Saturday, April 23, 2011

Early easter lamb

Inspired by the lovely greek style infused olive oil I made yesterday, I decided on a whim to make my first attempt at cooking lamb. It's one meat that I've actually never eaten, but I know it's traditional for greek cooking, and they had it at a halfway decent price. Remarkably, it came out very good, even though it's also the first time I've roasted meat without a salt rub. Here's a rough recipe.

Greek lamb with cherry sauce

1 pound lamb shoulder fillets
2 tablespoons lemon oregano infused olive oil
A handful dried oregano
1/8 cup dried cherries
2 ice cubes of real chicken broth (maybe 1/4 cup?)
Balsalmic vinegar

Rub the lamb liberally with infused olive oil. Sprinkle freshly crushed oregano on both sides and then lightly sprinkle with pepper. Let sit for 1 hour. Soak cherries in about 1/4 of hot water.

Heat the oven to 350. Rub a cast iron pan with a light coating of olive oil. Pop it in the oven for 30 minutes. (I roasted some potatoes at the same time.) When the lamb seems done, remove from pan and allow to sit for 8-10 minutes before slicing. In the meantime, put the cast iron pan on the stove, add the broth, cherries and soaking liquid. Bring to a simmer and add a few glugs of balsalmic vinegar. Cook down to a thick sauce and serve over slices of lamb.

If you use low sodium chicken broth (I make my own from chicken bones), a 3oz portion of the lamb with 1/4 of the sauce should come out to about 85mg of sodium.

I'd show you a picture, but we sort of ate it all! ;-)

Friday, April 22, 2011


When we first planted our herb garden, I found a little potted greek oregano at our local indie nursery. It was astonishingly fragrant and I figured a greek variety might do well in our mediterranean climate. Little did I know.

That first year the mint moth caterpillars got to it. I had to hack the entire plant down to the ground and it didn't put out too much in the way of foliage. Year two, I went on the offensive, when I first noticed the moths I cut it way back and applied BT. The plant thrived. We used a bunch for fresh cooking and in early fall I cut the plant back and got 1/2 pint jar full of dried leaves. That was last fall.

This winter/spring the plant went WILD. In February I cut it back and got another 1/2 pint full of dried leaves. Now, the mint moths are on the loose, so it's time to cut it back again.... This morning I trimmed them back and got this:


Yes, that's a standard full sized colander! Holy cow... I have every expectation that I'll harvest that much again in both July and October now that the plant is established. Seriously, I'm going to be giving it away, take my oregano please! And it's the most intense oregano you've ever smelled or tasted.

Since I'm going to have dried oregano coming out of my ears one way or the other, I decided to use a little of it (like 1/3 cup chopped) to make an infused olive oil. We also had some fresh lemons from a neighbor, so I used the zest from those as well. Doesn't look that pretty, but I have a feeling it's going to taste completely amazing.


(Yes, I'm aware that there's some small chance that infused oils can harbor botulism. But the risk is primaraly from root herbs like garlic, not from leafy ones like oregano. I'll probably refrigerate it after a few days anyway, just to be safe.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Random update...

This week I've started seriously tracking grams of sodium. It took me a few weeks of just looking at labels and trying to figure out where it was hiding before I could really take the bull by the horns.

I've realized some interesting things. Breads have a lot of sodium, honestly I was sketched out by white bread before, this sodium thing is probably going to put me over the edge to eliminating all bread. Plain, uncured meats aren't nearly as sodium filled as I thought, but no matter how much you rinse it, a brined chicken retains a LOT of sodium. There have been some good discoveries though. Corn tortillas have a miniscule fraction of the sodium in flour tortillas. And fresh mozzarella has far less sodium than other cheeses, and can even be used to stretch a little bit of high sodium cheese in gratins, casseroles or quesadillas.

I don't talk about my work too much here, but I got sucked into a project that is actually relevant. I work in health behavior research, mostly on drug abuse issues. But because of my technical skills in survey development, I've been recently working on some nutrition research for a diabetes project. As part of this project, I've been hunkered down with the nutritional information for several fast food & chain restaurants. Sodium is not the focus of the research, but I've been scanning that part of the menu for my own interest. HOLY COW there is a LOT of sodium in restaurant foods. I knew that in the back of my mind, but looking closely at the numbers, it's astonishing. Right now I have a target sodium intake of 1200mg, many items on the Denny's menu are DOUBLE that amount. Even some of the items on the children & seniors menus have OVER 1000mg of sodium, just for ONE meal of the day!!! That is astonishing! Fundamentally, I don't want to restrict my son's sodium intake because he's healthy and active and growing well... but I also don't want to feed him junk that's been artificially pumped up with WAY more sodium than he needs. At McDonald's a basic 6 piece Chicken McNugget Happy Meal with the fries & ketchup has 870mg! The chocolate chip pancake kids meal at Dennys has a whopping 1160mg of sodium! That's crazy.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The wonderful world of sodium

1/2 cup of our standard issue bottled pasta sauce = 410g of sodium.
1/2 cup of very low sodium pasta sauce + 1oz of creamy goat cheese = 165g of sodium.

I'll let you guess which one is tastier.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sodium and a nice new garden...

I've slowly been working my way through figuring out how much sodium is in things. Wow. This has not been easy for me, and there have been some big surprises. White bread (and related products like bagels) have a surprisingly large amount of sodium. You would think potato chips have a lot of sodium right? Well they do. But a one ounce serving of pretzels has DOUBLE the sodium of a one ounce serving of potato chips! (And who eats an ounce of either? I try, but fail!) I thought I knew a decent amount about food, but some of these numbers are really astonishing to me. Sodium has always just whizzed by under my radar.

It's really interesting too that I had the first of the severe vertigo attacks a few months after having my son when I had no energy to fix food. We were living on cold cuts, sausages, snack food and take-out salads & rotisserie chicken. Crazy huge amounts of sodium. But since I've always had low blood pressure, I never worried one whit about it until now.

A few of the basic changes I'm contemplating. I need to do this a little at a time and really make it STICK.
1. Far less bread. White bread is worse, but even the whole wheat bread packs a pretty major sodium punch. I should probably just get in the habit of cutting it out completely.
2. I need to switch my snacking to nuts and fruit, rather than salty snacks. One serving of something salty isn't bad, but I tend to overeat salty things and 2-3 servings can pack in a LOT of sodium.
3. Beans will now be prepared from dry, rather than canned. It's not too hard to do, I'm often just lazy about it. That needs to change. Especially in the summertime when we eat a lot of bean salads with our BBQ.
4. Meats... I'm going to need some help from my husband on this one, but I think I may be able to really cut back the sodium in the meats I eat. First, I found some well reviewed salt-free sausage seasoning mixes, and I'm going to use some ground meat to make a bulk sausage substitute for breakfasts & pasta sauces. Hmmm... I wonder if I can call my local meat market and have them grind me some good pork? They're usually super accomidating. Secondly, my husband just got a wonderful new smoker and he's been doing a lot of grilling. If I can work with him on a salt-free or low salt rub, then he can smoke me some meats and I can slice it up to make my own cold cuts, rather than the ultra processed ones from the market.

Things that will not change: Cheese. I'm sorry, but I just can't do it. I'd rather just eat a small amount of good cheese every day than give up cheese or search out low sodium varieties. Cheese is awesome.

In much, much happier news... a friend of mine wants me to help her start a food garden! She has a self-professed "brown thumb," but her 3 year old daughter has been asking about planting some vegetables. She was admiring our raised beds this weekend, and I offered to help her start a small garden that she could actually manage. I need to sit down with her and talk prices, but I'm thinking either self watering planters, or tapping a drip system into her existing lawn irrigation. Then we were talking about planting at least carrots & zucchini (both family favorites) as well as maybe some cherry tomatoes. Her daughter won't eat tomatoes, but mama loves them and we both think the little one might be more interested in trying ones from her own personal garden. I'm super excited to help them get started!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Well this is a depressing post

So, I'm probably going to have to take the recipes I post here in a slightly different direction. And the reason is not a good one. I have been diagnosed with probable Meniere's disease. It's "probable" mostly because my doctor doesn't want to burn through my health insurance doing a bunch of expensive tests that wouldn't change my treatment plan. My symptoms are pretty textbook. Those tests will probably get done over the next year or two, but for now, we're proceeding as if I have it.

The primary treatment for early Meniere's disease is a low sodium diet (and meds for symptoms). From what I understand at this point, it's thought to help regulate the amount of fluid retained in the inner ear. Some people take diuretics, but I have really low blood pressure already, so that's not a good idea. Later on, when I've lost considerable hearing, there are some more drastic treatments, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. Given the pace of medical changes these days, it could be a whole new bridge in 10-15 years. In the meantime, I'm going to do my best to stick to the dietary changes and hope it helps.

Now here's the thing. I love me some salt. Soy sauce? Cheese? Bacon? Sausage? Nuts? Pretzels? Dark chocolate covered pretzels? PASS THEM MY WAY! And it's been the one thing that I don't even consider in my cooking. Canned veggies? No problem. Feta cheese? No problem. Out of real chicken broth? Grab a can. This is going to have to change. A lot of the recipes I post here can be made relatively lower sodium... but many of the things we eat on a daily basis are more of a problem. I might make a nice roast chicken one day, but then the next we're having sausage sandwiches or ordering thai food. And I don't even want to think about the amount of salt that's thrown around when my husband barbecues some ribs or a nice tri-tip.

I think the key points to my cooking/eating are going to stay the same. I mean, if I was super reliant on boxed mac & cheese or casseroles with canned soup, I'd be in more trouble. Fresh seasonal fruits & veggies from my garden don't have excessive salt. Wild fish, pastured chicken & grassfed beef can be prepared with lower salt methods. I may even look into learning to make sausage so I can make it lower in sodium (stored in the freezer for safety.) But yeah, there are going to be some changes.