of granola isn’t very practical, or aerodynamic, and you don’t really want to tuck other low sodium snacks into your shorts. Although, I have seen an older gentleman who bikes with three bananas in his jersey pocket and he looks quite happy. So I guess, never say never.

But here’s the great news. For effective, low sodium race snacking, there exist two brands of liquid fuel which do a great job of keeping you energized without overloading you with salt. I discovered these energy shots three Fourth of July’s ago, when I was taking my first bike ride across the Golden Gate bridge and I had completely underestimated my need for carb loading, or eating anything, before I began.

Towards the end of the ride, almost 20 miles later, I suddenly felt my body shut down. There was nothing left to burn and as I looked forward, to the rolling hills ahead, I knew I was done. My bike partner was ready to finish the ride, grab the car, and rescue me from my feeble state. But I was stubborn (what a surprise) and asked if he had anything I could eat.

All he had was GU performance energy gels and we both thought that we were out of luck. But thankfully, we flipped the packet around to see that it only contained 40mg of sodium (less than an egg) and at that point, I needed all the electrolytes I could get. Within minutes of downing the treat, I felt my body perk up. Relieved and with strength regained, I clipped back into my pedals and climbed the final hill home, leaving the potential fuel fiasco behind me.

If you are training for a race, pick up a box of GU or CLIF Shots – two low sodium treats that pack a true punch. They are also great for camping trips and even to carry with you when you travel. When living with a dietary restriction, you never know when you’ll be able to find your next meal and these packets are a great emergency snack to have on hand when you start to feel like your light is burning out.

You can also replace that Gatorade with a bottle full of coconut water. It is bursting with tons of electrolytes (especially potassium) and many brands tend to be under 40 mg of sodium per serving. This will refresh your body and will keep your muscles from cramping. Without the sugar or salt.

On the evening before your big day, pack up these low-sodium race essentials, eat a big bowl of pasta, and get some rest. You’ve got a long road ahead of you. 56 miles to be exact.

Race on.

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Look What I Made Wednesday – Macaroni N’ Peas

Ah, the wonders of Stouffer’s Microwavable Macaroni and Cheese.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this cheddary, oozy, black box of noodles was my comfort food. It is right up there with Bagel Bites and Choco Taco’s in my little black book of favorite foods. Did I mention I was a junk food junkie?

In my younger days of watching Saved by the Bell after school and wearing boxer shorts as shorts (nice trend, America),  a fluorescent orange bowl of Stouffer’s sunshine was the cure all for anything gloomy.

Got the sniffles? Stouffer’s. Stressful day in home-room? Stouffer’s. Craving the taste of melted plastic with your elbow pasta? Stouffer’s. Stouffer’s. Stouffer’s.

The answer was always Stouffer’s.

I know, it isn’t healthy. It isn’t even real food. And the taste I lovingly remember was probably a good dose of salt mixed with BPA. Two things I can’t and shouldn’t have. But even to this day, I still crave the taste of silky cream sauce with a toothy bite of noodles.

As with my other food longings, though, I tried to recreate the memories using pureed butternut squash,a masterful roux or two, and even low sodium “cheddar” that I ordered online.

And I came close; but no Stouffer’s.

So I gave in.

I know. You’re thinking, what? Give in? You never give in! Tell me it isn’t true.

But I gave in and I said, Stouffer’s, take your Mac n’ Cheese. Because I finally realized that the only way I was going to win this low sodium challenge was to ditch the obvious and take a new tactic. Forget trying to use cheese. Forget attempting to match salty taste. Forget the whole kit and kanoodle.

And that’s how we got here:

An equally orange, “milky” concoction with a secret sauce and the surprise addition of bright green peas. Without the high sodium content or salt. Or the melted plastic.

That’s how my favorite comfort food got a sexy new makeover. And now, when I think of runny noses, hectic afternoons, and cravings for hearty and heartwarming food, I think less of my old friend (Stouffer’s) and more of my new discovery (Mac N’ Peas).

And remember no recipes on this post…you’ll have to wait for the book on this one. But if you’ve got an old favorite that needs a low sodium makeover, post below and we’ll put the test kitchen to work.

Chow on.

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Low Sow-Your Own

I think my heart just exploded. In a happy, non-messy kind of way.

Just looking at this picture fills me, no, overwhelms me, with tingles of warmth and excitement. Because this picture is just the beginning of what is to come. Of what is to sow. Of what is to grow!

Three friends, toiling away in the gentle sunshine, on a small plot of earth, overlooking a small piece of heaven.

I mean, do you see that view?

That view shouldn’t be legal.

But forget about the view for a moment and think about the dirt. I get to play in dirt. Mountains of dirt. Planting in it anything that my belly desires.

Imagine the kind of food that we will grow. Dinosaur proportions of chard, kale, asparagus, herbs, onions, and everything else that drips with natural flavors. That I could eat by the pound-full. And exclaim, with my mouth full, I made this myself.

All this bounty of goodness should seriously be punishable by law.

But before you break out the handcuffs, let me back up and explain how we got to this hill, with the sunshine, and the view, and dirt, and our very own garden.

I happened to marry someone with a green thumb. That’s him right up there. Looking all green-thumb-like.

Actually, he comes from a long line of green thumbs. And while I come from a family of emerald digits as well, I wouldn’t say that I am the best with plants. Actually, I’m the worst. I tend to kill them. I water them too much or too little. Or as he would tell you, not at all.

I spray instead of drench. I watch them turn brown, shrivel, and then fall dramatically to my floor. I lack any good plant instincts. It is just too confusing for me. And I’d much rather leave it to my green-thumb-like husband (or buy a succulent) and call it a day.

But when it comes to food, and growing food, it is a different story.

Three years ago, we put our names on the waiting list for a community plot. Unsure if we’d even still be in our neighborhood. But we put our names down and patiently waited, growing herbs in pots on our back steps, my husband dreaming of the day that we would have room for peas and squash, while I slowly murdered our house plants.

And then, we got the phone call.

Joy doesn’t even begin to describe the thrill that came over us. Suddenly, it was real. The garden plot was ours. The possibilities were (depending on the weather patterns) endless. And we were suddenly responsible for more than just indoor ferns and cacti.

And that’s how we got here. That’s how we get to exploding hearts, illegal views, and chicken manure deep under our fingernails.

With some Spring rain by our side, we’ve dug up the weeds, mixed our nutrient rich dirt, and planted our first set of veggies and flowers.

And what does this have to do with eating low sodium food?

Well nothing compares to fresh-from-the-garden ingredients. Apparently, asparagus right from the ground tastes nothing like the kind you buy from a grocery store. And I’m expecting the squash, peppers, chard, and walking stick kale that we’ve planted will be equally unmatchable.

So this is the start to a new chapter of the Sodium Girl adventures. Where we begin to low-sow our own flavor-rich food and take the salt-free experimentations beyond the grocery store aisles.

And since people always say that food cooked with love stands far above the rest, then these future low-sow your own low sodium meals will surely be the tops.

Green thumbs crossed.

Chow on.

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Pomegranate Molasses Granola Bars, Sort Of

I’ve always been pretty good at making up my own rules.

When my grandparents babysat me, I convinced them that we always ate cookies before dinner. It helped prep the stomach for the nutrients to come. When it rained, I never wore shoes. What’s the point? My feet were going to get wet anyways. And in college, I pretty much majored in the art of rule making. They called it Creative Writing.

From early on, I gave myself license to do what I wanted. Which, turns out, is a very important life skill. Because the truth is, most of the time, things don’t often go quite like you’ve planned. That’s not to say that things won’t eventually work out. They always work out. But just when you think you’ve built a straight and narrow path from point A to point B, something’s bound to gently nudge you off the road and force you to re-imagine your route to that final destination.

Which, yesterday, was a pan of granola bars.

I began my Thursday with the intention of creating a chewy, low sodium, salt-free granola bar that I could munch on for breakfast, during a bike ride, or while hiking in the hills.

I had grand plans for this granola bar. I was going to take oats, chopped dates, apricots, and cranberries and mix them with honey, brown sugar, and pomegranate molasses to make a treat that was full of sugary calories, but not too sweet to eat. I mixed, I melted, I baked, and I waited. These granola bars were going to be great.

And then, from the oven they came. A golden brown block of granola. That, much like my achey body on some mornings, refused to budge from its baking bed.

I knew that as soon as I tried to remove the granola, it was going to crumble and fall apart. Dreams of a perfectly rectangular piece of granola were shattered.

And as I stared at my brick of toasted fruit oats, I knew I had two choices: give up and crumble apart myself, or, come up with a new plan. Redefine the path from A to B. Reinvent the rules. And decide that this recipe was never meant to be for granola bars. This was for making granola bites.

If you live with a chronic illness or any kind of health limitations, this is the same choice you are faced with everyday. You wake up each morning with your grand plans and then, something – whether it is a doctor appointment, the need to find a low sodium snack in a salty world, or the fact that your joints just won’t move like you want them to – will cause those plans to get derailed.

But like my granola, you have a choice. You can either view the disruptions as impermeable road blocks. Or you can simply go build a ladder out of wood or marshmallows (remember, you make the rules) and climb right over them.

Sure, there are plenty of times I’m faced with moments where I can’t do things like I want to. But it doesn’t mean I can’t come up with a different solution that gets me to the same end goal.

So go ahead, find control in making up your own rules and in making some granola this weekend. Feel free to not follow my directions. Maybe your version will even successfully come out of the pan.

Happy weekend. Chow on.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup diced dried apricots
  • 1/2 cup diced powdered dates
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
  • 1/4 cup of orange juice and zest from entire orange
Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 dg F.

Place your oats in a baking pan and toast in the oven until they turn lightly golden and begin to smell oaty, 10-12 minutes. Take out of the oven and place in a large mixing bowl.

While your oats toast, chop your dried apricots and dates, either with a knife or a quick pulse in the food processor. Add them and the cranberries to the mixing bowl with the oats.

Lower oven to 300 dg F and cover an 8×12 inch baking pan with parchment paper (or grease well with unsalted butter).

Then, in a small pot, melt the butter and allow it to brown and smell nutty, 5 minutes. Add the sugar, honey, molasses, orange juice and zest, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook for 2 minutes and then pour immediately into your mixing bowl. Stir the contents until well combined and pour onto your parchment covered baking pan.

Place pan into the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. The granola will be a darker brown when it is done and it will still be soft when you take it out. Allow to cool and harden at least 1 hour before cutting. Whether it comes out in squares or chunks, it will be delicious.

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Look What I Made Wednesday-Umami Broth

Umami.

The elusive fifth taste.

The other four – sweet, sour, bitter, and salty – can be found in canned products and even more surprisingly, in natural ingredients.

Sweet is easy. Just grab a fresh strawberry or even a red pepper and taste the natural sugars that seep out with each bite.

Sour is even simpler. Just bite into a lemon. Or a spoonful of greek yogurt. Or a dash of vinegar. And bam, you’ve got sour.

Bitter can be found in a plate full of chicories, like endive, or slices of freshly peeled horseradish.

And salty, well you don’t even need the salt shaker for that. Just roast a beet, juice some carrots and celery, or make a meat broth from scratch, and the natural salt in each will appear.

But umami. Where on earth do you find umami?

Described as the “savory” taste, most people associate umami with soy sauce, fish sauce, and other high-sodium, highly-delicious Asian products. So for a very long time, I thought umami was out of the question for a low sodium diet.

Then I did some readings.

According to the Umami Information Center (yes, there is apparently a center for everything), the desired umami taste comes from a type of amino acids called glutamates which, gasp, occur naturally in food. Not just bottles of soy sauce. And the more glutamate compounds an ingredient has, the higher its umami factor.

And it isn’t just the glutamate. Other scientific sounding ingredients, like inosinate (found in bonito fish flakes – which can have 0mg of sodium) and guanylate (found in dried shitake mushrooms – which can also contain 0mg of sodium), have also recently been coined as key umami contributers in food.

So umami, it turns out, isn’t so difficult to find after all.

And while it is most conveniently  sourced from cured, fermented, and just plain old salty products – like ham, vegemite, cheeses, and anchovies – umami can also be foraged from a regular old tomato. Or a slab of pork. Or chicken bones, which is why homemade stock is so delicious. Or potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms.

Umami actually occurs naturally in a lot of the foods we eat every day. And by roasting, toasting, and reducing these ingredients, we can up the umami factor in any low sodium dish.

So when a recipe calls for a product that is high in salt, but also high in umami flavor, just think of how you can replace it with any of the other whole, low sodium ingredients that have the same taste. Forget the fish sauce and swap it with a stock made of pork bones and mushrooms. Or can the parmesan cheese and increase the chicken stock and tomato paste.

Just another point of proof that a low sodium diet does not have to limit your flavors. Not even the fifth one.

Chow on.

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Passover Pie

Apologies for the whisper. I’ve lost my voice to a nasty head and chest cold. I’ll do my very best to annunciate and hopefully you can still hear me.

But definitely do not worry about me, because I’m going to be fine in no time. Because tonight is Passover dinner with the family. And Passover dinner means matzo ball soup. Which is Yiddish for magic whisper-voice potion.

And here’s another wonderful thing about Passover – it is filled with a lot of flavorful and useful sodium-free ingredients. Like horesradish, parsley, and of course, matzo.

For a few years now, I’ve been using matzo to replace saltier bread crumb mixes in savory dishes. Like my matzo ball meatballs, sausage pepper poppers, and the famous birthday beefcake muffins.

But sweet dishes. Why, I have never dared.

Until yesterday.

Thinking of both Passover and key lime pie, I naturally began to wonder, could this low sodium, unleavened cracker successfully replace a higher sodium graham cracker crust?

Well, if Moses could part the Red Sea than I could certainly give this a try.

And here’s the best news. It worked. It totally, deliciously, crunchy sweetly crackly worked. It was a Passover miracle.

I chose to fill my crust with a standard lemon chiffon.

But with this graham cracker-like crust, you could go multiple pie directions.

My friend made a key lime pie. A S’more version, with a chocolate filling and marshmallow or meringue topping, would be bonkers. And you could even skip the pie altogether and simply use the batter to make sodium-free graham cracker cookies instead.

The possibilities are now endless.

So as a Passover surprise, here is the recipe for a low sodium Matzo Cracker crust.

Thou shalt eat pie.

Chow on.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cup ground matzo crackers or matzo meal (about 5 large crackers)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
  • 5 tablespoons ice cold water
  • 2 teaspoons orange marmalade
Directions:

Preheat your oven to 325 dg F.
In a food processor, add the ground matzo crackers (or if they are still in cracker form, this is a good time to pulse them to a fine breadcrumb), the brown sugar, and the butter. Pulse until the butter chunks disappear into the matzo cracker crumbs.
Then, one tablespoon at a time, add the water to the mixture as you continue to mix the dough. It will start to stick together. Add the orange marmalade and continue to mix. The dough will eventually form a ball – this is a good sign that it is ready.
Remove the dough from the food processor and cover in plastic wrap. Place into the fridge for 30 minutes.
Just a like a graham cracker crust, this dough requires no rolling. So when you’re ready to get your pie on, simply put 2/3 of the dough into your pie pan. Then, using your hands and fingertips, begin to spread the dough evenly throughout the pan, pushing from the center outwards. Add the remaining dough as necessary to form a 1/2-inch thick crust throughout the pie pan. Gorgeous.
Place the pie crust into the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes. The dough will still be slightly soft to the touch when you remove it from the oven, but it will harden as it cools. Wait at least 20 minutes before filling with your chosen pie custard.
Enjoy.

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Friendly Emails and Falafels

Some people aren’t afraid to ask for things.

You know who I’m talking about. That person who sends you their holiday wish list in May. That roommate who always seems to be too busy to pick up their own dry cleaning. And that friend who always orders the BLT sandwich but then requests that the lettuce be switched out for spinach, the tomato be served on the side, and the bacon be replaced by a freshly butchered and fried chicken. No bread, of course.

You know those people. I know those people. And I definitely don’t judge them. I just wish I was more like them.

It took me a long time to realize that, with my dietary needs, it was ok to ask. For help, for special accommodations, and for something more than steamed vegetables to eat. It was only when I started asking – and of course asking with lots of gratitude and charm – that I started eating well, really well, outside of my home. And I slowly went from maybe getting some sauteed fish and an un-dressed salad to being served gorgeous plates of specially crafted food that were really exciting.

Like salt-free tempura asparagus

and even mini, low sodium empanadas

Believe it.

But even with all this success, I haven’t asked for anything in a while.

While plenty of new restaurants have opened up around me – Patxi’s deep dish pizza and Little Chihuahua’s fresh Mexican – I’ve stayed in my comfort zone. Happy with the meals I have and not daring to ask for more.

Yesterday, though, an email changed all that. A reader who we will call Carol (because her name is Carol) sent me the most wonderful story about a most wonderful meal she had.

Carol journeyed with some of her best friends to see Greg Mortensen, author of Three Cups of Tea, speak at the Marin Center. And for dinner, her friend, who we will call Gloria (because her name is Gloria) found a Mediterranean spot, called The Garden Restaurant, that seemed capable of meeting Carol’s low sodium needs.

But of course, you never know.

Suspense. Builds.

Then, when Carol arrived, she was immediately greeted by the owner and chef, Hilda Hattar, who happily answered all her questions about the menu, offered to replace the salad dressing with oil and balsamic vinegar, and finally – and this is where the story gets really good – asked her if she would like some fresh falafel.

Falafel.

A tasty fried treat made from chickpeas or fava beans and usually loaded with salt.

Carol was skeptical, but intrigued.

And our hero, Hilda, told Carol that she had not put any salt or baking powder in it yet, so they would be low-sodium safe for her to eat. So falafels did Carol receive. And even better, her friends were so envious of the bean patties that Hilda eventually had to bring them a plate of the “regulars” so they would not feel left out.

Carol reports that it was a delicious and heartwarming experience. She wasn’t treated like a second-class culinary citizen. And instead, by asking for what she needed, she was treated to a high-end, high flavor meal in which her dietary needs were met with the utmost care and attention.

So the lesson in this tale?

For one, falafels are totally delicious and if someone offers to make them for you definitely say yes.

And two, don’t be afraid to ask. Go to that pizza place, the Mexican take out spot, and your old favorite Chinese restaurant, and see what they can do for you. You can’t lose. You can only win more good food to eat.

Chow on.

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