Friday, August 7, 2009

Low Sodium Supermarket Dining: The Produce Aisle, Part 1

Grocery store produce departments have changed quite a bit in the last several years. And that’s good news for those following low sodium diets. Not only is there a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables available now, but the variety is unbelievable too. And there are so many pre-prepped options offered for the home cook. That’s particularly good news for low sodium dieters with busy schedules, physical limitations, or minimal cooking abilities. Let’s take a look!

The refrigerated salad greens section is bursting with packages of all kinds of lettuce mixes. You can easily “gussy” up any dish by serving it on a bed of fancy salad greens. The leafy lettuces are good for you and, as an added bonus, cut down the total sodium content of a dish too. But beyond just salad greens, you’ll find packages of coleslaw mix, sliced mushrooms, spinach leaves, broccoli and cauliflower florets, sugar snap peas, snow peas, bean sprouts, baby carrots, shredded carrots, celery & carrot sticks, chopped kale and other dark & leafy greens... and more!

Depending on the store, you might even find ready-to-cook green beans, cubed butternut squash, radishes, stir-fry mixes, etc. My local stores all carry tubs of diced celery, bell peppers, and onions. They also carry tubs of pico de gallo (diced tomatoes, onions, chili peppers) and miripoix (diced onions, carrots, celery). Some stores even carry ready-to-cook potatoes! As always, you have to check the ingredient labels of these ready-to-cook packaged vegetables to make sure there is no salt added. But, happily, you’ll find that most of them are just cleaned and prepped and ready to use.

And then there are the herbs… Most supermarkets sell bunches of parsley, cilantro, and basil. But now you can choose from an array of fresh herbs in smaller plastic snap-shut containers. The great thing about these is that you’re only buying a few sprigs. Just enough to use in one or two dishes ‒ not enough to go bad before you can use them all up. I can find fresh mint, chives, thyme, sage, rosemary, dill weed, tarragon, oregano, and more in those little packs.

Don’t forget garlic & ginger. Along with the fresh versions, most stores carry jars of whole, peeled fresh garlic in their produce department’s refrigerated section. You usually can find jars of minced and crushed garlic (packed in oil or water) displayed near the potatoes & onions. Nearby you should also find dried tomatoes, either plain and in bags or jarred packed in oil. Jars of crushed ginger are generally close at hand too. If you’re not a fan of chopping big onions, consider picking up green onions or scallions. They’re a lot easier to deal with. And, last but not least, you can get fresh lemons and limes. However, if squeezing lemons isn’t your thing, nowadays, most produce sections also carry the plastic bottles of lemon & lime juice.

You can pick up already sliced fresh apples, pineapple chunks, and even grapefruit sections in the refrigerator cases too. Sometimes you can find packages of nuts and dried fruit in the produce section too. I’ve picked up slivered and sliced almonds, along with pine nuts, pecans, walnuts, & even peanuts. I’ve found raisins, dried cranberries, dried pineapple rings, and dried apple slices there too.

OK, so I’ve proved that you can pick up a wide assortment of pre-prepped vegetables, herbs, & fruits in your local grocer’s produce department. So what? Well, these conveniently packaged produce items can make a big difference when following a low sodium diet. I’m a mainly from-scratch type cook. But I realize that not everyone trying to eat & cook low sodium has the time, skill, or inclination to prepare every meal from scratch. Sometimes we all need shortcuts. That’s where your local grocery store and the abundance of prepared produce now available in most supermarkets comes into play. Here are some examples:

Soup Ideas
It’s winter and soup sounds really good for supper. But the chief cook (let’s pretend that’s me) is under the weather. Canned soup all by itself, although convenient, is not a great option because of the high sodium content. So I write out a list for my husband. Stuff he can buy and then throw together with a minimum of fussing and a great certainty of success. From the produce aisle: Pick up some baby carrots or carrot sticks, celery sticks, green onions, jarred minced garlic, sliced mushrooms, baby spinach greens, and some fresh thyme. Then pick up a pound of lean ground beef (or turkey or chicken) from the meat section. Get a can of NSA tomato sauce, a package of NSA beef or chicken broth, and a package of orzo.

Once he gets home, I direct things from my sick bed. Chop up the carrots, green onions, & celery sticks and add them to the sautéing meat. For added nutrition I could tell him to toss in a handful some frozen vegetables from the freezer too. Pour in a package of NSA broth, stir in a  spoonful of the minced garlic and the tomato sauce. Season with some dried thyme or oregano and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and 1/3 cup of dried orzo. Continue to simmer until orzo is tender, adding more water if necessary. Toss in the spinach leaves and let them wilt. Sprinkle with the fresh herbs and add a splash of lemon juice and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Voila! Fresh, tasty, & homemade low sodium soup prepared by a non-cook. Thanks to the produce aisle.

Want something even easier? Do essentially the same thing but use a can of Campbell’s Healthy Request soups to start with. Most of them weigh in at 410 mg. sodium per serving. Just simmer the chopped vegetables in a cup or two of plain water. Once the vegetables are done to your liking, add the canned soup. Heat and serve. Again, a tasty lower sodium soup, chock full of fresh vegetables but with little culinary effort. Thanks to the produce aisle.

Stew Ideas
Stew is super easy too. Just grab your favorite stewing meat (cut up beef, chicken pieces, or even pork). Then go wild in the produce section ‒ potatoes (baby or fingerling potatoes are great because you won’t have to fuss with peeling or cutting up), baby carrots, celery sticks, onions, sliced or whole mushrooms, garlic, turnips/rutabagas, green beans, squash ‒ whatever strikes your fancy. When you get home, all you need to do is brown the meat (you can even omit that step if you want), add some liquid, and simmer until the meat is just about tender. Season the stew with your favorite dried herbs. You could even add a bit of wine to the cooking liquid. Then add the vegetables you've chosen and continue cooking until both vegetables and meat are tender and done to your liking. If you’re making beef stew, use NSA beef broth. A couple of packets of salt-free beef broth granules would boost the beefy flavor too. NSA chicken broth could be used for chicken stew. If you like a gravy consistency, thicken the stew with some Wondra flour or cornstarch. Be sure to add plenty of freshly ground pepper and a healthy dose of your favorite fresh herbs right before serving. Once again, an easy yet hearty & tasty low sodium meal thanks to the supermarket produce department.


Matt said...

Be careful on the jarred sun-dried tomatoes; several of them are packed in a salty oil. The ones around here have as much as 330mg of sodium per serving (1/4 cup or so, if I recall correctly). I get the dry-pack ones and rehydrate them myself.

shambo said...

You're right, Matt, about reading labels. Never assume anything.

I'm able to find a couple of lower sodium brands at local supermarkets, but I usually buy the Trader Joe's jarred dried tomatoes. Those have 10 mg. sodium for about 13 julienne slices. Salt is not listed as an ingredient. I'll use those if I want just a spark of flavor. Otherwise, if I want to add a lot more, I'll do the same as you -- buy the dried and rehydrate them myself.

Karen said...

I've just found your site and want to thank you for all the information. I've accepted the order to a low sodium diet as a challenge - and indeed it is. I've found Penzey's Spices store to get me started. I'm glad I am a good cook and like to cook. That does make this easier. Dining out is the biggest challenge andt it was something we really liked to do. Now I think it will be easier and tastier to dine at home. I'll appreciate any dining out tips (especially restaurant sites that actually post full nutrition) that you might have. Thanks again. I've put this site on my favorites bar!

shambo said...

Thank you, Karen, for your kind words. You did the same thing I did. Once I realized we'd be eating low sodium forever, I immediately ordered a bunch of spice blends from Penzey's too. In fact, I just sent in another order last week.

Regarding ordering out, we've had really good luck at steak houses. You usually can get the steak prepared without any additional salt. Finer steak restaurants don't chemically tenderize their meat, so if it's cooked without salt, you get a good low sodium main dish. You also can usually get a baked potato and just put the sour cream on it rather than the salted butter. Also most restaurants will offer cruets of vinegar & oil for salads.

We've also had good luck ordering hamburgers & fries. You can get the burger cooked without added salt and even the fries without salt too. Skip the condiments and pile on the lettuce, tomato, & onion and you still have a tasty burger.

Elenka said...

Again, thank you so much for all your valuable information.

Dora said...

My husband and I are both working on a low-sodium "lifestyle" to rid ourselves of medication and improve our health. Luckily, I love to cook and am willing to almost endlessly tinker with recipes to create healthy and tasty meals. I want to thank you for the tremendous information you have shared on your blog. What you have done is so impressive and informational! It is so frustrating to have to order much of our seasonings and other items online from multiple sources -- but hopefully over time, more stores and eateries in our area (Louisiana) will be responsive to this need. Thanks a million and PLEASE keep on sharing such beneficial information!

shambo said...

Dora, thanks for your encouraging comments. I certainly appreciate them. I'm with you in hoping that eventually major grocers and food producers start offering more low salt alternatives. I read an article last week that Campbell's Soups has set a goal of eventually reducing all their products to under 500 mg. sodium per serving. That's still a bit high for people who must restrict their salt intake for medical reasons, but it's a whole lot better than what's available now. And it's a quantity you could work with -- adding extra vegetables, pasta, or rice, etc. -- to lower the overall sodium content.

Derra said...

Thank you for your informative blog. I was recently diagnosed with heart failure and hypertension. I am really struggling with finding recipes that my family enjoys also.

I LOVE to cook. I am a little sad because I just feel like I cannot make things that will taste as good anymore. No more rave reviews on my cooking.

shambo said...

Derra, I understand how your feel. But I want to encourage you. Believe it or not, you will find many dishes that taste wonderful without any added salt. You'll be able to impress your family and friends with your tasty low salt cuisine. As an example, just last evening, I served ribs for dinner. My husband really enjoyed them, but the interesting thing was the comments from our guest. He asked me a couple of times if I had prepared the ribs without salt. He couldn't believe it and commented several times about how good they were. I've gotten similar reactions to other dishes I've made from friends and family with no salt restrictions.

All that to say that you still will be able to prepare tasty food. Some dishes don't need the addition of lots of salt in order to taste good. For example, the ribs I made last night have a great rub & great sauce. All the spices flavor the meat so wonderfully that salt isn't needed at all. Curries are a good example too. Other dishes benefit from lemon juice or vinegar to give them a punch and the salt isn't even missed.

But there are certain foods that do taste bland without salt and those are the most troublesome. So, just as in regular cooking, not all your low sodium dishes will be hits. But you'll eventually develop a sense for what will work well without salt and what won't. I think the key is to focus on those dishes that successfully make the low sodium transition. And lay aside those that simply don't do well without salt. That's one of the reasons I don't make mashed potatoes very often anymore. The boiled & mashed potatoes just don't have much flavor without the addition of either a lot of salt or a lot of butter, sour cream, cheese, etc. to override the blandness. But crispy potatoes roasted in olive oil tossed with herbs & crushed garlic... Now those taste good and don't need any salt.