Category Archives: good eats

Restaurants, frozen yogurt shops, and everything in between – here’s a list of people and places that will safely satisfy your taste-buds and low-sodium needs

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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Unusual Pairings

I had the pleasure of low sodium lunching yesterday at the always creative, always delicious Boulette’s Larder. With a table outside, ferry boats pulling into harbor, and Blue Angels soaring overhead, it was the most idyllic setting imaginable. And not to be outdone, the food was equally mind-blowing.

What I love most about Boulette’s Larder is that head chef and owner, Amaryll Schwertner, truly celebrates ingredients in their most simple form. Dishes are not spectacular because of foams or foie gras or some other form of culinary acrobatics. They food is good – no, it’s great – because she matches seasonal produce with their perfect mates. And forget about peas and carrots. These are some wild two-somes (and three-somes) that you would have never imagined.

For example, the picture above. This dessert (yes, I said dessert) consists of avocado, honey, and balsamic vinegar. Who would have guessed that these three ingredients would go together, but man oh man, does the mixture work.

The soft texture of the avocado against the bite of the balsamic with the sticky sweet drizzle of the honey – it’s a flavor combination that hums and sings and buzzes in all the right ways. And while Amaryll created it as the final act of our meal, I think that it would be equally delicious as a starter on some low sodium cheese crackers.

The other big hit of the afternoon was roasted butternut squash with browned butter and roasted pear. Again, a simple dish with only three ingredients. But because each one was a good fit, the meal as a whole was bursting with big flavor.

Amaryll served this as a salad, topped with some micro arugula. But I may even dare to use the combo in a breakfast hash or on top of pasta.

My lunch at the Ferry Building was a good reminder that flavorful food does not have to be complicated and that, with the right ingredients in the right pairings, you can create huge flavors without other seasonings, salts, or spices.

Have a wonderful weekend and chow on.

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Counter Talk

It’s funny how restaurants treat sitting at the counter like a second-class experience – Don’t have reservations? Well, we can seat you at the counter, if you’d like? – but the reality is that counter seating is the hottest spot in the house, especially if you are dealing with low sodium needs or any dietary restriction. Because when you sit at the counter, you have direct access to the kitchen, which means direct translation to really great, low sodium cuisine.

For example, sushi. Thank goodness for fresh, sauce-free slices of sashimi, or else I would be banned from the many delicious sushi houses that grace this great state. No matter what restaurant I choose for my sushi fix, I know that I can always count on low sodium tai (snapper) or hamachi (yellowtail) and a bowl of salt-free, steamed rice to fill me up.

But when I get a chance to sit at the counter, chat up the sushi chefs, and meet the owners, the culinary possibilities suddenly become endless.

The picture above is from a sushi house in Sausalito called Sushi Ran, where they whipped up a platter of sodium-free white fish (including a full fish head for decoration, which strangely made me feel special) with the added bonus of a fresh piece of wasabi root, with shark skin grater, for me to make my own spicy, saltless paste table-side.

This was a treat because most packaged wasabi contains a lot of salt and in skipping this accoutrement, I “flavor” my rice instead with a squeeze of lemon – a good solution, but definitely not as strong of a taste.

But this special Sushi Ran platter made my taste-buds boogie. From sashimi I had never eaten before, like king fish, to the bitter fire of the wasabi, it was a delightfully novel experience.

And at Deep Sushi in Noe (no longer with us…) and Sebo in Hayes Valley, sitting at the counter led to even more extraordinary food, like sodium free tempura, mirin and bonito glazed tofu, hand-made maki, and other traditional Japanese dishes whose ingredients I cannot even explain. This was food that required the instinct of classically trained professionals, and that I could not have begun to dream up in my own kitchen.

So sitting at the counter is truly a bonus. It allows you to get chatty, get personal, and share your needs immediately with the people making your food. And because you are right there – watching every move – it’s almost like you’re at the stove with the team. Which means, if you see something (salt) fishy, you can speak up immediately. But more likely, you’ll only see and eat things you like and discover new tricks that you can take back home. Like watching a cooking show on TV, but with an actual dinner at the end.

And counter talk works wonders for more than raw fish. I’ve had great success devouring Catalan inspired-food at Contigo and a coffee-rubbed steak at Epic Roasthouse. By interacting so closely with the kitchen team, it is easier to make suggestions and work together to come up with creative solutions for a savory, low sodium meal.

So the next time you don’t have reservations and the only seats left in the house are those at the counter, grab ’em. Better yet, request for them in the first place. I guarantee that your meals and your dining experience will be more exciting than canoodling in a back booth. Although that has its perks too. Wink.

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 Pot Luckiest

This Sunday, I spent the afternoon gallivanting at Filoli and Edgewood Park, all in the name of celebrating a very special lady’s birthday.

And while there were – of course! – cupcakes and candles and birthday wishes galore, this summer festivity was equally filled with the delights of Filoli’s gorgeous gardens (did someone say white pigeons and pear trees? Yes, I just did) as well as a picnic feast filled with low sodium treats.

And while it wasn’t my day of birth, boy oh boy, did I eat like it was. We consumed a feast of perfect picnic proportions, and, thanks to the adventurous (and caring) spirit of the hostess, I was able to eat almost every bite.

Today, I want to share this fabulous picnic menu with you, not just because I think my pictures look awesome (although, in all modesty, they do), but because this is the ultimate lesson in eating beyond your kitchen and trusting your food needs in the hands of others.

Here’s the set-up: you are attending someone else’s party – a birthday party, no less – in which you are far from being the guest of honor. Yet, if you want to partake in the culinary delights of the day, your needs demand special attention.

This is where the dilemma lies. Do you say something and risk feeling like you’re making a fuss? Do you offer to bring your own low sodium fare to share? Or do you eat a massive amount before and after you attend the event and simply sip on low sodium lemonade to pass the time?

No matter which option you pick, they are all the right answers. Your approach depends on the context of each situation – how well do you know your company, how comfortable are you sharing your needs (and food) with others, and what will make you feel most at ease (and full).

But I will say this: the more open you are with the people around you, whoever they are, the easier these situations will become. That is because, the people around us are caring and good. And once your loved ones know what you need and how to make low sodium food, chances are they will want to try. All you have to do is teach them.

As such, I treat most occasions as if they are pot lucks, even when they are not. I  bring along one or two low sodium dishes for myself and the rest of the guests to enjoy. And I always ask the host if it is ok to bring some extra food, just in case they have a “vision” for the event that they do not want disturbed…but thankfully, that never happens.

From there, two things happen: 1) I get to eat without worry or fuss, and 2) people ask a lot of questions. They taste how tasty low sodium cuisine can be and they get inspired to try cooking low sodium food themselves. And before I’ve had time to wipe my mouth, I get asked for recipes and recommendations, so that they can make low sodium dishes for me the next time around.

Over time, you’ll find that your friends will want to cook salt-free food for you. They will actually tell you to leave your roasting pan at home. Because when you approach your needs with a positive attitude – and show people that low sodium cooking is a fun challenge, the results of which make you feel accomplished and proud – your friends, without a doubt, will want to jump on board.

After a few years of collaborative efforts and sharing (the definition of a pot luck), I was able to sit down at a beautiful picnic lunch where almost every dish was prepared with low sodium care.

My measly contribution consisted of some freshly prepared, low sodium hummus and fresh crudités (yay for French breakfast radishes!)

And then there were the real masterpieces, starting with a French carrot salad (yes, there was an unintended theme happening here), made with grated carrots and a simple vinaigrette;

low sodium pickled green beans and fennel (recipes from Sodium Girl);

a sodium-free frittata, with purple new potatoes, peppers, and fresh herbs;

and to finish it all off, some juicy, ripe strawberries which were dipped in crème fraiche and brown sugar. Pure yum.

So don’t be shy with your low sodium requirements. Cutting down on salt is the latest health craze and whether it is for the health of your body or theirs, I promise people will be excited to learn and experiment with you. Share your recipes, share your success, and remember, chow on.

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WD~50

What do you get when you combine science, magic, and food?

No, it’s not David Blaine trapped in a beaker glass filled with prosciutto, although that would be amazing.

Instead, it’s wd~50, the literal brain child of grastronomic savant, Wylie Dufresne ,who you may know from such shows as Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, and the all-popular, Iron Chef America in which he battled the Croc-wearing Mario Batali and sadly lost (even with his photo-printed sushi platter). Wylie is best known for his use of innovative techniques and ingredients that transform even the simplest ingredient, like a basil leaf, into something special, like a basil firework. (Side note: “basil firework” is not a real item on the wd~50 menu, but many of the dishes that appear on said list are akin to this fantastical creation).

The amount of prep work that goes into creating the wd~50 dishes is enormous and usually occurs days before service, not just a few hours ahead of time. So when I called at 5pm, the day of my reservation, immediately after I had found there was an opening, I received a bit of hesitation from the other end of the phone.

“Before I can promise anything,” the host’s voice said, “let me check with the chef.”

And with that, I thought that this magic show may have to get cancelled. But a few moments later, after I convinced myself that just sitting in the presence of Mr. Dufresne would be satisfying enough, the host’s voice returned to the receiver and assured me that tonight, I would eat.

“We can’t do something from the menu,” he said, “but we’ll be sure to have something special prepared.” And when he said “special,” he meant it.

With the rest of my dining companions, I oohed and awed over the menu. But little did I know my meal had already been decided: three courses, exquisitely prepared, with the same use of innovation and attention to detail as the regular, salted food.

There was shiso leaves, kanpachi belly, and edible flours

Iberico pork neck and peach-butter sauce

Chewy lychee sorbet and olive oil foam.

Nothing was lacking from my food. Except the salt.

It is amazing that I was actually able to consume it all as my mouth was gaping, wide open, the whole time in amazement. And I realized that evening that, in all seven years of my low sodium eating, I had never eaten food that I could actually smell coming from the kitchen. Sure, plenty of the meals I eat have flavor. But it is usually subtle – gentle hints of citrus, butter, and herb. But the wd~50 plates had taken that subtlety and ratcheted up a few thousand notches to the point that the olfactory waves came crashing through the restaurant, wafting their way to my nose before anything ever hit my lips.

Clearly, by the end of the meal, I was not only full but effusively thanking the waiter for all of his help, exclaiming my exclamations that this was one of the most enjoyable meals that I had ever had. And as if the night couldn’t get better, the waiter asked if I’d like to go back to the kitchen and thank the chef myself. And not just any chef. The Wylie Dufresne chef. The man himself, who had been singularly preparing my meals all night.

I. Was. In. Food. Heaven.

I whisked myself to the back (no need to be escorted) where I met the wizard, WD, sous chef Jon, and pastry ninja Alex. They could not have been sweeter (or more talented or more adorable). The kitchen was immaculate and no, there were not any magic wands or blow torches in sight. But even without witnessing the true tools of their labor, it was an evening of the unexpected and the amazing and I cannot wait to return.

The next morning, we decided to cap off the NYC trip with a jaunt to Harold Dieterle’s Perilla for brunch.

The menu is very creative (fried, poached egg and grits, anyone?) and since all the ingredients are sourced locally, they were able to whip up a fluffy, low sodium omelette for me, filled with mushrooms, tomatoes, and tatsoi greens (an Asian vegetable that kind of tastes like bok choy but has an even more bad ass name). Light, fresh, and salt-free, it was the perfect meal to end a week of amazing culinary delights.

I’ve never dined so exotically or freely while traveling and my experience in the Big A just goes to show you that once you know how to pick restaurants and, most importantly, how to order, you have the bounty of good food at your fingertips (and top chefs at our beck and call).

So happy weekend and happy eating to you all. Remember to be grateful, be full, and always chow on.

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The Big Apple

“A knife, a fork

A bottle, a cork

That’s the way

We spell New York”

Dillinger

If you haven’t guessed it yet (by the obvious post title and less-than-subtle poetics), I spent the last week in the Empire State. And although there was some work accomplished (hello, Fancy Food Show), most of the trip was pure pleasure and play.

When I was younger, New York meant two things: musicals and retail therapy. And really horrible blisters – I never quite got the hang of breaking in my shoes before I hit the big city streets. But as both my taste buds and personality matured, so too have my trips. And now New York doesn’t just mean jazz hands and bags from boutiques, but it also means shelling out some hard-earned dough to eat delicious food, made by delicious chefs.

Picking a restaurant in New York, however, is almost as difficult as getting through the streets in Times Square. And since there are so many restaurants to choose from, Boy and I had to narrow down the field with some sort of common denominator. As usual, the most important attribute we looked for was a menu with fresh and seasonal ingredients. This is usually a great indicator that the kitchen will have unsalted, non-marinated produce and proteins with which to cook, which means a successful low sodium meal. But even with this detail, there were still too many places from which to pick.

So we did what any normal, food-obsessed couple would do: we decided to make our trip to NYC an homage to some of our favorite Top Chef chefs. And after a quick Google search, we decided on three Bravo! stars with whom we wanted to dine: 1) the judge, Tom Colicchio; 2) the winner, Howard Dieterle; and 3) the Top Chef Master, Wylie Dufresne.

Our adventure began at Colicchio’s Craft restaurant. The menu couldn’t be more perfect for someone with strict dietary restrictions and it is based on “single” ingredients, which are then cooked individually to order. This means everything can be prepared according to your needs.

Even though I had full confidence in this restaurant from just looking at the menu, I did decide to call ahead to warn the kitchen of my arrival – a much appreciated gesture. After I explained my needs, the hostess couldn’t have been sweeter and assured me that someone, with similar restrictions, had come in the week before. Service was off to a great start. But just wait, because it gets better.

In both the decor and service, Craft hosts a warm atmosphere. Our waiter went to extremes to make sure that I was happy and full, and he told me that the kitchen was prepared to cook anything I wanted from the menu. It is a rare occasion to be able to order not just one, but many dishes, and I knew I was in for a treat. So I didn’t hold back.

Although plates are usually shared family-style, they made individual portions for both my man friend and me. Since I am like an animal that must eat whenever it can find fuel, I didn’t hold back and I ordered a smorgasbord of the following delights:

Roasted fingerling potatoes

Sauteed chard with shallots, garlic, lemon and unsalted butter

Pan-roasted halibut with perfectly crisp skin and a twig of fried rosemary

And the famous Hen of the Woods, sauteed and roasted to silky, earthy perfection

As an added bonus, when our waiter realized that I couldn’t eat the pre-meal basket o’ bread, he brought out a plate of fresh berries for me to nibble on.

In all my seven years of low sodium dining, I have never had something to eat while waiting for my main meal. So this immediately put the dinner on my top ten meal list.

As you can see from the following sexy (not dark, but sexy) pictures of my meal, everything was simple but succulent. Combinations of browned, unsalted butter, citrus, fresh herbs (fried rosemary!), and, of course, fresh produce made each bite better than the next.

Between the bounty of low sodium options, the incredible atmosphere, and the successful meal, I would return to Craft anytime, and I will hope and pray that Colicchio opens one in San Francisco soon. In the meantime though, I guess I’ll have to go to LA for a West Coast fix.

So until we can take a group trip back to the Big Apple, feast your eyes and mind on Colicchio’s craftiness. And as always, don’t hold back from eating often, eating out, and eating well.

Chow on.

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