Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Much Salt?

Common Spice
Salt is not an exotic spice, but it should not be overlooked. Its common to every cuisine. My focus on spices in cuisine to make whole foods taste better, and my interest in health, leads me to this discussion about salt. My questions are whether to use salt, and if so, what kind and how much? Short answer, I think it would be crazy to exclude salt from the spice cabinet.

Sea Salt
Sea salt is an ancient spice, traded by ancient Greeks and Romans, among others. Sea salt comes from the sea water, either evaporated or mined as rocks from dried sea beds. Whole salt contains essential trace minerals. That's why we like salt. But only slightly ground unrefined salt. No refined salt.

Importantly, I want to control my own ingredients, spices and taste, thank you. Salt keeps bad friends. Salt correlates with and is marker for many other bad ingredients in manufactured foods. I don't buy cans or packages with salt as an ingredient. 

The health recommendation for sodium is about 2000 mg per day, which almost everyone ignores. Just pretend that salt is expensive, which it was 2,000 years ago.

  • 1 tsp salt = 5 grams salt = 2000 mg sodium

Try 1/8 tsp salt, in proportion to 2-4 cups of other main ingredients, serving 1-2 people.

Also try recipes without salt. It's a good practice to try to separate tastes. It's also good to make recipes simple. Add back, in small amount, 1/8 tsp, if too flat without. Try adding other tastes for complexity like sweet, sour, earthy and hot. But none are replacement for salt. I've found that 1/8-1/4 tsp salt is enough perk up otherwise bland or dull. Note I use the same proportion measure for chili pepper to add heat. A very small amount goes a long way.

If I make 4 dishes per day, and use 1/2 tsp salt, I allow for other products like condiments and pickles that also contain salt. Bump up to 1/4 tsp salt if needed.

Willpower and Taste
If the goal is to loose weight, and eat less, (which is not my case,) then bad tasting food is a hard way to eat less. It takes will power to eat bad tasting food when good tasting food is available. And will power is unreliable. Better to select the right foods and make them taste good, with a little salt, if necessary. I reject the idea that good food must be dull food. Both good food and good taste are possible. But it might take learning or rediscovering some forgotten basic culinary technology and skills, which our great-grandmothers probably knew and practiced.

One Month Experiment

How much does it really cost to eat?

  • I occasionally hear comment that junk is cheaper than healthy food.
How can that be? Raw ingredients in bulk, shipped from the farmer, which is what produce and dry goods are, must cost less than the same ingredients plus processing, plus packaging, plus advertisement, plus profit.
  • I also read whole populations, most recently Egypt, live on $2 a day, and spend 50-70% on food.
That's $1-2 per day. With inexpensive global shipping, does food anywhere cost more?

This is my 28 day experiment to discover what I'm really spending. Starting with a partially unstocked pantry, I save every receipt, for 4 weeks, and total. I shop at inexpensive produce markets, which have fresh produce, but also shop at Whole Foods for bakery, cans and condiments that have short ingredient lists. Most of my seasonal fresh produce and bulk grocery purchases are under $1 per pound. Bakery, condiments and spices cost more.

So I figure:
  • $1 per poud * 4 pounds per day * 30 days = $120
Why 4 weeks? Long enough to stock and use bulk grocery stores, like 10 lb bag of rice, 10 lb bag of potatoes, etc. It also help plan shopping and stocking for longer periods, like emergency and earthquake stores, or provisioning a long passage by boat.

This will also help me baseline how much fresh produce vs. how much bulk groceries? (Try 10 lbs rice, 20 lbs potatoes, etc.) How much canned tomatoes and canned beans, how much dried beans and lentils. How much bread? How much mustard, ketchup and pickles? You get the idea.

The result:
  • $160 per month
That's higher than I expected. Need to look closer, but my initial guess is bakery and condiments nudged the costs upward.

Spanish Rice

This rice has flavor enough to serve alone. Has a slightly red color with a mild tomato taste. Made from base vegetables called Sofrito, which are onion, garlic and tomato. Add spices, and stew together with rice as pilaf.

1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
2 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 red sweet pepper, chopped
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cilantro
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp oregano
1/8 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup brown rice
1 cup water
1 tsp lemon juice, to taste
handful fresh cilantro

Prepare by soaking brown rice at least 2 hrs. Wash and drain.
To grind whole spices: Grind cumin seed, corriander seeds, black peppercorns, bay leaf and oregano into coarse powder in spice grinder. Set aside. This step can be done while browning onions, along with prepping the main ingredients.
To start base: Brown onion, lowering heat once it colors, 10-12 min. Add splash of water, garlic, tomato, sweet pepper and ground spices, and simmer 2-3 min. Add tomato paste to color and taste. Result should be paste, without excess water, so it does not change the ratio of rice to water.
Main: In rice cooker, combine rice and water. Ratio of rice to water is important. Add vegetable base paste. Turn on rice cooker. Rice cooker automatically boils and cooks until water is gone, 30 min, then steams warm, 15 min. After steaming 15 min, open lid and stir lightly to separate grains.
Finish: Add fresh coriander, and sprinkle and mix lemon juice, to taste, adding only 1/2 tsp at a time. 

I would happily add whole olives for special occasions.
Compare with Indian Tomato Rice, which is very similar, and we see different spices: Spanish may spice with oregano, and add olives or olive oil; Indian may spice with ginger and turmeric. Both likely spice with bay, cumin, coriander, salt and pepper.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pita Pagach

Pagach is a Slavic or Eastern Europe dish of flat bread and topping, traditional for meatless fast days and Christmas Eve. Topping can be potato or cabbage. Served open faced like pizza or folded like calzone. My father remembers his mother making Pagach. Easy to make with whole wheat pita rounds instead of dough and bread from scratch.

6 whole wheat pita rounds
1/2 medium onion; chopped
2 large potatoes
1/2 tsp cumin; ground
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp salt
handful fresh parsley

To start the topping, in small saucepan, brown onion, 10-20 min. Can save time by browning onions in batches and using saved brown onions. While onions are browning, either boil potatoes with skins until soft, then slip skins and break up, or microwave until soft, cut open and scoop out inside. Grind cumin seed to coarse powder in spice grinder, 10 sec. Deglaze onions with a splash of water and turn down heat. Avoid high heat which can burn paprika. Add cumin, paprika and salt. Mix in potato.
Spread topping onto pita round, and top with fresh parsley. Bake in 400 F oven 7-10 min. Or toast in toaster oven ~3-4 min until bread is just golden and crisp and topping warm. Serve hot and whole.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pita Pizza

Simple and quick favorite; uses prepared marinara sauce. My California-Mexican style toppings are usually always available in the kitchen. Yes, on the table in less than 5 minutes! Serve with one or more antipasta, vegetable or fruit salads.

1 whole wheat pita round
2 tbsp marinara sauce
2 tbsp red sweet pepper chopped
2 tbsp red onion chopped
1 tsp red chili pepper
handful fresh cilantro leaves chopped
1 clove garlic crushed, sliced thin
1 small fresh tomato garden or farmers market
1 tbsp roasted red pepper sliced
1 handful fresh basil shredded

Spread marinara sauce onto pita round. Top with sliced red pepper, onions and cilantro. Bake in 400 F oven 7-10 min. Or toast in toaster oven ~3-4 min until bread is just golden and topping warm. Cut into triangles and serve.