We asked her some questions about how her life and cooking has changed in the last year, and if she could share some lower-sodium ideas that we could put to use during the holidays. And boy did she deliver! Jess’s voice and happy cooking energy leap off the screen, and she shares one of the all-time best tips for making quick lower-sodium homemade stock for holiday cooking. Read on!
12 (or so) questions for Sodium Girl:
Q: What was your eating like growing up? Who cooked, shopped? What did you eat? A: Meals growing up were a mix of healthy but simple dishes--plain meat, steamed vegetables, and some sort of starch or grain. We also ordered a fair amount of takeout--pizza, chinese, and my favorite, fried chicken. And we didn’t use much seasoning beside salt and pepper. Or sauces. Or really any cookbooks other than the Joy of Cooking. So in sum, my family wasn’t what you would call “adventurous” when it came to eating. And the food I ate growing up is pretty much the opposite of the exotic, fresh, spice-filled food I eat today.
But those meals, no matter how uncomplicated (or processed), still gave me some of my favorite childhood memories. My dad made the best Sunday waffles with stove-top-melted butter. My mom made the most incredible surprise breakfast sandwiches for dinner. We marked the California seasons by juicy milk boiled corn from my grandfather’s garden and fresh cracked crab from the fish market. And I learned early on that food can be much more than just ingredients on a plate.
Q: Now that you're an adult, what's different about your eating habits? A: Before going on a low-sodium diet, I counted a Caesar salad as my vegetables for the day. I rarely ate anything green (or purple or orange or from the produce section). I rarely tried the unfamiliar, whether that was a Brussels sprout or Indian curry. And the only thing I could cook with confidence was bean chili and a taco salad. Basically, I was more limited in what I ate before my low-sodium diet than after.
Today, there’s nothing I will not try. Unlike my early years, I have to ditch processed products and use my spices, my oven, and my creativity to create big flavor. As a result, I have fallen madly in love with food, from fresh ingredients to the finished product. The more odd and novel, the better. Give me livers, give me caraway seed, give me wood chips to smoke my own fish. Because eating exciting new food and surprising oneself (and the palate) is the best way to cook with less sodium. And actually, cook in general. And now, my favorite part of the day, no matter how hectic, is standing at the stove and creating something from scratch.
Q: And what do you really want to keep the same; what family traditions do you want to continue? A: Just the other day, I pulled a chair up to the counter and let me two year old smash zucchini and bananas together with her hands until we made four gigantic banana bread muffins. And a huge explosion of flour and sticky dough all over the kitchen, my shirt, and her hair.
She may not remember that thirty minutes of hand-mixing and mess-making, but I always will. And I hope I keep the tradition of making food memories with my family, just like I have from my childhood. I also hope to do my best to not rush through dinner or mindlessly eat in front of a TV (unless football is on). And to use food as a way to connect with others, to be creative, to slow down and be present together. And, of course, get messy once in awhile.
Q: Since vegetables and fruit are such an important part of DASH, what's an unexpected vegetable you love and why? A: Right now I love playing with winter squash and sweet potato. And using them in unexpected ways to replace higher sodium ingredients. Instead of bread, I use roasted rounds of delicata squash to make “egg in a hole.” I shred butternut squash in a food processor and use it in place of shredded cheese for creamy risottos (or that chili I was talking about). Or my favorite, inspired by my daughter’s school lunches, I spread roasted sweet potato on corn tortillas with some low-sodium swiss for a flavorful, oozy quesadilla.
Q: What's an unexpected fruit you love and why? A: Avocado! Talk about a multipurpose ingredient. It makes guacamole. It makes a great substitute for butter on toast and in baked goods. And by having one on hand (or in your bag, which I often do), I can make a quick low-sodium snack on the go, anytime. Sometimes I even eat avocados with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, some hot spices, and a spoon.
Q: Is there a vegetable or fruit you're taking a break from? Why? A: Cauliflower is the Madonna of the produce world: It constantly reinvents itself. One day it’s chopped in a food processor to become “rice” and the next it’s thickly sliced to be “steak.” And then, out of nowhere, it gets roasted and spiced and becomes “popcorn.” While I am far from sick of it, I am now using the transformative powers of cauliflower to reimagine uses for other vegetables and fruit. It’s the kind of brainstorming I already do to create low-sodium swaps for salty foods, but I’ve realized that it is also extremely helpful for anyone on a special diet or for those looking for fun new ways to use items in their fridge. And now have a column on theKitchn.com called “Old Ingredient, New Trick,” where I explore the potential of favorite ingredients, and make hot dogs out of squash and breadcrumbs from broccoli.
Q: Your attitude is refreshing, stimulating, and contagious. What keeps you positive and enthusiastic? A: I think the key to my attitude is that I do not focus on losses when it comes to my diet. Really, I do not feel like I’ve lost anything, but salt. I’ve gained a true passion for cooking. As well as vegetables. And odd ingredients. I eat more adventurously and enthusiastically than ever before. My dinner tables are full and my life feels rich. But above all, the real gain is that I get to improve my health with food. Food! Real, good, fresh, food. Food that you eat. With friends. And how can you not be excited about that!
Q: What's something that nobody knows about you? A: I love to dance. And sometimes I have tap shoes in my purse just in case the opportunity strikes.
Q: Do you think that the need for salt is outmoded now that we have better ways of preservation (i.e. refrigeration)? A: The over-sodium consumption in today’s diet doesn’t come from the salt shaker we use for flavor boosting. Over 75% comes from processed ingredients and prepared foods that we all love to eat; habits that resulted less from preservation, and more from convenience and learned taste.
As a result our palates now expect a super salty flavor when we eat a bowl of soup or other packaged favorites. And that salty taste often becomes the only thing we experience. So while salt will never lose it’s place as the ultimate flavor enhancer, I do believe that over-salting (and using lots of processed ingredients), often muddles the flavor of a dish and undoes the ultimate purpose of using salt: i.e. balancing and highlighting all the different components.
So yes, weaning off processed, high-sodium foods will take time. But once you do, you will start experiencing what fresh ingredients taste like in all their naturally sweet, sour, bitter, umami, and yes, salty glory. And with less high-sodium products, you’ll actually be able to taste all the different flavors..
Q: When is your new book coming out? What's getting you excited about this book? A: The book is due in the fall of 2016. It is a guide for those on low-sodium diets, with advice on everything from how to stock the office cabinets to eating well during the holidays to making the most of your taste buds (yup, there’s a little food science in there). And while I mainly wrote it for those looking to eat and live with less salt, the tips and tricks and recipes are totally, one hundred percent applicable to anyone with special food limitations or those simply looking to find more creativity in their kitchen.
Q: Holidays are around the corner. Can you give us 3 tips for easing up on the salt at this time? It seems like it's everywhere--turkeys are brined, gravies and mashed potatoes are so salty. And then there's stuffing... A: To easily lower sodium during the holidays (or anytime of year), simply skip the processed ingredients (like canned broth, bread crumbs, and packaged gravy) and make meals from scratch. But since holiday cooking already takes up most of the day to make, here are ways to make sure your fresh take on the holidays deserves second helpings and not extra helping hands:
1. Brainstorm simple low-sodium replacements for high-sodium ingredients. Use rice instead of bread for stuffing. Make gravy from cooked lentils. Use dry rubs and glazes on turkey and meat instead of brine. And instead of making broth from scratch (which is still good, but time consuming), make a quick broth from fresh or dried mushrooms and thirty minutes in a bubbling pot of water. Full of umami, it will give gravy and stuffings lots of savory flavor without the sodium
2. Make use of foods that are higher in natural sodium to give meals balance and a bit of a “salty” taste: like beets, carrots, celery, and of course, meat.
3. Remember, the key to eating low sodium successfully is to not just remove the salt but replace the flavor. So break with traditional and unexpected spices and blends to mix things up. Like a nutty dukka blend, curry, or shichimi togarashi (a Japanese blend of seven spices). Or do something totally different and more colorful this year, and trade the turkey for baked fish. Hasselback potatoes for the mash. And an herb chimichurri for the gravy.
4. Okay, so I wrote four tips. But one fun way to accommodate anyone’s diet or preferences is to create a “flexible feast” where you make the basics (e.g. mashed potatoes) and then serve with various accoutrements (like toasted nuts, pesto, cheese, and fresh herbs), so everyone can dress up their food exactly as they want or need. And everyone leaves healthy and happy.