Low-salt cooking

Hi, everyone. This is my first post on the cooking forum. I used to cook a lot in college and graduate school (mostly without written recipes), but as an East Village resident, I have been spoiled for excellent restaurant food for a couple of decades - until I had a blood pressure crisis a few weeks ago and got scared straight. I am now on a very low-salt diet and can’t go to restaurants much at all.

My kitchen setup in my very small and somewhat cluttered apartment is really not adequate for much, but I do have one large saucepan, a decent pan of the same width as the large saucepan, a Pyrex oven pan with lid that’s too small to roast a chicken but useful for some other things, a few smaller pots, and I have ways of steaming things. I need to purchase some more equipment and create enough space to buy a regular-sized refrigerator with a really functional freezer (my freezer can keep ice frozen, but not much else). I may ask for advice about some of these things in another thread.

In this thread, I simply would like any recommendations you have for tasty low-salt recipes suitable for one or two people to eat. I’ve been making some Indian and Indian-inspired recipes because I have an excellent Bangladeshi store (Dual) a block and a half away, but I also love Italian food, and I’m open to almost any cuisine that’s tasty or can be tasty without salt (and actually, until the crisis, I ate Sichuan and Xi’an-style food more than any other kind). I’m also committed to losing weight (15 lbs. so far, mostly just from not eating in restaurants, and my goal is at least 18 more this year), so relatively low-carb food is a bonus.

If you have any specific recommendations for dishes that are easy or at most moderately difficult to make, don’t require lots of special equipment (e.g., I have no food processor or blender, and I’m not likely to get either because I have no idea where I’d put them) and are or can be low-salt and tasty, please let me know. Also, if you have favorite sites that offer low-salt recipes or recipes in which I can easily leave out the salt with good results, I’d love to know those, too.

Thank you for whatever suggestions you have, and for anyone who’s going through a similar journey, may I say that I’ve had good results with leaving out the salt in Madhur Jaffrey recipes. Her Spice Cookbook might be particularly good that way, because the variety of delicious spices really won’t have you missing salt. One favorite of my parents when they were alive, and also of mine, is her Chettinad Fried Chicken in “A Taste of India” (p. 206), but we always loved urad dal and use at least 4 times more than she asks for. I made this dish with my girlfriend a few weeks ago, and while I really need a wok to do it in a shorter time, we managed to make a delicious rendition in my pan.

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Do you ever use Pinterest? I’ve been amazed at the quantity of recipes one can
find by searching for Low Salt, Low Carb etc. I’ve been on a strict diet, too, and I don’t miss the
salt at all, and it’s interesting how many dishes can be made low sugar or low carb by just switching some
ingredients. I’ve cut out sugar entirely, which is hard to do, but I’m determined!

I’m sure you can also find good recipes by just Googling. Good luck!

You said the scare was just a few weeks ago – part of the trick is to give it time – your palate will get use to the taste of the food itself, and you’ll begin to not miss the salt as much as your tastebuds adjust.

Hubby was hospitalised several years ago, and was on a medication for a while that came with stern warnings of absolutely no salt whatsoever. I took it as a challenge, and was pleased with the results – we didn’t miss salt much at all, as I did things like tajines, stews, and the like. As you’ve discovered with the Indian recipes, things that are full of their own flavor don’t need salt.

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I once read somebody undergoing a challenge like this, actually the author said he started to appreciate more the taste of food in a new sense, the discovery of more subtleties and more flavours that one usually ignore when cook with salt.

Actually Sel Gris from France (or Sea Salt) is much lower in sodium and more mineral, therefore more tasty. It is said to be a much more healthy salt.

Anyway, the table salt, a modern invention, is bleached and highly concentrated. Some people with very fine palette can detect the chemical taste in the table salt.

My MIL need to be on a no salt, no sugar, low fat diet. She uses a lot of spice, fresh herbs…to compensate… and in some food, fish, seashells, there are already salt…

Hi Pan,

Interesting challenge for a fellow lover of Italian food, and when I have time later in the day, I will contribute some ideas for satisfying a craving for Italian flavor and food style minus salt and carbs – meaning, without pasta, pizza, cheese and salt-cured meats or anchovies. There are some beautiful Italian dishes and ways of cooking that fit the bill.

In the meantime, I wanted to let you know that if you’ve never seen a typical Italian kitchen you’d be shocked at how small it is, and how much delicious food can coming pouring out of such a small space, sort of like the stateroom scene in Night at the Opera in reverse. Most Italian kitchens are smaller than a typical Lower East Side bathroom. This is even true of kitchens in many traditional osterie and trattorie in Italy. Size does not matter when it comes to cooking wonderful Italian food.

Also, congrats on the weight loss achieved, and don’t push too fast after this, because as you probably already know, gall stones can be a very unwelcome result from too fast a drop in poundage. Just putting in that reminder because of its importance, because you are obviously very motivated.

Later…

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Vinegar, citrus, and other acids help enhance flavor in low-sodium cooking. So does black pepper. I have used little or no added salt for decades now. Initially, it took several weeks to get used to the change but once you do, most processed foods taste too salty, with the effect that you rely almost entirely on your own cooking. I dislike what I perceive as the metallic aftertaste of salt substitutes like Nu-Salt. Trader Joe’s 21-Seasoning salute has no salt and is a great addition to my spice rack. I don’t know how much sodium is in MSG vs the equivalent seasoning power of NaCl; perhaps the former would be usable for you.

You can roast a butterflied chicken, or chicken parts, on a sheet pan, or a whole chicken in a frying pan. Use 400F+ heat for the sheet pan. The composition of your frying pan handle may limit the oven heat it can “handle”, but even a non-stick pan can will take 350F, which is suitable for roasts and braises. These techniques are your friend, because browning, be it from caramelization or the Maillard effect, adds lots of flavor. Never discard the browned bits that stick to a pan - these are the basis of a tasty sauce when you add wine, broth, and/or other liquid.

Asian dishes are in your comfort zone. Use reduced-sodium soy sauce. The Tiparos brand of fish sauce is the lowest sodium of the commonly-available brands. Pay attention to cheese when cooking Italian food. Grana Padano tastes a lot like Parmesan but has significantly less sodium. . Get creative: if you really can’t abide the salt-free version of a given product but it’s hard to evenly mix in more salt, buy the regular version too, and use a little of that while using mostly the salt-free (e.g., a peanut butter sandwich).

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If you get into Creole/Cajun cooking Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Salt Free Seasoning is good. Other mixes have sooo much salt.

I just omit the salt used in cooking and make sure any canned goods I use are low sodium. I add a small sprinkling of good quality salt at the table. I also look for recipes that have good contrasting flavours and lots of acid, sweetness and sourness. Most SE Asian and many Indian dishes work just fine with no salt (watch the fish sauce and soy sauce though). Add more lime juice or rice vinegar.

I haven’t found a salt substitute seasoning that does anything other than make every dish taste like the particular blend of herbs and spices in the salt substitute so I avoid it.

As others have said, you will get used to no salt over time, and the next time you eat at a restaurant you’ll be gasping for water afterwards because of all the salt.

There are medications which are very effective in reducing blood pressure as well. A high BMI and lack of exercise are also big contributors to high blood pressure. Avoiding salt is just one step in controlling it.

Hi again Pan,

As promised, here are some ways I would do Italian dishes to keep the salt and carbs to a minimum:

At the southernmost parts of mainland Italy, in lieu of pasta, they eat a great dish that consists of stringy bitter greens on one side of the plate and a bean puree on the other side of the plate, and this yin-yang is drizzled with good olive oil. The most popular combination is chicory + fave beans, but I have successfully made the dish with broccoli rabe + pureed white beans (or pureed chickpeas), and even just with loads of bagged arugala + pureed white beans. It you don’t like bitter greens, the dish is also nice with chard. Key to the dish is not only excellent olive oil but also cooking the greens down until they are quite soft and can be twirled on a fork like pasta. You can find recipes online to get the gist.

As an overall suggestion, to keep salt way down in Italian cooking, use ingredients that are sun-dried or fresh, rather than canned. Sun dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms (from Asian stores is fine), dried beans mean you really don’t face the salt-risks that you would using canned. If your refrigerator is small, you can soak dried beans in tightly closed containers on the fire escape in winter (been there, done that ) or in empty milk cartons in the door of the refrigerator. Or use good Ziplock bags. Beans cooked from dried are 1000% tastier than canned or jarred.

Creating a tomato paste in a blender using soaked sun-dried tomatoes gets you a wonderful intensity of flavor that can form the basis for an osso buco/beef shank when you are in the mood for Italian. Long cooking the meat with chopped veg (carrots, onions, celery) using plenty of (cheap) red wine adds another dimension of flavor. Top it with a gremolata of lemon zest-parsley-garlic and if you are okay with a complex carb, serve it over polenta.

A great Sicilian winter salad is sliced fennel and sliced oranges (and raw onion rings if you like them), dressed with oregano and a vinaigrette of olive oil and the juice of the oranges. Steamed cauliflower can be topped with a sauce made of olive oil, plumped raisins, marjoram and crushed walnuts. If you don’t mind a tablespoon or two of carbs, stale breadcrumbs or crushed low-sodium crackers fried very crispy/crunchy in olive oil with plenty of garlic also makes a nice crunchy topping for steamed cauliflower.

In northern Italy, there is a wonderful dinner of air-dried beef sliced thin (roast beef or sliced steak is just as good), shredded raw cabbage dressed in apple cider vinegar, a side of white beans. This is customarily served with a grated potato pancake, but grilled polenta would be fine.

Grilled mushrooms with balsamic vinegar is elegant. Scrambled eggs or a frittata made with dried mushrooms is great. Come early spring, steamed asparagus covered in crushed hard boiled eggs, drizzled with olive oil is fantastic (to me!)

Home-made ricotta cheese mixed with many kinds of herbs or mushrooms can be used not only to stuff crepes, but even to make flourless crepes

http://www.cafenilson.com/2009/04/low-carb-almost-sugarless-flourless-crepes/

or, mixed with sliced almonds, ricotta can be used to stuff dried figs. Or for a main dish, try baked ricotta with peas.

Many Italian dishes use unsalted but toasted nuts to add flavor and interest: Try steamed brussel sprouts with hazelnuts, or pan-cooked sardines with fennel and pine nuts. Pureed chestnuts in low-sodium chicken broth with a small glass of Marsala (or sherry) added is a delicious winter soup.

Hope that helps…

Penzeys Spices has a number of salt-free spice blends – we’ve tried and liked quite a few of them.

We didn’t use much salt before hubby’s health scare – I had dropped and broken the salt shaker and it was weeks before anybody asked for salt.

We tried No Salt – and agree that yeccch.

We still don’t use much salt – about the only things I’ve found that aren’t all that tasty with no salt are rice and pasta, so that’s about the only thing I salt to any degree.

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I don’t use much salt at all and it’s not for health reasons. And when I DO use it it’s more like a pinch over the top of something already cooked. Except for canned tomatoes, I use little processed food and I’m sure that makes a big difference.

Pan,

I thought of another winter Italian dish that you might enjoy, which is pork cooked in milk. Most recipes do not use pancetta so, althought this one does, I would just elminate it. Or you can do some google searches and you’ll find plenty of recipes for this classic Roman dish, and you can see which recipe sounds best to you.

I tend not to like spicy food so I end up recommending food and recipes to people that reflect my taste. However, if you like spicy food, it is very common in southern Italian cooking to add chili flakes to a cooked dish (like the bitter green + pureed bean dish I wrote about before) or to cook with some hot spices. Also, Mario Batali – for reasons never quite clear to me – likes to make Italian-inspired dishes using jalapeno peppers. So here is his recipe for a Italian-ish spicy pork main dish. If you eliminate the 4 oz of cured meat from this recipe for Braciole with Jalapeno Pesto, you have a very low-salt, low carb dish (especially since there is no cheese in this pesto):

http://www.mastercook.com/app/recipe/WebRecipeDetails?recipeId=1205090

Here’s Marcela Hazan’s recipe for pork cooked in milk:

Nice version from Marcella – no pancetta – and the entire menu is really winter-friendly when it comes to shopping, including the tangerine sorbet. (Although at this chilly time of year, I’d just go for the tangerines.) To keep the gratineed swiss chard stalks low-salt, I’d experiment with skipping the cheese and doing some layering with crushed walnuts, leaving off the top layer of nuts to add just before pulling from the oven so they don’t burn.

I never add salt when I cook; that’s not a problem. The really big problem is restaurants, but though I have a lot of good Indian recipes, I’m still looking for other types of tasty recipes.

Thanks. No, I didn’t know anything about gall stones as a side effect of weight loss, but in any case, so far, I seem to have possibly plateaud at this weight, which is not good and will probably necessitate more steps.

That’s interesting to me. I’ll look at the ingredients and sodium amounts the next time I’m in a store that sells it.

Do you have any favorite Cajun/Creole recipes that are tasty without salt?

Thanks, Hal. I’m already on medications, but they’re not working as well as they should be, which is why a low-salt diet is crucial.

I used to live in Malaysia and love Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian food, but these cuisines usually include belacan/terasi or fish sauce. Which Southeast Asian dishes taste good without shrimp or fish paste or sauce, without dried shrimps, etc.? I could look at my Burmese cookbook; there may be some things there which I could make. Any specific suggestions, though?

Thanks a lot for your ideas and recommendations, everyone! You’ve given me things to think about. Some of the Southern Italian recipes sound particularly good to me. I’m also interested in homemade ricotta: http://www.cafenilson.com/2009/03/homemade-ricotta-cheese/ Would this taste good - and taste like ricotta - without salt?

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