The reason I salt my lentil soup.

lentil soup

 

 

 

It’s a damp, grey, periodically rainy April day here in New York City. It’s spring but you’d never know it. So I’m sitting here thinking about lentil soup instead of tender green shoots. An absolutely perfect day for a big bowl of lentil soup. Spring will come and those first tentative little shoots will appear, but it’s definitely not going to happen today.

My lentil soup is pictured above. Rich, earthy, delicious, and always appreciated on a chilly day like today.

I always make my own lentil soup. Here’s why.

First, doing it myself is economical. Brand name shelf-stable lentil soups are convenient and good to have on hand but will run as much as six dollars a liter whereas my home crafted version is closer to two dollars a liter. And that price includes using small organic French green lentils known as lentilles du Puy. Using conventional grey lentils or brown lentils, the soup would be even cheaper.

Second, doing it myself gives me more flexibility in seasoning and salting.

The soup is so easy to make I don’t bother with a recipe. Except I measure the salt. But I’ll explain why later. Thanks to the Internet, there are a gazillion recipes out there for every skill level from plodding amateur to expert proficiency. So if you need a recipe, please find one that fits your skill level.

My soup starts with a generous pound / 500 grams du Puy lentils plus an onion, a carrot, some celery stalks, and 5 tablespoons olive oil / 75 grams olive oil for a soffrito.  I use a liter of low sodium chicken stock plus enough water for cooking the soup and ending up with 3 liters finished product. Or about 12 cups of soup.

The reason I am careful with seasoning is because I want the people who sit at my table to enjoy and relish my lentil soup.

Lentils are a healthy and nutrient dense vegetable. We count them as either a phytonutrient rich vegetable or a plant protein with a compliment of vitamins, minerals, and fibers.  I want to make the soup palatable because no matter how healthy lentils are, if the soup does not taste good, nobody will benefit.  So I use herbs either in season or dry and an acid either balsamic vinegar or tomato sauce and some pepper.  And I use salt.

The ratio of salt to soup that works for me is 5 grams per liter or 15 grams for three liters. That works out to 5 teaspoons flake salt or 2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt for the 3 liters. Enough salt to enhance the earthiness of the lentils and balance the acidity of the vinegar without being overbearing.

Salt is a controversial nutrient. There are health implication, culinary implications, and cultural implications.  Let me put the amount referenced into perspective.

The amount of sodium in a cup of my lentil soup is about 550mg. That level is a little higher than the FDA disclosure level of 480mg per serving but still below the National Salt Reduction Initiative 2014 target for soup which would be closer to 620mg for a cup.

Because I know how to run my daily numbers, I know that my daily average sodium intake is usually at or below the recommended 2400mg even when I salt to taste as I do when I make lentil soup.

I think it was Anthony Bourdain who is reputed to have said that salt makes everything taste better. The man speaks the truth. Salt works. Here is how I see things. Salt is there to make really healthy things taste good. So I want people who might not eat lentils to taste my soup and find it irresistibly delicious.

 

 

 

 

In Defense of Salt

 

Salt Crystals thanks to Creative Commons. Attribution: Michel32nl AT Wikipedia
Salt Crystals thanks to Creative Commons.
Attribution: Michel32nl AT Wikipedia

Cooks love salt.  Robust and exceptionally effective, salt is the most powerful flavor enhancer know to man.  Or woman.  Because of its power, I have always used a light hand and treated salt with tremendous respect.

Dietitians are not suppose to love salt, so as a dietitian, saying I love salt can get me in trouble.  But it’s the truth. Let me explain.

Salt has always been controversial and salt wars have been waged for thousands of years.   The current battleground is our national health. Since upwards of 75% of the sodium ingested comes from processed and restaurant food, the enemy targeted is the food industry.

Remember Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution back in the fall of 2009?  Jamie’s goal was to bring healthier foods to a school in West Virginia.  He revised the school lunch menus and starting cooking from scratch.  It was a fascinating reality show.  After the series ended, somebody ran the numbers.  Jamie’s menus were analyzed for nutrition content.  Fat and saturated fat were over target, but sodium came in below target.   In other words, cooking from scratch, using mostly whole foods, and salting to enhance natural flavors may have actually resulted in a net reduction of sodium intake.  Interesting …

It seems to my simplistic mind that salt in the hands of a knowledgeable and talented cook is a great asset.  For example, how else can we make healthy foods like robust greens, legumes, soups,or salads palatable to skeptics who come to sit at our table?  There are no guarantees for success, but I know where to start.  A judicious amount of salt, a generous amount of fat, perhaps some acid, and some culinary expertise.

Turkey Salad

turkey summer salad

turkey salad with greens and chickpeas

Protein, greens, legumes, vinaigrette, ready to go in 40 minutes — my kind of summer workday supper.  The turkey I use comes from an old school Italian grocery store in my neighborhood.  It is made on site so I guess that would make it an artisanal product.  However you call it, to my taste this turkey has better flavor and less salt intensity.  Other customers buy it sliced as a cold cut.  I get a chunk and make salad.

For the vinaigrette:

1 ⅔ tablespoons vinegar with acidity at least 6% (25ml)

½ teaspoon kosher style flake salt (1.7g)

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (75ml)

dried herbs, basil, oregano

For the salad:

½ cup chickpeas, rinsed and drained (100 g)

¾ cup red cabbage, washed and coarsely shredded (50 g)

3 ½ cups washed assorted greens or mesclum mix (100 g)

½ cup washed, cored and coarsely chopped cherry tomatoes or 1 small local tomato in season (130 g)

1 fresh carrot peeled and grated  (90g)

2 scallions washed, trimmed, and chopped (50g)

1/3 pound piece roasted turkey breast cut into small pieces (150g)

METHOD

Make the dressing in the bottom on a bowl with a 2 quart (2 liter) capacity.  Add the vinegar and salt.  Let salt dissolve.  Then add the olive oil and herbs.  Whisk until thoroughly emulsified.

Put chickpeas and cabbage in first, then greens, then carrot, scallion, and tomato. Arrange turkey pieces on top.  Mix salad just before serving.

 METRICS

Protein, greens, legumes, extra virgin olive oil – my kind of healthy!  Hard to go wrong with locally sourced vegetables.  Nutrition return is excellent – fiber, carotenoids, vitamin C, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium.  The olive oil even enhances carotenoid absorption.  But calories still count.  So here is the scoop.  Proportions listed provide 500 to 600 calories per serving and work well for those of us have a vested interest in not eating too much on workdays.  For larger portions, count about 170 calories per cup (120g); for eaters at your table with robust appetites, add crusty bread and dessert.

 

Summer salad with turkey, greens, and chickpeas (1/2 recipe, 400g):  Calories 550, Fat 38g, Saturated Fat 5g, Sodium 420mg, Carbohydrate 27g, Fiber 8g, Protein 30g.  Vitamin A 280%, Vitamin C 60%, Calcium 10%, Iron 20%.

Green Split Pea Soup

October is the month to pull out the soup pot.  Mine is made of bonded stainless steel, holds about 3 quarts (3 liters), and has been on the shelf since spring.  October days in New York are cool, crisp, and can be spectacularly beautiful.  Except when it rains.  And sometimes it rains a lot.  Either way makes good soup weather.  Bean based soups are easy to make but time consuming because beans require soaking time.  Quicker and just as satisfying are lentil and split pea soup.  Today it is going to be green split peas.  October is a good month for roots, bulbs, and tubers and no split pea soup would be complete without carrot, onion, and potato.  Some recipes call for ham hocks, pancetta, or bacon.  These are delicious, but my recipe works with just vegetables.  A freshly chopped garnish at the end, aromatics added during the cooking, and the right amount of salt are my flavoring agents of choice.   Yes, I use salt and I am going to tell you why.  But first the recipe.

THE RECIPE

1 pound (450g) dry split peas, rinsed, drained

2 small or 1 large yellow onion (250g) peeled, chopped

2 medium or 1 really big carrot (170g) peeled, chopped

1 potato (160g) scrubbed, quartered, eyes removed, skin intact

4 cups (1 liter) low sodium chicken stock, brick pack is fine

4 – 6 cups  (1 – 1 ½ liter) additional water

2 teaspoons Kosher style flake salt (7g)

Aromatics – thyme, oregano, garlic (optional)

Garnish – fresh scallion, fresh parsley, freshly ground black pepper

Put split peas into the soup pot, add potato, carrot, onion, stock, and water.  Bring to boil, partially cover, and gently simmer over low heat for about an hour or until the peas are completely soft.   Add salt and aromatics about half way through the cooking process.  Pass the soup through food mill.  Alternatively, blend using an immersion blender or an old fashioned stainless steel egg beater.  Add more water for a thinner soup and adjust seasoning.  Garnish with fresh cilantro, parsley, scallions, and black pepper.

THE METRICS

makes about 12 cups (3 liters)   ●   total cost $5.00   ●   $1.70 per liter

portioning information   ●   150 calories per cup   ●   230 calories per bowl 

On to salt now.   Nothing is new about salt being controversial.  What is different this time around is the substance of debate.  Salt the mineral is tangible, visible, tactile, and real.  Sodium the element is elusive, conceptual, and measureable only by calculation or laboratory analysis.   Leaving aside the legitimate debate over health consequences of too much sodium, the measurement logistics are challenging.      

When the 2010 Dietary Guidelines are finally released later on this year, sodium recommendations will probably be set lower than under previous guidelines.  New York City formed a partnership at the beginning of 2010, the National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI), to guide a voluntary reduction of sodium levels in packaged and restaurant food by 2014.   Meanwhile, the restaurant and food industries continue the search for culinary salvation – a sodium free substitute  for salt.

As a cook, I love salt.  Powerful, robust, an exceptionally effective flavor enhancer, salt does the job.  Because of its strength, salt easily overwhelms other more delicate flavors so I have always used a light hand and treated salt with respect. 

Salt added in the proportions noted above meets current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) criteria for low sodium and falls below the proposed 2014 target set by the NSRI guidelines for soup.  In fact the amount could be increased to just under 2 ¾ teaspoons flaked Kosher style salt and still meet both standards.  Serious cooks know that salting to taste is more a matter of personal preference than a function of software analysis.   Those of us who salt intuitively may need to be more attentive to tracking our use.  As sodium comes under increased scrutiny, our approach to measurement may benefit from analysis.  More to come on salt and sodium …

 

Nutrition Facts per 1 cup serving*  (240g):  Calories 140, Fat 0g, Saturated Fat  0g, Trans Fat  0g, Cholesterol  0mg, Sodium  230mg, Carbohydrate  24g, Fiber  8g, Protein  10g.  Vitamin A 40%, Vitamin C 10%, Calcium 2%, Iron 8%.  Excellent Source:  vitamin A as beta-carotene, fiber.  Good Source protein, thiamine, folate.
*Serving sizes are reference amounts defined and regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).  A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.

Salmon Salad with Vinaigrette Dressing

Summer is coming to an end.  The days are getting shorter.  A chill in the evening air means an end to summer salad suppers and the beginning of more robust meals.  But while summer is still here, a large salad is satisfying, refreshing, and takes about 30 minutes to put together as long as the greens are washed and ready to go.  For protein, I use both legumes and canned salmon.  Grilled chicken or canned tuna are good substitutes for the salmon.  Vegetable ingredients vary depending on what comes in and out of the market during the growing season, but my base always starts with mesclun.  I buy weekly from a vendor who lets me mix my own from the many offerings of multi colored, multi textured, slightly bitter leaves.  Proportions are for two people.  For robust appetites, serve with crusty bread.

THE RECIPE

½ cup (125 ml) olive oil and yogurt dressing, as per proportions below

7 tablespoons (100 g) canned chickpeas, rinsed, drained

¾ cup (50 g) red cabbage, washed, coarsely shredded

3 ½ cups (100 g) washed mesclun or assorted greens

1 medium (150 g) tomato, washed, cored, coarsely chopped

½ each (75 g) Haas avocado, peeled, seeded, sliced

1 – 6 ounce can (170 g) wild Alaskan pink salmon, canned, drained

Using a bowl with a 2 quart (2 liter) capacity, make a dressing in the bottom of the bowl with 4 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons white wine or sherry vinegar, 2 tablespoons 0% Greek yogurt, 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, oregano, basil, pepper, and about 1/4 teaspoon flake salt.  Put chickpeas and cabbage in first, then mesclun, then tomato and avocado.  Other vegetable options are peppers, fennel, carrots, and cucumbers.  Arrange drained salmon on top.  Mix salad just before serving.

THE METRICS

makes about 6 ½ cups  ●  cost $12.20  ●  1070 calories

portioning information:   540 calories for 2 people  ●  270 calories for 4 people  ●  180 calories for 6 people

This salad delivers phytonutrient and fiber rich vegetables, mixed proteins, and oleic acid rich, omega-3 rich, vitamin E rich unsaturated fats.  Moreover, I used clean sustainable salmon and a seasonal heirloom tomato.  Despite these benefits, the salad cannot be labeled healthy because total fat exceeds acceptable parameters established by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Sodium and saturated fat also exceed acceptable parameters, but are easier to adjust in accordance with current regulations.

Before going back to school, I always made classic vinaigrette – three parts oil to one part vinegar.  My studies progressed, I learned about too much fat, and I stopped.  Experimenting with other combinations and substitutions became the goal.   For example, some variations on classic vinaigrette call for some crème fraîche and yogurt works really well.   I even tried fat free salad dressing once …   But the classic version kept calling me back because it makes such an elegant delicious product.

Let’s call it the olive oil dilemma.   The cook in me says enjoy the salad!  Just be careful the cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is what the label says it is.  The dietitian in me says maybe it is not quite that simple. The nutrient benefit is significant.  The three fat sources in question come from “good” fats and other options are out there.  I can run the numbers again adding bread with the meal or fruit and yogurt after the meal.    I can manage the impact over the day and plan according.  The dietician in me also knows that nutrition research is ongoing so I can continue to scan the literature for new perspectives on total fat in the diet and the value of good fats …

This summer I went classic and kept an eye on my daily calorie count.  And with summer coming to an end, I will not have to wrestle with the dilemma again until next year.

 

Nutrition Facts per ½ cup serving*  (g):  Calories 160, Fat 12g, Saturated Fat  1.5g, Trans Fat  0g, Cholesterol  10mg, Sodium  180mg, Carbohydrate  7g, Fiber  3g, Protein  7g.  Vitamin A 30%, Vitamin C 15%, Calcium 2%, Iron 6%.  Excellent Source vitamin A, vitamin B12.  Good Source vitamin C, protein, fiber, niacin, folate.  Natural Source omega-3 fatty acids.
*Serving sizes are reference amounts defined and regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).  A 2,000 calorie diet is used as the basis for general nutrition advice; however, individual calorie needs may vary.