THROW OUT the salt shaker and bring on the peppermill, bundles of fresh herbs and a big chunk of ginger. That's the best advice for people on salt-free diets. Then it's time to get serious and talk about lemons. More often than not, a few drops of lemon juice can replace salt, and lemon and freshly ground black pepper, once you get used to them, are much more exciting than salt and pepper.
There is sufficient natural sodium in a normal diet to meet our needs abundantly. In diets of those that rely, even in part, on processed foods, there is too much sodium. So I decided to try throwing out my salt shaker. That was four years ago, and today the only salt in my kitchen is for making ice cream.
Salt is an acquired taste that seems to bring out the flavors in the food we eat. If you must or want to eliminate salt from your diet, you need to deprogram yourself from a lifetime of tasting food with salt.
What I found during my first few salt-free months was that food tasted flat, especially things like french fries and bread. These months are the hardest--after all, changing a lifetime's bad habit isn't easy. The more I missed salt, the more I looked for ways to heighten flavors with other ingredients.
There is nothing subtle about salt-free cooking -- replacing the salt and still producing exciting food requires more creativity in using seasonings. More important, a robust flavor depends on doubling or tripling the amount of seasonings in many dishes.
So be bold and heavy-handed with your favorite recipes -- add a lot of tarragon or rosemary, more than the recipe tells you to use. Also, read books about Asian cooking, which relies heavily on spice combinations, and begin to explore other ways to flavor your foods. Throughout your readings, remember, if the recipe calls for salt, unless it is a cream sauce, add some lemon juice -- even over scrambled eggs. It may sound strange, but after you've eaten them that way a few times, you realize it works.
After about three months, suddenly all that mixing of herbs and spices and all that experimenting just falls into place and you feel comfortable enough to start inviting guests over without having to explain that you are no longer cooking with salt . . . because they won't notice.
Ordinary breads do taste flat without salt to all but the reborn palate. To compensate, use a little rye (about 1 part to 4 parts of white flour) and add a lot of caraway and fennel seeds to the dough to give it additional flavor. Whole wheat flour and sour doughs also make particularly good salt-free breads. A little yogurt and sometimes the addition of orange juice (that's right, orange juice) to a loaf overcomes the lack of salt that seems to bolster the flavor of a simple loaf. Or stick with mixed grain breads. French bread without salt never quite satisfies, however.
Salt-free salad making is easy because the basic formulas for salad dressings allow you to increase the acid so easily. Just add a little more lemon juice or vinegar (you should have four or five kinds of vinegar on hand to choose from their different flavors -- try some madeira vinegar, or a new brand of red wine vinegar, or raspberry vinegar). Salads also adapt well to generous additions of fresh herbs. Again, don't be shy -- throw in a couple of handsful. Or add shreds of bold tastes like uncooked mustard greens or kale to salads made from a simple lettuce base. For chicken, fish or meat salads -- or any other salad that uses a mayonnaise dressing--add lots of herbs to the mayonnaise. Sometimes mixing half mayonnaise with half yogurt is the answer.
Concentrate stocks to produce flavorful salt-free soups. If a recipe calls for stock, use a rich reduction of stock as the base and add extra vegetables to the completed broth. Anyone on a salt-free diet avoids heavily-salted, commercially-canned soups and bouillons. If the soup is lightly thickened with flour and then pure'ed, use a little less flour and increase the vegetables being pure'ed so the soup is thicker with the additional vegetable taste. Cold soups, with the exception of fruit soups, improve with the same treatment.
Flavored oils and marinades are important to salt-free cooking. Many meats and fish can be marinated first to give them additional flavor before cooking. This is particularly true if you are grilling, broiling or roasting. Don't use soy-based marinades (soy is high in sodium). Before roasting, rub fish or meat generously with different flavored oils and with lots of herbs.
As far as desserts are concerned, just forget the recipe even calls for salt. Cakes don't need salt, ice cream doesn't need salt and egg whites will beat just as well without salt.
Once you suffer through the first few months of adjustment, you will feel better for salt-free eating. DUSTY'S SALT-FREE SALAD WITH GINGER AND GARLIC (4 to 6 servings) Dressing: 1 1/2-inch chunk of fresh ginger 2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled Freshly ground black pepper (be generous) 1/4 teaspoon crushed green peppercorns, if available 2/3 cup good quality olive oil Juice of 1 small lemon Salad: 1 head bibb lettuce, cleaned and torn into bite-sized pieces 2 bunches watercress, leaves and tender stems only, washed and patted dry 1/2 pint ripe cherry tomatoes, halved 4 or 5 mushrooms, thickly sliced 5 or 6 mustard greens, thoroughly washed and cut into shreds (if available) 1 bunch scallion tops, chopped 2 medium yams, cooked until just tender, then cut into small chunks 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Chop ginger and garlic into a very fine mince (you can do this in the food processor with the steel blade). Place with remaining dressing ingredients in a bowl and mix well with a whisk or mixer (or add the remaining ingredients to the processor bowl and blend for several seconds).
Combine salad ingredients on a large bowl. Add the dressing and toss well. Serve immediately. MARTINE'S SALT-FREE MUSHROOM LOAF
Please note that this recipe includes regular bread crumbs and parmesan cheese and may not be suitable for restricted diets without substitutions. (6 to 8 servings) 1 pound lean ground beef 1/2 pound each lean ground pork and lean ground veal 2 tablespoons oil 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices 1 cup chopped onions 1 cup dry bread crumbs 1/2 cup milk 2/3 cup grated parmesan 1 cup finely chopped parsley 1 egg, lightly beaten 1/4 teaspoon crushed dried thyme 1/4 teaspoon crushed dried bay leaves 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed in a mortar if possible 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Combine the beef, pork and veal in a very large mixing bowl. Heat the oil in a skillet and add the mushrooms and onions. Saute' for about 10 minutes until all the liquid has evaporated. Add to the mixed meats.
In a separate bowl, combine the bread crumbs and milk and stir together. Set aside. While the bread crumbs are absorbing the milk, add the remaining ingredients to the bowl with the meats. Finally, add the moistened bread crumbs and mix well.
Place the mixture in a 6-cup loaf pan and bake at 375 degrees for about 50 minutes, or until the internal temperature registers 160 degrees on a thermometer. Allow meat loaf to cool slightly, then unmold. Serve warm or cold. LENNY'S SALT-FREE MARINADE FOR HALIBUT STEAKS OR CHICKEN BREASTS (Makes about 1/4 cup) 3 or 4 garlic cloves 1 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds Juice of 1 lemon 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves Freshly ground black pepper Good quality olive oil
Combine all the ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor and process until everything is very well chopped (or chop by hand). Add just enough olive oil to make a thick, paste-like mixture.
Rub the marinade on halibut steaks or other firm, white fleshed fish or on chicken breasts about an hour before cooking. Bake, grill or boil as you normally would.