The doctor says you have to lower your sodium.
It’s stunning news. After all, salt is what makes food taste like food. On the other hand, eating too much salt can be devastating to your health.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, too much sodium in the bloodstream can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, heart failure, possibly to stomach cancer and even to osteoporosis.
If you must switch to a low-sodium diet, it would be wise to eliminate any prepared or processed foods from your mealtime or snacks — no more Cheesy Poofs, no more trips to Burger Doodle.
Canned foods are generally awash in sodium, which is used as a preservative, so it is better to use frozen vegetables, say, than canned. Fresh vegetables are best of all, of course, because you can control the amount of salt you use.
In a similar vein, homemade foods are better for anyone on a low-sodium diet than store-bought or restaurant-made, because you know how much salt you are getting. A chef’s idea of low salt might be different from your idea, or your doctor’s.
But if you need a low-sodium diet, what can you do to replace the flavor-enhancement that is provided by salt? There are several tricks, but the idea behind them all is to add pleasing but assertive flavors.
Lemon is probably used the most because its bright acidity mimics the effects of salt. Fresh herbs also help to awaken dormant flavors, and so does garlic.
For the first dish of my exploration of a low-sodium diet, I made a White Bean and Roasted Garlic Dip, which makes full use of lemon and garlic — and, at least in the garnish, fresh herbs.
This dip is a great example of a low-sodium replacement for a familiar dish — in this case, hummus. Hummus is one of the best things ever, but a quarter-cup of it contains more than 200mg of sodium. White bean dip comes in at one third of that.
It’s made in much the same way as hummus, without tahini and with white beans replacing the garbanzo beans. Because the beans are softer, it takes on a satiny feel. And it has every bit as much flavor.
The only problem is that it looks so much like hummus that your guests are likely to expect hummus when they try it. When they get over their initial disappointment, they might find they enjoy it every bit as much as the saltier stuff.
My next dish, an entree, used an unexpected strong flavor to make up for the relative lack of sodium: coffee. It’s a pot roast braised in coffee, with caramelized onions, and the best part about it is you can’t even tell it’s coffee. It just lends a depth and a dark richness to the meat that you sense, rather than taste.
Balsamic vinegar also helps to amplify the flavor in place of salt in this dish, along with a good dose of garlic.
But don’t kid yourself; beef needs salt. This pot roast has salt in it. It’s considerably less than you will find in other pot roast recipes, but it isn’t exactly salt-free.
If you want salt-free, you might want to go with something such as French Country Chicken With Mushroom Sauce. It’s chicken breast halves pounded flat and sautéed, and served with a sauce.
The flavor comes from the sauce. It’s made from a thickened mixture of shallots, mushrooms, wine and chicken stock. Fresh rosemary, which always pairs well with chicken, adds an additional boost.
For a delightfully unusual dish, try Pasta With Spinach, Garbanzos and Raisins. Spinach and garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas) is not an entirely uncommon combination, but when you add golden raisins to it that just makes the whole dish sing.
It has garlic too, of course. Garlic and spinach go together like salt and pepper, and somehow it doesn’t fight the raisins at all. Parmesan cheese on top brings the whole dish together and even adds a salty flavor while not contributing too much to the sodium count.
For breakfast or dessert, or both, you can make Whole Wheat Applesauce Muffins. These come from the American Heart Association, so you know they are good for your heart if not necessarily for your waistline.
What makes them heart healthy? They are sweetened and moistened with applesauce — unsweetened applesauce, at that. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and raisins only make them more festive.
And there is no butter at all. But to replace it, it calls for oil — quite a lot of oil. And brown sugar gives them depth. The calorie count isn’t too high, but neither is it too low.
In terms of salt-free flavor, though, they are out of this world.