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If you live near or have visited salt water, especially of the marshy variety found near intracoastal waterways, you’ve probably walked past a big ol’ stand of Salicornia, also known as sea bean, sea asparagus, glasswort, picklewort or samphire.
This image comes from West Coast Seaweed (http://www.westcoastseaweed.com/)– a fantastic resource for all things Salicornia!
For those of us who don’t live immediately near a wild source, they can sometimes be found in specialty or Asian markets. If you live in Seattle, they can regularly be found during the summer at the “Foraged and Found” booths at almost every weekend Farmer’s Market (find yours here), for an incredibly reasonable $10.00/lb. I pick up 1/2 lb every other week or so, and it lasts me for a couple of dishes. Beats a four-hour drive to the likeliest nearby foraging spots.
These delightful little fellows come to the kitchen pre-seasoned. Since they grow so close to salt water, they’ve adapted to thrive on the stuff, and, for all intents and purposes, draw it up from the sand/soil. This lends the critters a fairly salty flavor, with definite overtones of minerals. They’re so salty that it’s a good idea to soak them for a while before using them in a recipe. Once soaked, they taste like string-bean pods or really tender asparagus like when it’s super-thin in Spring, and retain their crispiness if cooked.
The amazing thing about these guys is their perfect semi-salty versatility, especially considering the whole low-salt cuisine thing. If you cook with sea beans, you don’t need to add any salt to what you’re making! Properly soaked, 1/2 cup of sea beans contains about 70 mg of sodium, but the additional mineral content stretches that flavor and enhances the taste of whatever you’re making. All you need to do is add a few of them, finely minced, to any savory dish and they’ll add a delightful augmentation of flavor that precludes the need for any additional NaCl.
They’re really nice raw, in salads, but I prefer to cook them, either in small amounts as a salt replacement, or as a side dish, the same way I’d use asparagus. One good thing to do is to mix 1/4 cup sea beans with 1/4 cup sweet onions and cooked underneath a broiled steak seasoned with black pepper (no salt!); the juices from the steak seep down and cook the vegetables, and then cut the meat into bite-sized pieces so each fork-full of steak/sea beans/onions provides the perfect balance between umami/salty/sweet/tangy/juicy. Heck yeah!
Another good trick, especially nice on the grill, is to take some nice whitefish– cod, trout, catfish– and season it with a couple of twists of ground pepper, a squeeze of lemon, a pat of unsalted butter, and double-wrap it in foil with a 1/4 cup sea beans. Toss it on indirect heat for a good 15 minutes, take it off the heat, unwrap it and breathe in those amazing aromas. The littoral essences from the sea beans envelop the fish during the cooking process, bathing it in green, slightly briny delight. It is like eating cooked sashimi.
Finally, here’s a more formal version of a recipe I keep returning to every time I procure some of these guys. Note, once again, the lack of directly applied salt– the sea beans provide plenty. The actual recipe is super-easy to make, though it may require some wait-time while some of the ingredients soak.
Quinoa Sea Bean Salad
1 cup cooked quinoa, chilled overnight
1/2 cup firm tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup chopped sea beans, soaked overnight and rinsed to taste
1/2 cup extra-firm tofu, pressed and cubed, soaked for 1+ hours in juice of 1 lime
3 scallions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
*1/4 cup crumbled feta or gorgonzola cheese (leave this out or replace with fresh mozzarella or swiss for less sodium)
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp white pepper
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp flour
virgin olive oil
1. Remove the tofu from the lime and pat dry. Mix the flour, paprika, white pepper and cumin and toss the tofu in the mixture until well-coated.
2. Sweat the scallions and garlic on medium-low heat. Add 1 tsp of the olive oil and cook for ~1 minute, until soft but not yet golden.
3. Increase heat to medium-high. Add the tofu and stir frequently until scallions, garlic and tofu are all golden. Remove and set aside.
4. Mix the quinoa, tomatoes, sea beans, tofu mixture and olive oil and vinegar to taste.
That’s all there is to it. Eat some sea beans today!
I’ve been looking suspiciously into the pinholes on top of my salt shaker of late because I was recently diagnosed with hypertension (that’s High Blood Pressure). This is incredibly rare for my age– I’m in about the 1-2% range (screw you, all you lottery winners– I beat a different kind of odds). It’s not directly attributable to the amount of salt I get– in fact, it’s likely largely genetic– but it certainly will do me a world of good to cut back substantially on the ol’ NaCl (we can talk about the increased exercise and such another time, on a different blog).
The problem is, when you’re a food geek like me, there are some things that require salt. It is, after all, one of the five Simple Machines of Flavor (bitter, sweet, sour and “umami” being the other four). There are items (pretzels come to mind) and recipes (certain baked goods) that are, for all intents and purposes, pointless without a couple of spoonfuls from the ol’ salt pig.
This, however, to my occasionally maniacal mind, makes what could be seen as a dire punishment into an intriguing challenge. How can we make freakin’ delicious recipes which typically call for salt (I’m looking at you, any kind of dry-rubbed meat, and your pal bacon, too) into still delicious, yet way better for you recipes that won’t eventually cause your brain to explode?
This isn’t just an academic question. If you live in an industrialized country and eat any kind of processed food whatsoever on a regular basis, you eat too much salt. Hell, even most cookbooks out there, regardless of how hoity-toity or high-falutin’, use far more salt than is necessary in most recipes. Here’s the thing: the more salt you eat, more you acquire the taste. The more you have a taste for salt, the more you use in a recipe. And so on. So, the way I see it, we’re culturally trained to use more salt than we need in our cooking, and maybe we can take a look at ways to cut it out.
Health-wise, we get plenty of sodium from a “well-balanced diet” (whatever that means); anything additional is the icing on top of the salt cake. Most of our salt comes from the aforementioned processed foods and from eating out at restaurants. Thanks to perceptions of low-cost and convenience, most people rely on this stuff, and where the Recommended Daily Allowance of Sodium tops out at 2,000 mg (at most)/day, the average U.S. Consumer eats between 4,000-5,000 mg/day. Yikes!
So, as a salt aficianado, I’m going to take a look at some ways to cut back this insane amount of salt we eat. I’ve come up with a little set of rules that I’ll be trying out, and posting here occasionally with updates, successes and failures.
1. Occasionally we like to eat processed foods and dinner out. One of our goals will be to reduce our sodium intake at home so we can still enjoy meals out where we won’t be able to know how much sodium we’re getting.
2. We will not eliminate salt completely; we will still cook sausages and other salty treats every now and again. We will, however, attempt to balance our meals so that a salty sausage isn’t accompanied by a salty side dish and a salty dessert.
3. We will be eagle-eyed label readers and have an idea of just how much sodium we’re getting in packaged food. We will opt for no- and low-salt versions of the food we eat unless they are somehow chemically modified. If salt has been removed by adding a chemical, we’ll pass.
4. When I used to paint pictures, it took me some time to realize that my artowork looked far better if I didn’t ever use the color black (totkb to Bing, who taught me this trick). When I tossed my tube of black and replaced it with dark shades and hues in my paintings, the difference was astounding. I think this is because absolute black doesn’t really occur in nature. With this in mind, we will try to add salty substances to our recipes instead of salt itself. Instead of a tablespoon of salt in our dry rub (one tablespoon= ~2500 mg of the stuff), let’s use something that contains 1/12th of a tablespoon of salt and 11/12 of something else that is awesome and tasty.
5. We will get to know the underused flavors– bitter and sour– and find out how our jaded western palates can use these to help us appreciate cuisine in a way that doesn’t require as much salt.
6. Finally, we will make simple low-sodium and salt-free versions of our favorites that usually have lots of sodium. Homemade stuff always tastes better!
Hey, we are not doctors, nor are we dieticians. If your doctor or nutritionist has instructed you not to eat any sodium whatsoever, do not follow advice from some guy on the internet. If, however, you’re interested in coming up with some ways to get rid of some of that excess sodium but do so in a way that doesn’t result in cardboard-flavored grossness, it should be fun; feel free to play along, or discuss as we go! This will be a totally unscientific experiment; our instruments will be our taste buds and common sense.