Are we just a nation of disabled eaters?

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I sure would like to think we’re not. But I listen to my colleagues talk about their own food fears and those their clients struggles with. Good foods. Bad foods. Cheat days. Calorie paranoia. And I’m very grateful that I already knew how to eat, and how to cook, before I studied nutrition.

If not, I too might be struggling, terrified of eating the wrong food, and burdened with food fears. I loved food before I became dietitian and I love food today. The difference is that today I know enough to break the rules and have confidence in my decisions. Let me share how I make a salad and how I adjust the rules to fit how I eat.

Salads are for summer. So I start with lots of healthy greens, vegetables, and legumes. Then I add a protein. And I finish with enough delicious vinaigrette dressing to make my zealous colleagues cringe and keep the folks at my table coming back for more. Fat. Salt. Acid. Works every time.

INGREDIENTS FOR 2

GOOD EXTRA VIRGIN COLD PRESSED OLIVE OIL – 60 grams or 4 1/2 tablespoons

SHERRY VINEGAR – 20 grams or 4 teaspoons

DIJON MUSTARD – to taste up to 1 teaspoon

SALT – 1.2 grams flake salt or 1/2 teaspoon (1/4 teaspoon table or most sea salt)

CANNELLONI CANNED OR HOME COOKED BEANS – 100 grams cannelloni beans or 2/3 cup

TOMATOES –  100 grams cherry tomatoes or a handful

CUCUMBER – 80 grams or 1 small

MIXED GREENS – 200 grams greens or 4 cups chopped – mesclun, endive, radicchio, red leaf, green leaf, romaine

HAAS AVOCADO – 100 grams or 1/2 whole

GRILLED CHICKEN BREAST – 170 grams or 6 ounces – other protein options are tonino, hard cooked eggs, feta cheese, salmon.

METHOD

Make dressing first by mixing olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt together in the bottom of a 2 liter salad bowl. Wash and dry greens. Wash and prep other vegetables. Cut up and add chicken pieces. Add legumes, tomatoes, greens, chicken, and avocado.  Mix just before serving.

Proportions are important. My ratio of dressing to everything else is about 9 to 1. In other words, 1 ounce dressing (2 tablespoons) to 9 ounces everything else that goes into the salad. These are weight based measures. Please don’t be concerned if you’ve never used a scale. Here’s your chance to develop your eye and manage your own taste preferences. You might find you like more dressing or less dressing than I do. Practice makes perfect and the more salads you make the better you’ll get at using your eye and tasting as you go.


NUTRITION

Nutrition Facts per serving: 560 calories, 41g fat, 19g carbohydrate, 32g protein, 470mg sodium.

And yes 41 grams of fat per serving is lots of fat and, trust me, some of my zealous colleagues are not happy because well over 50% calories in the salad come from fat. But here’s how I look at that percentages. What matters is best measured over the course of a day or even better over the course of a week. Olive oil and avocado are calorie dense; greens and vegetables are calorie un-dense. So of course most of the calories are going to come from fat.

Now let’s dig down a level and check out the ratio of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids. Most fatty acids are unsaturated from the olive oil and avocado. Those unsaturated fatty acids are what my more flexible colleagues refer to as “healthy” fats.

As for protein, my tule of thumb is about 25 grams per meal. So a serving of salad is a bit over. Note too that protein comes from mixed sources – chicken and plant.

Notice too, there’s not a lot of carbs and no refined carbohydrate. Just intact carbohydrates from the vegetables, some sugars from tomatoes, and 7 grams dietary fiber per serving. Now 7 grams may not sound like a lot, but think about that fiber like this. One serving puts 25% of the Daily Value on the plate.

Last word goes to potassium. The new label format will mandate potassium be listed as a line item. Note the sodium is 470mg per serving. Now compare that number with 1200mg potassium per serving. In other words, more than twice as much potassium as sodium. That’s a really good ratio.

Food Composition per 100 grams is only for NERDS like me: 10g fat, 4g carbohydrate, 9g protein, 77g water.

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Fat, Salt, and Split Pea Soup

 

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Thank goodness fats are no longer considered a toxic substance. I did my nutrition studies during the height of the low fat is healthy years. Just imagine how confused I felt when I ran my own numbers and discovered my daily pattern was based on an unhealthy amount of fat.  That was just 20 years ago and as you know things have changed.

My split pea soup depends on fat to bring out the flavor of aromatic vegetables – onion, carrot, and celery. Finely chopped and sweated in lots of olive oil, this mirepoix adds color, hearty flavor, and sweetness to the soup. Without that generous dose of olive oil, the recipe wouldn’t be as delicious.

Salt of course is the other critical component. I learned I use too much fat but I also learned I under salt.  Salt is critical to good cooking but if you know your way around the kitchen you know how to squeeze flavor out of all the ingredients so there’s no need to use so much salt.

Recipe writing is not my strength. I do provide proportion but in both metric and common measure and some instruction. But if you’re a beginning cook and need basic instruction or technique, I suggest you check out a website like Simple Recipes or New York Times Recipe Box or one of the reputable collections available via the internet.

Rest assured that messing up a split pea soup is really hard. Burnt onions. Rancid olive oil. Confusing table salt with kosher flake salt. These are mess ups. But proportions of split peas to onion, carrots, celery can be highly variable as can the amount of liquid. So making this soup is good practice for trying your hand at no recipe cooking.

RECIPE for 3 liters (12 cups)

• 500 grams split peas (2 1/2 cups – generous pound)

• 400 grams mirepoix (1 1/4 cup chopped onion; generous 3/4 cup chopped carrot; generous 2/3 cup diced celery)

• 100 grams olive oil (7 1/2 tablespoons)

• 2 to 3 liters water or stock (8 to 12 cups)

• 12 grams salt (4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal® Kosher Salt or 2 teaspoons table/coarse sea salt)

Start by rinsing the split peas. Then gently sweat chopped onions in olive oil until golden browned and aromatic at least 30 minutes. The longer the onions sizzle softly in the oil the more aromatic they get. Add carrots and celery and sauté another 30 minutes. Now add liquid, split peas, herbs of choice, salt, and gently simmer partially covered until split peas are fully softened and starting to fall apart. Pass the soup through a food mill for an even textured consistency.

INGREDIENTS – Good flavor starts with sourcing the best ingredients. Look for split peas from the most current harvest. Sometimes these dates are hard to find. Store managers often really don’t know and in all due respect many could care less. Best to buy from a trusted supplier. As for the olive oil, no reason to use your best. High heat destroys some of the healthful properties and delicate taste aromatics. I use an everyday extra virgin olive oil from California. As for the liquid use water or vegetable stock or chicken stock in any combination. What’s important is the final volume, about 3 liters or 12 cups.

NUTRITION – I run numbers on all my recipes but I don’t post label results, however I’m happy to send you those numbers if you want them so just let me know.

I prefer using common measure. Most folks can visualize a cup of soup and once you know a cup of soup puts about 230 calories in the bowl, you can do the math yourself. Serving sizes always vary depending on how the soup gets served.  Appetizers are usually less than a cup. Main course soup for supper is usually more than a cup. Snackers I’m sure have their own favorite amounts.

Here’re a breakdown for the nutrients per cup that I check for:

• Protein. This soup qualifies as vegan so all 10 grams per cup are plant protein. Ham hocks or bacon or cheese are common additions to split pea soup. They add more protein and you’ll end up with an animal plant protein mix.

• Fiber. Both soluble and insoluble dietary fibers are beneficial from a health perspective. All legumes are fiber rich and split pea soup has lots of fiber, about 11 grams per cup.

• Fat. Olive oil is the source of fat and contribute 35% of the calories as per proportions used above. Using olive oil ensures that the fat profile will be predominantly unsaturated fatty acids. Adding ham hocks or bacon or cheese adds saturated fatty acids and changes the fat profile.

• Salt. Essential for a good tasting soup. Keep in mind however it’s important to salt to your own taste. So the most important step is learning to salt is to know your own salt tolerance. Always keep in mind that under salting is safer. You can use a sprinkling of finishing salt just before serving. Desalting an over salted soup is hard.

Using 4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal® Kosher Salt Diamond for 3 liters soup, one cup of soup has about 410 mg sodium. Sometimes I use only 3 teaspoons of salt which works out to 320 mg per cup. I don’t seem to need as much salt as many other cooks and eaters like to use. For me, a little bit of salt goes a long way. Salting to your own taste is really important because we don’t all taste salt the same way.

Why you may be asking do I specify salt by brand name? The answer is because brand and grind make a difference. So I’m not writing a sponsored post. There are two brands of kosher salt and one brand sits much lighter in the spoon than the other brand so it makes a difference which one you use.

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Roasted Chickpeas

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Aren’t they beautiful? My first attempt at roasted chickpeas turned out extraordinarily well. I don’t use the term food addiction lightly, but these little beauties are about as close as I get to addictive eating.  I had to stop myself from demolishing the whole bowl in a single sitting one handful at a time.

The chickpeas need to be really dry before you start. I learned how important the drying step is the hard way through trial and error. This step is crucial to the success of the finished dish.

The first time I roasted chickpeas, they were thoroughly dried and tasted especially crunchy. Used my own home cooked chickpeas, drained them, and left them uncovered on a plate for 24 hours in the frig.  The second time I made it, didn’t have time for a thorough drying and the result was tasty but just nearly as crispy. The third time I made it, I used canned chickpeas and no amount of drying seemed to counter the slightly sodden soaked texture of the canned product. My take away is cook up your own chickpeas from dry and be super attentive to drying them out prior to roasting.

Here’s what you’ll need to make up your first bowl about 6 handfuls.

350 grams (2 generous cups) chickpeas, cooked and drained

15 grams (1 tablespoon) olive oil

2 tablespoons Za’atar

700 mg (1/4 teaspoon) salt or to taste

Spread chickpeas out on a flat surface and pat dry with paper towels. Let them air dry for at least an hour. Based on the three batches I made, the longer the drying process the better and overnight in the frig is best.

When you’re ready to roast, heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a pan with parchment paper and spread the chickpeas out evenly on a pan. Bake until crunchy, about 30 minutes, stirring or rotating every 10 minutes during the roasting process. While the chickpeas are roasting, add olive oil, spice/herb mixture, and salt to a bowl.  When chickpeas are completely roasted, pour them into the bowl and stir to distribute the oil, spices, herbs, and salt evenly.

My roasted chickpeas was inspired by a recipe from The New York Times Recipe Box, Melissa Clark’s Crunchy Roasted Az’atar Chickpeas which in turn was featured in Maureen Abood’s Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, published in 2015.

BUY GOOD STUFF

• Home cooked chickpeas roast crunchier than canned. So I’m always throwing dry chickpeas in my bag

• My salt of choice is Diamond Chrystal Kosher Salt. Because it’s flaked, the salt sits light in the spoon. If you’re using either table salt of a coarse sea salt, reduce volume to 1/8th teaspoon.

• Sumac is a reddish purple powder ground the berries of the sumac plant and is used extensively in middle eastern cooking to add a tart acidic taste. It was a new discovery for me but I know we’re going to be friends for life. I love bitter. I love acid. And now I love sumac.

• Za’atar can be purchased from stores that specialize in Middle Eastern products. I just made my own using the following proportions: 4 teaspoons dry thyme, 1 1/2 teaspoons whole sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon sumac.

Now for my Nerdy Nutrition Note. The recipe serves 6 and each one of those servings fits nicely in my hand. I’m not sure about you, but I tend to eat roasted chickpeas by the handful. Now that handful is about 120 calories. Along with those calories, I put 5 grams of predominantly unsaturated fatty acids from olive oil and chickpeas, about 16 grams carbohydrate 20% of which is fiber, and 5 grams of excellent plant based protein in my hand.

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My Search for Ceci Neri

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It all started because I love La Cucina Italiana. The food photography is breath takingly beautiful and my Italian is good enough to get through a recipe or short article.

Recently the online magazine had a little blurb on ceci neri / black chickpeas. Color was amazing. A beautiful deep dark shad of sepia. Destiny was calling. How could I resist?

So I googled black chickpeas and began my search. I discovered these little beauties were declared a heirloom vegetable recently and just in time too to keep them from disappearing forever. Asking around if anyone ever heard of a black chick pea, one of my Italian colleagues said yes she heard of them, even seen them in the market but never tried them. Another colleague, an ex-pat American living in Rome, replied she had also heard it them but thought black chickpeas were only used for animal feed.

One benefit of living in New York City is everything is for sale somewhere. And sure enough in the deepest darkest bowels of industrial Queens I found an Italian wholesale importer who was willing to sell me one kilo bag. I took a subway and walked the rest of the way to the warehouse and returned with my kilogram bag.

Once home, I poured out a third of the bag (350 grams), washed them, and started the soaking process. It takes a long time.  At least 48 hours to soak plus another 12 hours to cook.

Two days later the water was so black the chickpeas had disappeared from view. Usually I include soaking water when I cook, but this water looked ominous. What to do. A third colleague who runs a cooking school near Bari in the south of Italy came to my rescue via Facebook and confirmed that folks usually toss the soaking water.

Now for the cooking. Twelve hours requires starting pretty early so I started at 7am and finished off about 7pm using fresh clear water. Once soaked and hopefully cooked, my black chickpeas were actually sort of soft and strikingly beautiful. That deep dark intense sepia must be brimming full of phytonutrients but I wouldn’t know where to start to track down which ones.

Now what to do with them …

I tried them in a couple of different dishes and got nothing but complaints. Just between you and me, the taste was okay for my palate, more robust and earthy than the usual ones, but even after all that soaking and cooking, they were dense and still distinctly chewy.

The only preparation I could find that worked was hummus. I added lots and lots of tahini along with a good amount of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. All to taste. I used so much tahini in fact I lost track of how much so I couldn’t run my usual nutrition numbers.

The black chickpea hummus was edible, attractive, and acceptable to the folks at my table.

Waste not. Want not. I am committed to repurposing.

We ate lots and lots and lots and lots of black chickpea hummus.

Culinary excursions are always exciting. Sometimes you discover wonderful new foods you love and can’t live without. And sometimes you learn why you’re the only one out there chasing the illusion ceci neri.

 

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Do You Like Your Salads Well Dressed?

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Summer is the season for salads.

The northeast is hot and humid during July and August and the last thing anyone feels like doing is spending hours in a hot kitchen. We want cool and refreshing. And we want it now.

Local farmers markets provide a variety of fresh greens. After that, it depends on what is available, seasonal, and handy.

But whatever you decide to throw in, please don’t be stingy with the salad dressing. Salads don’t make it to my table unless they’re well dressed.

Pictured above is a salad I put together recently. Red leaf Boston lettuce, small tender inner leaves of an escarole, some avocado, a couple of hydroponic tomato, a scallion, one whole chopped cucumber, a hard cooked egg, some nice canned tonnino, some chickpeas, and one of my favorite Italian imports, Roman artichokes that still have their stems intact.

For the vinaigrette, I make my own with California cold pressed Arbequina olive oil, imported sherry or wine vinegar (7 – 8% acidity), and salt. And I used a very generous tablespoon of my artisan vinaigrette for each 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) salad.

Wait a minute! You’re a dietitian aren’t you?  Isn’t your job to remind us not to use too much oil and to cut back on salt?

My more zealous colleagues do just that. Especially those who work in weight loss or food addiction. Other colleagues separate healthy fats from unhealthy fats but will still recommend restraint. But not me. So I’m the first to admit that what I’m about to say is controversial.

Because flavor reigns supreme at my table, I use LOTS of vinaigrette because my well dressed salads tastes better than a salad topped a skimpy amount of dressing or worse some of that fat free stuff.

Putting an irresistibly delicious salad on the table makes it easy for folks to eat more vegetables. And getting folks to eat more vegetables is what we want right?

Found a wonderful quote in my facsimile edition of The Original Picayune Creole Cookbook originally published in 1901. The book says it is an old Spanish proverb. Who knows? Whatever the source it’s makes good culinary sense.

To make a perfect salad there should be a miser for vinegar, a spendthrift for oil, a wise man for salt and a madcap to stir all these ingredients, and mix them well together.

So please unless you’re committed to a low fat diet or limited fats to promote weight loss, don’t worry about olive oil. The fats in olive oil are mostly unsaturated and have a favorable fatty acid ratio.

Salad greens and vegetables are rich in potassium, fibers, and phytonutrients. Plus carotenoids are better absorbed in the presence of fat. Add some protein to your well dressed salad as I did with a locator mix of tuna, egg, and chickpeas. Serve with crusty whole grain bread and voilá a complete meal.

We normally eat about 2 1/2 cups or so for a meal or roughly 500 calories per plate not counting bread.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

Heres how the conventional nutrition facts label looks for 1 cup of my well dressed salad:  16g total fat, 250mg sodium, 300 mg potassium, 6g total carbohydrate, 2g fibers, 0g added sugars, 10g protein.

We used to obsess about calories from fat and I’m so relieved the FDA has finally agreed to update the label. This well dressed salad clocks in at 68% calories from fat with a fat profile that reflects predominantly unsaturated fatty acids. Many of my zealous colleagues still obsess about sodium and, don’t get me wrong, for some sodium restriction is critically important. For most of us however it’s probably more important to take a look at how we’re using salt.

 

 

Recipes, Ratios, and Green Split Pea Soup.

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For the longest time I never wrote down proportions for my green pea soup. The soup never came out the same way twice but always tasted really good. Now the way I see it, variability is part of culinary creativity so having my soup just a little different every time just meant it was hand crafted and artisanal.

I still don’t use recipes very often, especially when I’m putting together a meal for supper. You don’t need to either and here’s how:

Start with a mirepoix of onion, carrot, and celery, roughly 2 parts chopped onion to 1 part each chopped celery and carrot. It’s okay to use your eye here.  An onion or two, a carrot, a couple stalks of celery for each pound bag of green split peas should do it.

Now pull out the soup pot, pour in a generous amount of olive oil, add the onions, and let them sweat. As the onions start to caramelize, add the carrot and celery.  While the veggies are sweating, wash the split peas. Sometimes it takes a while for the veggies to release moisture, but when they’ve given up all they can, the mixture starts to sizzle. At that point, in go green split peas and 2-3 liters of water.  Throw in a thyme branch if you have one handy.

Let it all simmer very gently on the stove partially covered for an hour or until the peas have softened. Remove the thyme branch, pass soup through a food mill, adjust seasoning, salt to taste, and voilà a couple of liters of delicious green split pea soup.

But don’t get me wrong, I know the value of a standardized recipe and what they are good for: food service, nutrient analysis, ratios, and editors. So there is a time and place for a standardized recipe and here’s what mine looks like:

  • 500 grams of split peas (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 200 grams onion (about 1 1/4 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams chopped carrot (about 3/4 cup chopped)
  • 100 grams chopped celery (about 1 cup diced)
  • 100 grams olive oil (about 7 tablespoons)
  • 3 liters water (about 12 cups)
  • 10 grams salt (1 generous tablespoon flake salt or 1/2 tablespoon table or sea salt

If I run the numbers using proportions listed above in compliance with the Nutrition Facts protocol for a serving I get a label that looks like this:

Nutrients per serving (1 cup / 245g):  240 calories, 10 g fat, 29 g carbohydrate (11 g fiber), 10 g protein, 400 mg sodium.

Serving sizes are determined by the FDA and required for health or nutrient contentment claims. The RCAA (Reference Amount Customarily Consumed) for soup is one cup and so that’s the amount I used to run the numbers. I needed to adjust the water because during the cooking process some water is absorbed by the split peas and some water is evaporated so the analysis is based on the cooked weight.

Green pea soup has an exceptionally good nutrient profile. Plant based protein. Good ratio fiber to carbohydrate for a healthy Microbiome. Good source potassium for a favorable sodium to potassium ratio.

 

 

 

Why count when it all tastes so good?

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Beautiful. Delicious. Let’s Eat.

The perfect late spring supper for our north east coast growing season. Planting has started but only asparagus and ramps are coming in right now so I’m still dependent on California, Texas, and Florida. The arrangement on my plate is what the French call a Salade Composée. Call me a thwarted graphic designer, but I have always loved making stylized plate designs.

Simple ingredients:  greens, vegetables (tomato, cucumber, legumes, red cabbage), grains preferable whole grain, protein, and dressing.

Homemade vinaigrette is always on hand because I make my own and we eat salads all the time.  Basic extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and salt.

Legumes are always on hand too because I buy dry beans in bulk and cook batches as needed. The only component that requires cooking is the grain.  The one I used for this salad is freekeh, an ancient grain with roots in the Middle East. Traditionally, it’s made from wheat so freekeh is not gluten free. The berries are harvested while still green or yellow, then roasting during processing. Smoky. Nutty. Chewy. Freekeh is a perfect grain for a savory salad. But it needs to be cooked first and that takes about 15 to 20 minutes.

While the grain is cooking, I wash and trim all the vegetables. I don’t measure when I’m doing a quick supper like I did the night I made this salad. But I know from past scrutiny I want about 16 ounces (450 grams) on the plate and look for a distribution by weigh of 40% vegetables, 20% legume, 20% protein, 10% grain, and 10% dressing.

Once everything is washed, peeled, chopped, drained, cooked, and ready to go, the fun begins.

The plate starts with a bed of arugula and green leaf lettuce.

Then portion the protein. That is canned tuna you see up there in the upper right. A couple of tablespoons of a Spanish line caught tuna packed in olive oil. Tonnino Ventresca. Really delicious but on the expensive side.

Next in line going clockwise is the grain. My personal choice is freehka, but farro or buckwheat or quinoa work just as well.

Now some chopped red cabbage. Cabbages are good keepers and help to bridge the gap between the end of the last year’s harvest and the green shoots of spring.

Next are some Kirby cucumbers.

For legumes, I used chickpeas because that is what I had on hand.  Use what you like or use what’s sitting on the shelf or in the frig. Home cooked tastes better, but canned is more convenient when time is a factor.

The final touches are a hard cooked egg cut in six pieces, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and a scallion for garnish. With a couple of generous tablespoons of vinaigrette, the salad is dressed and ready to go.

So at this point you may be asking me why mess up the meal with counting?

I don’t disagree. But I feel a responsible. A cook needs to know what the people they feed are eating. Pleasure and good company is key to healthy eating. But so are healthy food choices. And that means you count, even if it’s only miles travelled between farm to table. Here are some good examples of the kind of counting I do.

  • Portioning the Protein.  Prep cooks in restaurants portion protein for the line cooks for two reasons. The chef needs to manage costs and the customer needs to feel the portion is good value. Some of us, chefs and eaters alike, check for sustainability. But nutritionists like me portion protein for other reasons. We like to know the grams and we like to know the distribution between animal (egg and tuna) and plant (legumes and grain).
  • Salt and Sodium.  Whichever side you take as the salt wars rage on, knowing how much you use and where it comes from is required for baseline.
  • Balance the Plate. The Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate get criticized from both sides of the food spectrum. Manufacturers and producers don’t want to count anything that can be perceived as a negative. The healthy eating crew has for understandable reasons lost faith in the government’s ability to provide valid advice. But here are some observations. Using 16 ounces (450 grams) as the reference amount, my salad provides 3 cups of vegetables, 2 ounces of protein, and 1 ounce of grain. Bonus points for fish, plant protein, leafy greens, and whole grains.

The calorie count for the 16 ounce (450 gram) salad which includes 3 generous tablespoons dressingis 590 calories. As for the other nutrients:  26 grams protein, 41 grams fat, 41 grams carbohydrate, 10 grams fiber. The largest contributor to those 16 ounces is the water weight from the vegetables which accounts for 74% or about 10 1/2 ounces.

And for the usual suspects:  720 mg sodium, 6 grams saturated fat, no added sugar.

Salt sources in descending order:   vinaigrette, chickpeas, tuna, freekeh, egg, vegetables.

Saturated fat in descending order:  vinaigrette, egg, tuna, chickpea.

So why bother counting when it all tastes so good? Because the cook need to know. The people at table don’t necessarily need to know. And it’s important to keep in mind that too much obsession with eating healthy can be as detrimental to good health as too little. But the cook still needs to know that nutrition bases are covered and that salt and fats have been put to good culinary use.

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%.