Friday, July 22, 2011

A note about sodium

This is just a sticky note for my profile.

I've been submitting some recipes lately to paleo/primal-ish sites like Chowstalker. If that's where you came from you may be wondering "What's up with all the sodium counts?" There's a lot of debate lately about how "heart healthy" reduced sodium diets really are, and whether reducing salt actually affects blood pressure on a population level. Some paleo/primal folks recommend moderation in salt intake, while others fully reject the "conventional wisdom" about reduced sodium diets.

My reasons for restricting sodium sidestep that entire debate. I have an inner ear condition that causes intermittent severe vertigo attacks. My doctor and I are currently operating under the assumption that I have Meniere's disease, however I haven't fully completed the testing for that (it is expensive and not urgent). A low sodium diet is recommended for Meniere's sufferers to reduce the amount of fluids in the inner ear. For me, it has reduced the frequency and severity of the vertigo attacks. It seems to have done nothing for the other symptoms, but I can live with those.

This blog exists largely to share how I cook. And I cook low sodium now. If that works for you great, it's been helpful to share recipes with some of my friends who have similar issues. If it doesn't work for you, feel free to add additional salt to my recipes. I won't be sad... personally, I really do love salty food, so I know where you're coming from.

I will go out on a limb here and say that if you're interested in eating from a evolutionary perspective, you should at least think about your sodium intake. NHANES data indicates that the American adults consume on average 3,466mg of sodium per day. That is similar to some of the highest sodium traditional diets in the world (Japan & Korea), while it's likely that paleolithic people consumed in the range of 600-1200mg of sodium. The largest category of foods contributing to the high intake in America is actually grain foods; breads and baked goods are highly salted, and cutting them out of your diet can cut sodium considerably. However, if you're eating a lot of bacon & sausage or salting your food to suit the modern American palate, you're probably still consuming a lot. Before you decry the "conventional wisdom" on salt, think a little bit about whether you're actually consuming a level of sodium only accessible to neolithic man. Cavemen didn't have collectible salt shakers or bottles of fish sauce and they didn't crust their meat in a salt rub before throwing it on the grill.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cucumber Soup

We are overrun with cucumbers!

Not really, of course. Our cucumber plant is producing about 2-3 a week, which is approximately 1-2 cucumbers more than we usually eat in a week. So I've been trying to figure out how to use the extras. Today's recipe is a super easy chilled cucumber soup for one. I made it in 5 minutes this morning and it's a nice fresh complement to a lunchtime salad.

Cucumber Soup

1 cucumber, peeled and cut into chunks
2-3 sprigs parsley
1 tsp lemon juice
A pinch of dried dill
1/2 cup full fat greek yogurt

Throw the cucumber chunks & parsley into your food processor and process until they are the consistency of a smooth salsa. Add the other ingredients and pulse to blend them in. Chill until lunch. Enjoy.

50 measly mg of sodium. Plenty of cool deliciousness.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Now that's what you call kid food!

Originally uploaded by thatgirljj
If you're not a parent of a preschool boy, you may have never heard of Dinosaur Train, but it is a big deal in our house. A BIG deal. It's the only kids TV show we watch. My little man could care less about Diego or Thomas anymore, he's all about the dinosaurs. And there's nothing cuter than a 3 year old declaring "Mommy, I have a hypothesis!"

A big part of the dinosaur facts they present is about the dinosaur diet. They talk a lot about the differences between meat eaters & plant eaters. It's given my son a huge appreciation for the joys of eating "leaves." He brings his toy dinosaurs to the dinner table and asks for a bowl of leaves for them. And then there's the garden. Most of our kale and beet leaves look pretty darn scraggly, because he walks right up and takes big ol' bites out of them like a triceratops.

Now I'm not saying that Dinosaur Train is going to have every preschooler eating their greens. Mom and dad have to set a good example, and of course kids need to opportunities to see that vegetables come from the earth instead of a bag. But people who believe that children need processed junky "kid food" obviously don't have as much imagination as a 3 year old!

Let's talk salt...

So as anyone who's read this blog knows, I'm currently following a greatly reduced salt diet due to (probable) Meniere's disease. My sweet spot for salt intake seems to be somewhere in the 1200-1500mg range. This is fairly low. It's not unusual for someone eating the standard American diet to be well over 3000mg.

With that background, I give you a phenomenal interview on salt from Scientific American. Mr. Moyer is actually a old friend of my husband and I've been an admirer of Ms. Nestle's work for years. They're both fabulous. Go read it! I have a ton of thoughts.

1. It's the food supply, stupid. Notice how much Ms. Nestle refers to the salt that's added to processed & restaurant foods? That's important. In order to really reduce your salt intake to low levels you either must prepare your own food from scratch or be exceptionally careful of food prepared for you by others.

2. She makes excellent points about how challenging it is for processed food producers and restaurant chefs to reduce the amount of sodium they use in food. Once our taste buds are accustomed to all that excess salt, we have a very hard time adjusting downwards. For me, it really took a health crisis to do it; and it has not been easy. Without some kind of commitment on the part of food suppliers to reduce salt, we go into an upward spiral. Since food with just a little more salt tastes more appealing and there is no commercial downside to adding more salt, food processors add just a little more and just a little more and just a little more. And our palates slowly adjust to expect more and more salt. It's not clear to me that there is ANY biological top limit whatsoever to this palate creep.

3. When it comes to so-called "nanny state" regulations, I think sodium in restaurant food is a different beast from regulations on other dietary factors. As Ms. Nestle points out, a diner can always add more salt at the table. However, a diner can not remove salt once it's been added. Sodium is added to most restaurant foods way up the supply chain, you can't just ask the chef to leave the salt off and expect to enjoy a low sodium dinner. Reduce the sodium in the supply chain and put the power in the hands of the chef, which gives restaurant diners more options.

4. I wish I was part of the population who's blood pressure doesn't adjust in response to changes in sodium intake. I started out with blood pressure on the low side of normal, now I have real issues with postural hypotension. I don't think I could sustain the kind of super low sodium diet needed for people with renal insufficiency like Sodium Girl. The dizzies aren't much fun when you're chasing after a 3 year old. Better than a vertigo attack, by a long shot, but still.

For me personally, this all goes back to the fundamentals. I buy real, unprocessed food and cook it for my family. If I do that most of the time, it really doesn't take much effort to eat a lower sodium diet. But once I choose to join my friends at a nice restaurant for dinner, I step into a minefield. One that I don't always negotiate all that well.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cowboy Rumaki

Cowboy rumaki
Originally uploaded by thatgirljj
Ever heard of rumaki? It was an appetizer back when I was a kid, chicken livers marinated in god-knows-what, wrapped in bacon and deep fried. Doesn't that sound just delicious?

Well, this recipe actually is more delicious than it sounds. Frankly, I've been playing around with beef liver because I know it's nutritious, and it seemed to me that there had to be a more creative approach than the same ol' liver & onions. Then, over the 4th of July weekend, we were grilling bacon wrapped jalapeno poppers, it occurred to me. An unholy alliance of liver, jalapenos & bacon. And I'm pleased to report that it's pretty darn good. The beef liver brings a heartiness that's missing from the cream cheese filling, but the jalapenos & bacon are strong flavors that stand up for themselves. Liver ain't pushing them around.

There are copious ingredient notes (and some credits) after the recipe.

Cowboy Rumaki

Jalapeno peppers
Grassfed beef liver

Cut the tops off the jalapenos, cut them in half and scrape out the seeds and membrane. If you like things hot, you can leave in a bit more of the membrane, that's where a lot of the spice is. Rinse your liver thoroughly and pat dry. If you're running a very hot BBQ or will be cooking these in the oven, briefly sear the outside of the liver, about 1 minute each side in a cast iron saucepan. If you're going to be cooking the poppers over a slower heat then go ahead and leave the liver raw. Cut the liver into chunks about 1/2" x 1/2" x 2". Cut your bacon in half, so the strips are a manageable size. Put 1 piece of liver in each jalapeno, wrap with a 1/2 strip of bacon, and pin it together with a toothpick. If you're doing them on a grill, put them in an mesh pan intended for grilling vegetables and grill until the bacon is crispy. If you're using the oven, put them on a pan and throw them under the broiler (on low) until the bacon is crispy. Enjoy.


If the whole procedure of coring the peppers and wrapping them with bacon is somehow confusing, please see these lovely illustrations from the Pioneer Woman.

GET GRASSFED LIVER! No, I'm not being a snob here. I tried working with normal supermarket liver once and it was DISGUSTING. Sliced super thin and it was slimy, slimy, slimy, like a slab of leech. Grassfed liver is firmer, less slimy and much tastier. It appeared to be actual MEAT rather than a meat by-product intended for pet food. It's also way cheaper than grassfed muscle meat, and you don't need a whole lot. One pound of grassfed liver costs me about $4 and will stuff about 32 jalapenos... that's 64 individual poppers!

As you can see in the picture, I tried a couple with cream cheese and liver. This was a failure (on texture), and didn't add to the flavor. Go ahead and skip the cream cheese. Or make some with just liver and some with just cream cheese. But don't cross the streams.

When I first got this idea, I googled "jalapeno liver" and found a very similar recipe from Kelly the Kitchen Kop. If you're trying to sneak some liver over on unsuspecting family members, you might want to give hers a try. Personally, I don't like the sneaky food approach... Cowboy Rumaki is liver, straight up, no apologies.

Bacon is a high sodium food. Oh yes it is. I continue to eat some bacon, but I restrict myself to small amounts of the lowest sodium nitrite free bacon I can find. 4 poppers have about 240mg of sodium. That's an amount that sometimes works for me, sometimes not, depending on what else I've eaten that day.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Leeks & Chicken

Originally uploaded by thatgirljj
Isn't this a lovely leek? Leeks are one of those vegetables that's awesome to grow in a home garden. They're expensive in the grocery store and when you grow them at home, you realize why. They don't actually require a lot of work, they just require time and patience... things in short supply on commercial farms. I think we started these leeks back in January, and only now are we getting some ready to harvest. However, with a little care, they are BEAUTIFUL. Clean, white, fresh and sweet.

Today I did something really simple with our leeks, a luscious dinner that took only 5 main ingredients and a sprinkle of whatever herbs you happen to have on hand.

Slow cooker leeks & chicken

2 Leeks, rinsed and thinly sliced
1 Chicken cut into parts, skin removed
1/2 Cup chicken stock
8 oz Fresh mushrooms, sliced
Butter or your cooking fat of choice

Fill the bottom of your slow cooker with the sliced leeks and add a pinch of whatever dried herbs you happen to have handy (I used sage & dill). Don't use a whole lot of herbs, you don't want to overwhelm the dish. Put the chicken parts over the top of the leeks and pour in the chicken stock. Cook for 1 hour on the high setting and then 4-5 hours on low.

When the chicken is done cooking, saute the mushrooms in the butter, until they are soft. Take the chicken out of the slow cooker and set aside. Pour all the leeks & cooking liquid from the slow cooker, into the saucepan with the mushrooms. Cook down until the leeks are falling apart and the sauce is starting to thicken. Serve the mushroom leek sauce over the chicken.