Category Archives: restaurant ordering

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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Look What I Made Wednesday – Questions and Answers

Today we are going to take a slight departure from our normal Wednesdays and I’m going to tell you about all the things I love.

I love the rain.

I like the sound of it. I like the way the air smells after it. I particularly like it when I am not wearing shoes.

I don’t necessarily love the rain – achem – when it comes in April. April is supposed to be about flowers, spring cleaning, and candy. Which I love to eat after dinner and for breakfast.

But I like the rain – ok, I’ll say I love it – even during the spring because it gives me an excuse to make hot cocoa. Which I love and haven’t been able to drink due to the high sodium content of milk and hot chocolate mixes.

But now, thanks to So Delicious Coconut milk and these nifty vegan marshmallows

I am loving me some orange, coconut hot chocolate right now. In April. With marshmallows floating on top. As a snack.

This, I love.

I also love to write and eat and write about eating. Especially on this blog. And I really love it when I hear from you.

So I wanted to dedicate this Wednesday’s post to some of your most recent questions. And hopefully you love the idea as much as I do.

Q: How did you define your sodium boundaries?

A: First and most importantly, remember that everybody and every body is different. For me, I found that by limiting my sodium intake to 500-1000 mg per day, I was able to go off of dialysis, avoid a kidney transplant, and maintain my health with diet and daily medications.

But whether you are counting sodium or calories, you don’t want your diet to take over your mind or life. So I made some simple rules for myself:

  1. I don’t eat any food that has naturally more than 100mg of sodium per serving. This means avoiding most shellfish, but surprisingly not clams. And I can safely enjoy the majority of beef, poultry, fish, vegetables, and fruit.  Just be aware of your portion sizes and how it affects the sodium levels of the food you are consuming. Three ounces of steak may only be 90 mg of sodium, but once you start eating a twelve ouncer, well you’re talking about a whole new ball game.
  2. As for packaged goods, I try to avoid them. Over 70% of America’s sodium intake comes from processed food. But like any human being, if I need a shortcut or an ingredient that is hard to find fresh, I only use canned products that have 40 mg of sodium per serving or less. And remember what I said about serving sizes. If I am using tomato paste, which runs around 30 mg per 2 tablespoons for one particular brand, I would use it if I only needed 2 tablespoons. But I would pass if I needed a cup.
  3. And ultimately, you have to educate yourself and define your own parameters. Grab the Pocket Guide to Low Sodium Foods or check out the USDA National Nutrient Database. And read up. Once you can easily identify the sodium levels in foods, you can make choices quickly and hassle free.

Q: You mentioned that you have a card you bring with you to restaurants that lists your dietary needs. Is it on your site somewhere?

A: There are a couple good posts (if I do say so myself) that talk about successful dining tips here and here. But because you asked, here is the exact note that I email restaurants – if I’ve made reservations ahead of time – and always keep tucked in my purse. You will obviously need to change the name, but I think you get the point:

Jessica’s kidney’s failed seven years ago and as a result, she has to keep a very strict NO SODIUM diet. We thank you in advance for taking her needs seriously and using this list to help preparation:

Jessica CANNOT eat:

*no salt, no salted butter, no salted broths or sauces

*nothing pre-seasoned with salt or seasonings and sauces that contain sodium

*no vegetables or grains that have been blanched or cooked in salt water

*no shellfish (shrimp, lobster, crab, scallops, mussels)

*no soy or Teriyaki

*nothing that has been smoked, pickled, braised, or brined with salt

*no pre-canned or pre-packaged vegetables

*no dairy or cheese (besides the ones listed below)

Jessica CAN eat:

*all fresh beef, poultry, white fish, and clams

*all vegetables and fruits

*olive oils, most vinegars (check for sodium on label), wine, garlic, citrus, onions, fresh herbs, sweet butter

*unsalted reduction sauces and broths

*cream, most creme fraiche, and most mascarpone

*all grains and pastas (made without salt) cooked in unsalted water

*all spices (without sodium) and chillis

Q: On Wednesdays, I can never find the recipe that coordinates to the beautiful picture you posted. What’s going on here?

A: Right now, as I plow through the initial manuscript of my cookbook, hump days are pure teasers. In “Look What I Made Wednesdays,” I’m just showing one of the latest concoctions for my upcoming tome (okay,100 recipes) of low sodium treats. So savor with your eyes…for now.

Q: Okay, will do. But in the meantime, do you have other recipes I can print out and is there a search button?

A: Yes, there are recipes. Yes, there is a search button (it should be to the right side below “Archives”). And yes, I’m working on a better recipe system for the site.

Actually, I am working on a better site! As of next week, I am giving Sodium Girl and 21st century makeover and there will be all sorts of cool new gadgets, widgets, and recipe indexes that will make low sodium cooking even cooler than before. So thanks for hanging in there with me as we turn this duck into a low sodium swan. Or something like that. And in the meantime, if you can’t find a recipe for something, shoot me an email or post a comment below.

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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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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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Dinner is Served

Say hello to a beautifully crafted, sodium-free bite of hamachi from Bar Crudo – the adorable raw bar and restaurant that sits on Divisidero street and serves up a flurry of fresh seafood, from sashimi to creamy clam chowder, that will blow your taste buds away. Who needed ’em anyways.

And while your eyes are glazing over at the sight of this wanton-shaped slice of fish, I’m guessing that your mind is buzzing with a few questions; most prominently, the quandary of why I am writing about a restaurant in Northern California when I promised to talk about my New York eating adventures.

Well first of all, your query and your attention to detail are both on point. I am breaking my writer’s promise. But as much as I hate to digress from what was expected, I do have to take a brief interlude from our east coast adventure to pay homage to the city by the Bay and its bounty of talented chefs. For it was here, against the backdrop of the Golden Gate, that I learned how to dine out, and dine well, on a low sodium diet.

As you can see from the picture above and previous blog posts, even with my eating restrictions, I am able to eat out with ease and because of them, I tend to be privy to special treatment by head chefs and restaurant staff that I would otherwise never receive. Against all odds and assumptions, it turns out that my dietary challenges do not keep me from enjoying the chowhound culture, but if anything, make me more connected to it.

But I was not always so confident or savvy when it came to eating at restaurants and for years I avoided any table but the one in my own kitchen. With gentle coaxing from supportive friends (aka a boyfriend who wouldn’t take no for an answer) and lots of experimentation, though, I came to find that eating out without salt was not only possible, but that there were plenty of generous, risk-taking, creative chefs who were more than happy to help.

So whether it is in the heart of NoPa in San Francisco or on the East Side of New York City, I know that I can always find something scrumptious to eat and that my dietary needs will never keep me from missing the thrill or joy that comes with dining on the town. And if you want to read about how my dining adventures began, check out my article in today’s Chronicle. I promise (and this time I’m keeping it) I’ll be back on Friday with the conclusion of my Big Apple feast and more sexy photos.

Until then, make a reservation somewhere special, call ahead to let them know you are coming, and enjoy a spectacular dish of food that is full of flavor, without the salt.

Chow on.

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Tip Jar: The Maverick Challenge

Maverick Restaurant sits quietly on 17th street, just off the busy, foodie-trodden path of Valencia.  Unless you know it is there, you might just pass by the banner, with its dashing red “M” emblem, that hangs modestly above the entry way.  But this is a restaurant that no one, dietary restriction or not, wants to miss.  Co-owners Scott Youkilis and Mike Pierce make a killer team with Mike manning the front of the house and the extraordinary wine list and Scott preparing the dazzling regional cuisine in the back.

I made my first trip to Maverick in the spring of 2007.  At that point in my low sodium journey, the only restaurants I frequented had been steakhouses and make-your-own salad spots.  My dining experiences were limited to plates of meat and leafy greens with little else on the side to jazz it up.  As simple as my meals were, I was completely satisfied with them and was happy enough to sip on something bubbly while hanging out with friends.  The meals I ate out mimicked the simple dishes I created at home: stir-fry, chili, pasta.  Nothing extraordinary, but all sodium safe.  I didn’t dare go beyond the boundaries of steaming, sauteing, and broiling.  But this first visit to Scott and Mike’s place, on that warm April evening, changed it all.

Boy had called ahead with a long list of dietary restrictions.  The result: roasted duck with handmade gnocchi and a bevy of greens that had been sauteed in vinegars and delicate olive oil.  This was no steak and steamed asparagus.  There was obvious thought and care given to the meal and my plate looked as beautiful and full as my dining companion’s.  That evening, I realized it was possible to cook beyond the basics, even when keeping sodium to a minimum, and that flavor and presentation do not have to suffer. Both eating in and eating out could be a lot more fun than I had imagined.

Three years after our first meeting, and many exquisite low sodium creations later, I sat down with Scott to discuss what it is like for him to cook low sodium meals and what tricks he uses to make the missing ingredient negligible.  My dinner that evening was one of the best I had ever had:

An Aperitif of Cauliflower Boiled in Saffron Broth with a Parsley and Mustard Flower Pesto


Lime Marinated Beet Salad with Shaved Fennel, Arugula, and a HOUSE-MADE, LOW SODIUM, Fennel Seed Cheese


Spice Crusted Steak and Peppered Potatoes with Sauteed Radicchio, Topped with a Poached Egg

Scott continues to push the boundaries of how intricate and interesting low sodium meals can be – his daring and determined attitude lives up to the name of his restaurant.  While he confessed that salt remains an integral part of his cooking, he finds the exercise of cooking without salt exciting. And if he had to cut it out, for personal reasons, he knows it would be a challenge, but that after a while, he could dig it.

Here is a brief excerpt from our interview.  If you have not treated yourself to a meal at Maverick’s, make your reservation today.  It will be an unforgettable experience.  Like Scott, remember to be fearless and creative in your low sodium cooking.  And as always, chow on.

Sodium Girl: How much does an order like mine change the flow of the kitchen?

Scott Youkilis: For us, we are always being thrown curveballs and we are used to it.  We are able to handle special orders because of the size of the restaurant and the fact that we have fresh products.  We often create things on the fly.  When friends and VIPs come in, we make a special amuse bouche for them.  We will actually look at the fresh ingredients we have, stop and think, and make sense of the products. It is in these moments that you turn off the robot and really start to create things.

SG: For you, where is salt a necessary component and are their uses where salt is superfluous?

SY: The places you cannot leave salt out is in curing meats and preserving.  Those are times that you need salt. I’ve seen nitrate free bacon, but I kind of think that it is only bacon when you do the following procedures to it: cure it, smoke it, and fry it. If you do not do those things, then it is not really bacon.  But there are definitely ways around it using salt for taste. Like this evening, we used a lot of acid since it will tenderize and bring out flavors much like salt does. Acids and vinegars extract flavors and enhance them. There are also so many cool vinegars to use and of course all the herbs and spices – it is unbelievable what you can do with them.

SG: Are there any specific cooking techniques you like to use to enhance flavor naturally?

SY: Poaching things in wine or like tonight, in a saffron broth, can give it a deeper flavor. You can also make really rich sauces with meat stocks that you then reduce with wine.  It might not be as flavorful as with salt, but you will achieve the same texture. Grilling and searing can give meat a nice crust and it will lock in the juices, which have an unique flavor of their own.

SG: Any last advice for a home cook?

SY: Continue to look into cooking techniques.  Experimenting does not have to end if you cannot eat salt. Think about incorporating more fresh vegetables into your diet (as they always have more flavor) and do less to them, because when you cook them a lot of their natural flavor is lost.  Just keep it as natural as possible.

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Put a Lime in Your Coconut

It’s the holidays (and my birthday) which basically means I have license to stuff my face with as many sweet treats as possible. An annual chubby bunny experiment of sorts. But low sodium desserts, especially at restaurants, tend to be difficult to find. Caramel, baking powder and baking soda, salted butter… it all kind of gets in the way of a low sodium diet. But thanks to the delicious coconut, new doors of decadence have been opened.

Coconut has recently been a low sodium scene stealer. Its milk (15mg of sodium per serving) makes a wonderful substitute for recipes that include dairy and when mixed with granola and some dried fruit, you have the perfect, tropical breakfast.

As for dessert, coconut made its way to me last night in two different iterations: frozen and cookie’d. Ciao Bella Coconut Sorbet (15mg of sodium per serving) is a freezer staple at my house. It is creamy and has little flecks of real coconut in it. I try to keep my eye out for this option on menus as a cool scoop of the good stuff really ends a dinner on high note.

In even bigger news, I am beginning to see more “ice cream” products with coconut as the dairy substitute, expanding the flavor options to all new levels. Luna and Larry’s Coconut Bliss comes in Chocolate, Vanilla Island, Mint Galactica, and Cappuccino to name a few, all which are around 18mg of sodium per serving.

But sometimes, to top off your ice cold treat, sometimes you need something with a little crunch. Last night, I was served mini macaroons. The perfect low sodium cookie. Cream of tartar, white sugar, egg whites, and coconut – these tiny morsels were low sodium and extremely satisfying. So remember, when your sweet tooth strikes, go nuts with coconut and chow on.

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