Category Archives: improbable eats

Quench your saltiest desires with these surprising, low-sodium substitutes

Spam. No, Seriously.

I don’t think I am going to blow anyone away with this next statement, but SPAM is super high in sodium. One serving (and remember, there are usually multiple servings in one package), contains over 770mg of sodium. Even the oxy-moronic Low Sodium SPAM (really?) has over 530mg of sodium. So unless you want to eat one serving of SPAM musubi for your entire day’s worth of food, I’d suggest leaving SPAM on the shelves.

Maybe.

Last weekend, I attended a dinner party. More like a potluck. And the theme was SPAM. Going traditional was seriously frowned upon by the group. So instead of SPAM and pineapple pizza, more curious concoctions (like SPAM carbonara, SPAM empanadas, SPAM latkes, and SPAM pate) were afoot.

And let me back up by saying that this kind of get together is not strange in any way. A few weeks ago, the theme was nachos and before that, the apocalypse. So SPAM was just a part of the natural progression. And the crazier the challenge, the better the food. Or at least the memories.

Even with the high sodium content of the star ingredient, there was no way that I was going to shy from this culinary opportunity. If anything, I was even more determined to make it work. Which lead me to putting meat in a blender. Specifically browned and seasoned pork butt. Which, again, let me stress, got put into an actual blender and pulsed until it formed a silky smooth meat puree.

If you aren’t puking yet, you’re my new best friend.

The thought, “this is just like making pate,” ran continuously through my mind as I packed the now blended pork butt into a little tart pan. I covered it with plastic wrap, said a prayer, and then stuck it in the fridge.

Two hours later, I had my very own Salt-Free SPAM cake. In the shape of a flower. Because I am classy like that.

And for a second time today, I’m going to state the obvious and tell you that the recipe wasn’t perfect. When I tried to slice and fry the SPAM, it immediately fell apart. And the texture was far less desirable than plain ground meat (see: blender).

So next time–yes, there will be a next time–I will have to use some sort of emulsifier or glue, like cream or egg, to keep that SPAM cake together.

But the attempt was well worth it. Even with my chunky, strangely monotone SPAM, I made fried rice with pineapple, a tamarind “soy sauce,” and lots of bright veggies. It was all edible. So points for that. And as usual, the goal was more about overcoming sodium obstacles than creating a shelf-worthy salt-free SPAM. So on that end, I think the mission was completed as well.

Of course, the great lesson is to not shy away from the impossible. And with every attempt, you’ll either get closer to achieving your goal. Or you’ll realize that eating a whole, juicy pork chop is way better than putting it in a blender.

Chow on.

 

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Salt-Free Dolmas

So I had a job.

It wasn’t supposed to involve food — there was a lot more paperwork than stirring or standing over a stove. But nonetheless, it was a subject we always found ourselves gravitating towards.

I also had a manager at this job, to whom I always paid a quick visit before heading to the nearest market to grab something for lunch.

And upon said visit, I would ask, “is there anything you want me to get for you while I’m in the outside world?”  To which I expected answers like: sandwich, coffee, maybe chips.

But she always replied with “dolmas.”

Now a dolma is not a cousin to the llama or a place for meditation or prayer.

A dolma is most commonly a soft grape leaf stuffed with rice, vegetables, dried fruit, and sometimes meat and then, THEN!, wrapped up real tight in into a vegetable pouch. Perfect for popping into your mouth. Kind of like a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern sushi roll.

When it has meat, the dolma is served warm. When it is purely for herbivores, the dolma is served cold. Either way, it’s great with yogurt. And usually, because of the salt-soaked grape leaves — it’s most common form of packaging — it is also loaded with sodium.

So just as quickly as I learned what a dolma was, I learned that it was also no good for me or my kidneys.

Until I realized that grape leaves weren’t the only greens that would work as edible wrapping paper.

Turns out many people stray from the grape leaves and use other pliable veggies, like squash blossoms, swiss chard, cabbage, and even thinly sliced or hollowed eggplant to act as the dolma vehicle. And since my garden is exploding with gigantic proportions of collards, I thought I could give them a try.

So I took to my collards with newfound excitement and determination, and with a quick saute and the removal of their hard stem, I had a limp leaf that was just perfect for filling, rolling, and eating.

I kept this initial trial version simple and filled it only with some steamed (and sticky) white rice. But for my next attempt, I might take my inspiration from this Epicurious.com recipe — which I already salt-free’d below for your experimenting pleasure.

And whether you’ve been craving to eat dolmas again or are just discovering them for the first time, have a go at rolling your own low-sodium delicacies in whatever crazy, edible envelope you can think of.

Chow on.

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 cups water
  • White or black pepper, to taste
  • 1½ cups uncooked rice
  • ½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried dil
  • 1 teaspoon fresh mint, chopped
  • ¼ cup ricotta cheese, crumbled
  • ½ cup salt-freepine nuts
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 12 gigantic collard leaves, stem removed and leaves split into two “dolma” wraps each
  • ½ cup lemon juice

Directions

In a saucepan, sauté the onion in olive oil until light brown. Add the rice and brown lightly. Add the water and pepper.Bring the water to a boil and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes, or until water is absorbed but rice is only partially cooked. Make certain rice does not stick or burn.Add all the ingredients except the lemon juice and collard leaves and mix well.

Quickly steam or sauté those collard leaves (really, only 1 minute or so until they are just soft enough to mold). Then place 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of each leaf. Fold the sides in and roll the leaf up.

Place stuffed leaves in a pot in even and tight rows covering the bottom of the pan. When the bottom layer is complete, start another layer. Continue rolling dolmas until all of the filling is used.

Add ½ of the lemon juice and enough water to cover half of the rolled leaves.Place a plate on the top layer to hold the stuffed leaves down and to prevent them from unrolling while cooking. Simmer over low heat until most of the liquid is absorbed, about 45 minutes.

Remove the plate and dolmas from the pan, drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice, and serve. May be served warm or at room temperature. Serve with low-sodium Greek yogurt mixed with leftover mint or dill if desired.

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Pickled Chard Stalks, Rainbow Style

Oh hi.

Remember that garden I told you about a few months ago. The one that made my heart burst (in a good way)? That looked out to the gorgeous city skyline? That was a mere, dirt-filled twinkle in my eye?

Yep, that’s the garden.

Well, only a few months later, our little plot is full to the brim.

With squash, eggplant, budding asparagus,

walking stick kale, monsterous amounts of collard greens, a splash of herbs, and you guessed it, tons of rainbow chard.

But a funny thing happened. Not funny haha, but funny as in we had maggots crawling out of our compost bin. Pretty hilarious as you can imagine. Slash, my worst nightmare.

While we were attempting to consume our DIY veggies as fast as they were growing, some other little buggers were chowing down on them too. These guys were digging into the middle cells of the leaves, turning them brown. And the only way to stop them from ruining the whole crop was to either eat them (which we did for a bit, extra protein) or, in true Alice in Wonderland style, lop off their heads. The chard, not the bugs. Who has a guillotine that small. Really.

So there we were, a plot full of topless stalks. Beautiful stalks. In shades, colors, and neons that shouldn’t be natural. And I just couldn’t let them go to waste.

With a quick chop, I cut the stalks into perfect bite-sized chunks.

And after mixing up some salt-free pickling spices (2 teaspoons turmeric, 1 teaspoon black pepper corns, 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seed, 1 to 2 teaspoons dried dill, 4 cloves of garlic, and a sprinkling of whole cloves) and heating up some salt-free brining liquid (1 cup water, 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar, 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, and a splash of orange juice), I turned my chard stems into rainbow pickles.

And that’s how my headless garden was saved. And that’s how I am not eating any more bugs. And that’s why my breath smells like vinegar.

Happy weekend to you all and as always, chow on.

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Tomato Free Ketchup

There are some rules that I strictly adhere to:

1) White pants are always appropriate, even for dudes.

2) When it is raining, flip flops are a fine choice.

3) And ketchup is good on anything. Even pancakes. I’ll understand, though, if you use syrup.

Now ketchup can cost you a few hundred mg of sodium depending on how much you squeeze. The brand I looked at today had 190mg of sodium in it. Per tablespoon. And I’m pretty sure neither you nor I are only going to use a tablespoon. That’s plain ridiculousness.

Which is why I am so, so, so very thrilled to be including a homemade ketchup in my cookbook. It is crazy easy to make and if you beg and plead enough, I’ll probably break down and give you the recipe.

But what if you can’t eat tomatoes?

While I was recently speaking at the Bay Area Association for Kidney Patients this past weekend, I asked the room of my new friends if there was anything they missed eating. And one darling woman raised her hand and said red sauce and all the wonderful foods that go with it.

I excitedly told her (whose name I never got, so we’ll call her Margaret) that this sodium challenge was easily overcome. That salt-free tomato sauce is easy to make at home and that there are many salt-free tomato products already on the market.

But Margaret answered back that because of her kidneys, she had been advised to cut out vegetables that were high in potassium. It wasn’t just the salt that was a problem. Things like phosphorous, protein, and potassium had to be watched too. And so tomatoes were out.

Putting on my salt-free thinking cap though, I started throwing out ideas for a thick, easily creamed substitute.

Pumpkin? No, too much potassium. Cauliflower? Potassium. Sqaush? Potassium. Bell peppers? Finally, a winner. And if you ask me, the perfect low sodium and low potassium swap out.

So Margaret and everyone that loves ketchup and red sauce as much as I do, here is a salt-free, low potassium ketchup (spread over a quinoa “meat” loaf) that I made just for you.

Happy long weekend and chow on.

 

3 cups pureed red bell peppers (about 3 large bell peppers + food processor or blender)

3/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon black pepper

 

In a small pot, bring all the ingredients to a rolling simmer over medium heat. Cover with a lid and cook until reduced by 1/3, about 15 minutes. If using right away, keep the ketchup warm on low flame with pot covered. Or, if it is being saved for later use, place in an airtight container and refrigerate. Ketchup will stay good for one week.

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Look What I Made Wednesday: Eggs Benedict

It’s time for the weekly cookbook teaser and this week, I am going to show you one of my proudest creations thus far in a four photo love story.

But before we get to the foodie shots, let me give you a brief background on this dish.

Eggs benedict is to brunch as rain is to Seattle. They define each other. They go hand in hand. And I just got an SAT anxiety flashback…so give me a moment to collect myself. How I ever got into college, I’ll never know. Those tests were totally awful. If only they were about chocolate.

But back to Benedict. The most traditional version is made of two, toasted English muffin halves, topped with Canadian bacon, poached eggs, and Hollondaise sauce. It’s like a united nations of delicious.

Of course, other variations exist, like Eggs Florentine (spinach instead of ham), Eggs Montreal (salmon instead of ham), and Eggs Sardou (with artichokes instead of muffins, anchovies for the ham, and truffles instead of Hollondaise), just to name a few.

Which means there is more than enough room for a low sodium version too.

While I’m still working on the name for this dish (Eggs Beatrice? Ten points to whoever gets the nerd reference), I’ve nailed the ingredients. So as I brainstorm for an appropriately sassy title, feel free to oogle over the photo flirting below.

Chow on.

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Look What I Made Wednesday – Hawt Dawg!

Yesterday, I arrived in New York.

And from the moment I touched down, I was filled with excitement. Perhaps it was the hustle, the bustle, the sights, and the sounds that sent a bolt of energy through me. Perhaps it was the fact that I was actually wearing real clothes for the first time in months – not a matching two piece made from spandex and cotton. Or maybe it was just the smell of sidewalk food carts. The wafting mist of fresh pretzels, candied nuts, and what I had always thought was the aroma of steaming hot dogs.

“I love that smell,” I exclaimed, as my bud and I walked past a cart full of links and brats.

“What smell,” the bud replied, “the tobacco?”

Snap.

The smell I had always associated with New York, the smell that I loved and that drew a giddy Christmas morning smile on my face, was not, in fact, steaming kosher dogs. But tobacco. Probably with a side of exhaust.

So no. It turns out these East Coast olfactory air waves are not full of hawt dawgs.

But this little plate of low sodium food sure is.

You’re looking at a fresh, home-made hot dog (ok, more like a pork fennel sausage) with a home-made hot dog bun. And of course, some spicy ground mustard on top.

While the bun recipe will be in the cookbook, I’ll tell you a little secret about the hot dog: it was really easy to make.

In a bowl, with my hands, I blended some ground pork with other flavors that I liked – chopped apple, fennel seed, pepper, and paprika. Then, using saran wrap instead of normal sausage casing (as it is usually brined which means too much salt), I made a long row of the sausage mix and then rolled it in the saran wrap, tying off the end. Carefully, I pinched a spot 1/3 of the way down from the top and slowly twisted, making a link. I did this again, another 1/3 of the way down. And then finally, I tied off the other end. Can you picture all of this?

Of course, to cook your gorgeous links, you can’t just throw the saran wrap sausage in a pot. I tried. The plastic melts. Who would have thought.

I tried using a steamer too. Also a bad idea.

So here’s the trick. Put your links in the freezer for 15 minutes right before cooking them. It is just enough time to harden the sausage without it turning into a meat-cicle.

Then, heat up a nonstick skillet on medium-high flame with a little bit of oil. Gently unwrap one of the links and let it plop on the pan, still in its recognizable hot dog form. Let it brown, approximately 5 minutes, and then turn it to the other side. Keep turning and browning the dog until all the meat is cooked, which should take about 15 minutes total.

And there you have it. Hawt dawgs! Low sodium. Without the tobacco smell.

Chow on.

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Ranch Revealed

Ok.

Now I know how my parents felt when my brother and I begged for a puppy. After weeks of being told “no” and that “just because” is a perfectly acceptable answer, they finally caved in. And Snickers, our cocker spaniel that eventually went blind and deaf but was a cuddle bug all the same, was eventually welcomed to the family.

Arm, twisted.

So after weeks of receiving wonderful emails from you all, requesting the ingredients for the secret low sodium ranch dressing – that I was going to save for the book – I just couldn’t resist any longer. I mean, in my (almost) two years of blogging, I have never had such an outpouring of interest in a single recipe. And because I appreciate your readership and, more importantly, your gung-ho attitude in taking on a low sodium diet, I decided to finally pull back the proverbial curtain and reveal this tangy treat.

But here’s the catch: it is still going in the cookbook. So consider yourselves recipe testers. I want feedback, people. Real, thoughtful, hard hitting feedback. Do remember that, as with many low sodium creations, we are going for proximity, not “Dolly the Sheep” replicas. But thoughts on taste, texture, and pairings are very welcome.

With that, I won’t waste anymore of your precious time. Please enjoy this ever evolving version of low sodium ranch dressing. Just because.

Chow on.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups of Greek yogurt (use brands that are 60 mg or less per container)

Juice and zest from 1 small lemon

2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill

1 teaspoon chopped fresh chives

1/2 teaspoon dried orange peel powder or fresh orange zest

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon mustard powder

1/8 teaspoon paprika

Directions

1. Mix all the ingredients in a food processor until well blended.

2. Spoon the dressing over a salad or into a small serving bowl for dipping pleasure. Enjoy.

 

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