Over the Salt

Mindful choices for healthy and low sodium cooking

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Cooking with low salt

I’ve learned a bunch of things in the past year about reducing or eliminating salt from our diet. Most of the heavy work was right at the beginning, where I read the ingredients on every can, jar, package and bottle of food in the house. I was so surprised to find how much sodium and potassium were in almost everything. And if it had low salt, then the sugar and fat were higher than usual. Through a process of elimination, and re-learning to cook with raw ingredients, we were able to keep the salt minimal, and well within the impossible-sounding 1500 mg a day we were presented with at first. Nowadays, it is a rare thing indeed for Raven to exceed 1000 mg a day, and my own salt intake is around 1500 most days.

We had been reading cans for a while (for sugar content), but had missed the sodium as a health risk. Now we are shopping in the produce rows at the grocery store, for the most part, and cautiously adding other “safe” foods along the way. The amount of processed food has gone down so much, we are losing pounds effortlessly without feeling like it is any kind of diet.

It does take practice, and mindful attention, but I have to say it is worth it. My sweetie is taking the heart meds and diuretics (which helps) and has dropped 60 pounds now. For me, just following along and eating the same food has dropped 45 pounds. That’s like a small person. It certainly leads to more energy to do the things we want to do, and playing with recipes has been a whole lot of fun.

Have been collecting recipes and photos along the way, and the next little while will see me posting a bunch of vege bakes, fabulous potato dishes, and quick ways to make caramelized onions. Hope you are enjoying our journey as much as we are – R

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Short Crust Pastry

Making pastry is one of the things that that has been known to make a good cook shiver in their shoes. For some, making a souffle can seem easier by comparison. However, it is easier than it might first seem. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you master it.

There are two main things that are key in making melt-in-the-mouth pastry.

  • The first is to use enough shortening (butter, fat, margarine); the fat used is called shortening because it shortens the protein strands in the flour (gluten) and makes the finished product melt in your mouth.
  • The second is to use a very light hand when mixing in the liquid and rolling it out.

I only roll pastry twice and then discard it. Oonce it becomes tough and stretchy when rolling, (springs back to smaller than what you rolled) the texture of the pastry is tough to eat when cooked.

With the 2 rules in place, here is my recipe for no sodium pastry.

ShortCrust-Pastry by Colleen Loader
Making the dough
I use a proportion of 2cups of General Purpose flour (plain flour) to 2 sticks (225g) unsalted butter.

Rub the butter through the flour until you get a consistency that will form a ball when squeezed lightly.

Make a well or hollow in the centre of the flour/butter mix

Add 2 eggs to give the pastry a rich golden colour – this also helps keep it together.

Then add 2 tablespoons of water (you may need to add more water – dependent on the humidity of the day)

This starts with mixing the dough. Use a knife to stop from over-stretching the protein.

Keep mixing until the pastry forms a ball, this is where you add more water if need be. Too much water will make pastry tough, so be sparing with the water.

The pastry is ready when it has formed a ball. Test the water content by taking a small piece the size of a walnut, flatten in your hand and pull gently – it should break before being stretched more than ΒΌ inch or 1cm. If it does not stretch at all – add a bit more water.

Saving the pastry
Wrap in the finished pastry in a plastic bag and let the this sit for 30 mins before using. This rest allows the protein/gluten to relax for a short crust finish.

Basics that use short crust pastry
Now you are ready to make anything you wish that requires a good short crust pastry, including pie crust, pasties, quiche, cheese straws, samosas etcetera.

Sweet pastry
There is another method to use when making sweet short crust pastry. I will explore that in another post.

To roll pastry out when it is very short – use 2 pieces of plastic one on bottom and one on top. Roll to desired thickness then remove the top layer of plastic to roll onto rolling pin and then flip over onto dish or pie you are trying to use the pastry on. Then peel the bottom plastic off (which is now on top) Voila – no more broken pastry!

Recipe and photos copyright by Colleen Loader 2013

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How much is too much salt?

SaltShakerWe say there’s too much salt in prepared food, but how much is too much? For a person who has had a heart attack, a low salt diet is one where there is a maximum of 1500-2000mg of salt a day. For context, a teaspoon is about 2300mg of salt.

What surprised me most, I think, is that we thought we were eating healthy food. Organic soups (canned), vegetarian dishes from our favorite Thai, Indian, Chinese and Mexican restaurants were frequent visitors to our table, especially during busy weekdays. However, we’ve since realized that those delicious recipes had terrible loads of harmful salt in them. Canned chili was 920mg a serving, however, that was counted as 2 servings per can; a single can was 1840mg of salt. A jar of curry sauce says 400mg per serving, which sounds great until you read more closely, and realize the small jar has 6 or 8 servings per jar. Corn bread is 200mg a 2″ square, a slice of bread can be up to 400mg a slice, and a slice of pie between 200mg and 400mg depending on the number of servings you cut.

We have turned into much more careful readers. We examine every label to figure the amount of servings and divide to find the actual numbers per container. As we’re doing the math with the very real consideration of avoiding another heart attack, theres some pressure to pay attention. Very early we determined that a main meal can have a maximum of 500mg, and we would stay below the 1000mg as a total per day most days. That’s turned out to be a good thing, both for Raven (who had the heart attack) and for me (who has dropped a bunch of pounds water weight).

Salt retains water. Reducing salt, reduces water weight gain. The body does not have to work so hard to deal with the extra water. And the heart, which is a pump, needs to work less hard to pump that water around. Seems simple enough. In a person with a healthy heart, less water means more energy, and less weight.

What I’ve learned from this? There’s too much hidden salt in mystery food, so we’ll take the mystery out of it and cook our own food. Much of it will have no salt at all, and is “free food”, that is free from salt. To make it tasty, we add spices, balance the flavors and eat fresh fruits and vegetables in abundance. Baking our own goodies is a fun way to add love to the process.

I still have my artisan salts from the Murray River, Tibetan Pink, Salish Black and Hawaiian salts. I use them occasionally as a finishing touch for dishes, but only a few grains at a time. We’ve learned that we can have a little of anything we crave, and feel grateful that life and love continues to be rich and flavorful.

Article copyright Ria Loader 2013

Photo credit: mconnors from morguefile.com


Eating foods in season

strawberries with curried cashews - snack

Strawberries + Curried Cashews

I love the idea that we live in a time when we can get any produce at any time, at least hypothetically. Yet recently, I’ve come to notice that foods that are forced to grow out of season just don’t taste as good. The out-of-season foods may be uniform in size and shape, and they are made to pack and travel well; that makes them reliable in a sense. Yet what is missing, for me, is the concentrated flavor and organic variation that makes the food visually and aesthetically pleasing. As an artist, I cannot imagine wanting to draw a perfect apple or raspberry; that would make for an artificial-looking image composition at best, more like wax than something edible. Apparently my taste buds feel the same way!

Lately, I’ve been making fresh fruit snacks from whatever fruit is in season, usually from local growers. Organic is a preference, where available, though a good wash removes most of the chemicals. I choose fruit that is just at, or nearly past, its peak, firm but starting to get a little soft. Ready to eat today or tomorrow is my general rule, and it has to be “smelly”, that is to say ripe. If there is no scent to the food, then I walk away. From May onwards, local farmers markets are opening in school parking lots and community centers, and that’s my favorite place to shop for fresh produce. It’s always good to learn something new from the grower, and the sensory experience of seeing the food and being amongst community members makes me feel connected. Being in the moment, and noticing what my body wants to eat is also part of the experience.

Balances of sweet and savory appeal to me most, things like pears with curry cashews and chopped dates, pistachios sprinkled over nectarines, accompanied by a sharp cheese (Beecher’s Flagship), some pickled onions, snappy crackers (Ritz baked). Here are some snacks I’ve enjoyed from March through May in Seattle.

pear and honey cashews

Pear + Honey Cashews

mango and strawberries

Mango Strawberry Parfait

strawberry and nectarine with dates

Strawberry Nectarine + Dates

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Over the Salt

Salt in various forms - image by frenchbyte from morguefile.comLet’s face it. There is too much salt in canned food, packaged food, and snacks. Gone are the days when salt was a rare condiment, when sitting “above the salt” indicated wealth or prestige. Now we’re in a world where salt is used as a preservative as much as a flavor enhancer. Sometimes, the amount of salt in recipes is too much for good health. Nowadays, I use much less salt in cooking, and when I do use it, I do so mindfully.

When my spouse had heart failure a few months back, a low salt diet became necessary for his recovery. Otherwise, he would have too much fluid build up in his body and lungs, and that would be what I’d call a very bad thing. When I took a look at the pantry, almost all the food had to go. Soups? Out. Frozen dinners? Gone. Breads? Only a few brands would work. Mystery food from restaurants? Gone forever. Needless to say, this prompted a re-evaluation of what constituted health food. It also meant an urgent call to my sister, Colleen, to provide recipe help. As a chef, I was sure she would have the scoop on approaches to take. I also asked my extended social networks, in person and online for suggestions.

I experimented with sauces, spices and snacks made from fresh ingredients. By reading all the labels, it was even possible to find brands that were okay to use as part of recipes. When my sister came to visit for a few weeks from Sydney this spring, we had a lot of fun finding recipes that could work as-is or be adapted. We’ve decided to share those here, and continue experimenting together as a Sydney to Seattle collaboration. We hope that others will join us in trying low salt, savory dishes that taste delicious.