HOW IS IT JULY!?
I feel like we just started to celebrate the arrival of cherries and figs and tomatoes (and my new book, LOW-SO GOOD). And suddenly, the big mid-summer holiday is upon us. One filled with burgers, grills, red-checkered potlucks. And of course FIREWORKS.
But this Fourth, don’t just look in the sky for something explosive. Look in your cabinet. Because if you are well-stocked, you’ll find some banging flavors to play with, full of color and surprise, that will leave you in “ahhhh” (get it? bad firework/food joke.) So instead of typical BBQ fare, play with your food and spice things up this summer with your LOW-SO PANTRY with Asian-Inspired Essentials.
Bland and boring and plain; this actually describes the food I ate before my low-sodium diet. I rarely ate anything beyond typical American things. I never dipped my toes into international waters (besides the occasional Chinese takeout — but even then I stuck to simple lettuce wraps or honey shrimp). And I definitely didn’t play around with oils or lentils or tahini or bok choy.
But when I removed the salt and high-sodium foods, things got interesting. And I looked to Asian cuisine first for a lot of flavor and spice inspiration. I learned to toast whole seeds. I learned to use shiitake mushrooms and green tea for a natural, source of umami. I learned to use seaweed and bonito flakes for a subtle salty taste; rice wine vinegar and salt-free pickled ginger for tang; and sesame oil for sweet and savory tones. I became more adventurous. And as a result, I ate food packed with more nuanced flavors. Sweet, spicy, bitter, sour, and umami! Not just salty.
So before you reach for the takeout menu or even that burger this holiday, use your LOW-SO ASIAN-INSPIRED PANTRY to make all your favorite dishes; or explore new cuisines you have yet to try; or ad add unexpected textures, spices, and flavors to your favorite Fourth of July dishes.
Here’s what I always have on hand:
Rice Wine Vinegar (Unseasoned) & Sesame Oil
These are staples of the Asian-Inspired Pantry. Alone they add brightness (thanks vinegar!) or savory element (thanks sesame oil!) to everything from a simple bowl of rice to baked tofu fries to a pan of spicy green beans. Combine them together (with a little salt-free garlic powder and a glug of molasses) and you’ve got soy sauce-ish replacement to use in marinades or glazes (think: firm fish like cod or halibut!). Add some dark berry jam or tamarind paste, and now you have something more akin to Teriyaki sauce (think: chicken, beef, & tofu skewers for the grill!)
Yup. Dried fish flakes. Which may sound scary, but think of them more like savory fairy dust that you can sprinkle atop massaged kale salad, a curry chicken salad, or even sesame-oil glazed and roasted carrots (which I JUST thought of and now I’m freaking out over it). Of course, they are also awesome floating adrift in an egg-drop soup or atop a mountain of sautéed spinach. Or even Asian-inspired deviled eggs. Just. Think.
Pickled Ginger (No-Salt-Added)
When I first found prepared pickled sushi ginger without the sodium, I knew this was a game changer. Not just for DIY sushi nights at home, but anytime simple meals needed a little flavor kick in the pants. I like chopping it up and adding the ginger to roasted chicken or fish, right at the end or mixed into ground meat for lettuce cups. And especially during BBQ season, layering it on my umami burger, in place of typical, high sodium mustard and ketchup.
Rice Noodles & Ramen (Omg Sodium)
Skip typical pasta salad and use these for a cold or hot noodle dish with Asian-inspired flare. Keep it veg with raw shredded carrots, herbs, green onions, and a tahini dressing. Or go meaty with some thinly sliced sirloin and lots of sautéed (or oven-crisped!) mushrooms. But best of all, with these noodles on hand, you can whip up pad thai, lo mein, or even Genmaicha Microwave Noodle Soup!
Panko Bread Crumbs
This rice-based coating adds a light crisp to fried vegetables, pork cutlets, pumpkin, and pretty munch anything you decide to cover it with. You can also use it as a bread-crumb replacement for meatballs — whether you go traditional Italian or more Asian-inspired. It also makes a nice topping for casseroles. And with only 40mg per sodium, its a real winner in the LOW-SO PANTRY. If you are doing Whole30 or another diet that removes rice, you an also always just use flaked, unsweatened coconut (see my new book for a Coconut Pork Tonkatsu recipe!).
Coconut Wraps & Nori Sheets
Egg rolls, spring rolls, and wantons — some of the best food is wrapped up. And in place of higher sodium rice and wanton wrappers, I turn to these replacements. To not only make traditional fare, but easy lunchtime meals for the workweek. And will I have attempted to make (and bake!) my own dumplings from scratch as well as steam bums, I have also recently discovered the genius of using cabbage to make a super quick and simple shumai and spring rolls. More on that next week.
A. Must. Have. Little to no sodium, coconut is my go-to diary replacement, whether I am using it traditionally in a creamy curry or a knock-off mac ‘n’ cheese, carrot soup, or creamed corn.
A lot of Indian (and African) cuisines make use of nuts and seeds for extra texture and flavor. As well as savory, earthy sauces. So get a jar of tahini (blended sesame seeds) and think far beyond hummus. Use to thicken soups or in salad dressings or even to coat your grilled chicken or cauliflower steaks.
Since going on a low-so diet, I became a lentil addict. I love how creamy they become, just with a simple boil. They make a convenient soup base or an even more convenient vegan gravy substitute. Add in vegetables, firm tofu, or even low-sodium paneer cheese for a full meal.
Green Onions, Shiitake Mushrooms, Cilantro
These represent my main produce staples (lime, ginger, and tumeric not pictured). Add in some whole spices (coriander, cardamom, cumin, and anise). As well as vegetables (like daikon, bok choy, and eggplant) and you are well on your way to many exciting Chinese, Japanese, and Indian meals! No meat necessary.
Jasmine Rice, Black Rice, Red Rice, Sushi Rice, Microwave Sticky Rice!
One huge item I forget to snap a picture of was rice! Each kind of rice has a different application and flavor. So go to those bulk bins to get small batches. And then, play! Experiment. And see how each type of rice pairs differently with your meals and ingredients and recipes. One big tip, too, for BBQ season, is that you can use rice as a base for bun-free burger bowls (great for those who are Gluten-free). Or you can toast up rice patties (recipe in book!) for your burgers as well! Microwave sticky rice is especially handy for this.
What am I missing? What would you add to the “essentials” list? Leave comments below or on Sodium Girl’s Facebook page. And remember, if you have a moment, nominate Sodium Girl for this year’s Saveur Best Blog Awards in the Food Obsessive Category. Because I have devoted the last seven years to breaking down every low-sodium barrier I could think of. To change the way we look, eat, and enjoy low-so food. And most importantly, give you recipes for salt-free Bloody Mary’s, buffalo wings, and bacon. So if you can take a moment, me and my kidney would be so appreciative.
Otherwise, happy Fourth of July! Enjoy the flavor fireworks.