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Seasoning When You Want Less Salt

Posted Apr 24 2009 7:22am

Heart-healthy diets that restrict cholesterol usually also include a recommendation to limit sodium intake. If you're salt-sensitive and have high blood pressure, your physician has probably recommended cutting back on salt. This advice probably sounded like a sentence to a lifetime of eating bland food, but it needn't be. As you cut back on salt, your taste buds will adjust to this change and soon you'll find lightly salted foods salty enough.

You can bring out the flavor of food with substances other than salt. Adding fresh lemon or lime juice or a dash of vinegar can enhance flavors. Strong herbs and spices, such as garlic, ginger, cayenne, and hot pepper sauce, can also eliminate the need for salt. Or make up some herb and spice mixtures with complex flavors that will keep your mind off the missing salt.

Another way to cut back on salt in your diet is to stay away from seasoned salts, pickle condiments, and salty commercial sauces. Here are some likely suspects:

  • Garlic salt
  • Onion salt
  • Celery salt
  • Lemon-pepper
  • Seasoning blends
  • Hot dog pickle relish
  • Soy sauce
  • Barbecue sauce

When buying seasoning blends, read the label to find out if salt is one of the ingredients. Some brands include salt in fajita seasoning, spice rubs, chili powder, and curry.

Doing the herb shuffle

Herbs are the leaves and soft stems of plants. You can buy them fresh, sold in the produce department of most markets. You can also maintain a supply of fresh herbs by growing them at home. Plant nurseries carry an assortment of these, which change with the season. Often a pot containing a living plant doesn't cost much more than a meager package of fresh herbs at the store. Just set the pot in your kitchen window and harvest a continuing supply.

When shopping for fresh herbs, select those with a healthy green color and avoid those that are limp and yellowing. An herb should have a clean scent.

Your other option is to buy dried herbs, which come whole, flaked, ground, or powdered. They're widely available and easy to measure and require no trimming. The main concern about dried herbs is whether they are old and stale. The flavor in dried herbs comes from their essential oils, which lose their strength and character when exposed to air, heat, and light.

Buy the dried herbs that are packaged in airtight jars rather than those that come in cellophane bags, which can let in air.

To cook with herbs, start out simple by adding just a single herb to a recipe you're preparing, for example basil in tomato sauce or sage in a turkey pot pie. Often one extra flavor note is all you need to elevate an ordinary dish to something special. Certain herbs are best with certain foods. Here's a list of herbs that partner well with various foods.

  • With beef: Bay leaf, rosemary, parsley, chives, marjoram, garlic, savory, and cloves
  • With pork: Sage, savory, cumin, coriander, garlic, rosemary, and bay
  • With poultry: Rosemary, bay, thyme, oregano, savory, garlic, and tarragon
  • With fish: Dill, fennel, garlic, parsley, tarragon, cilantro, and parsley
  • With grain: Parsley, cilantro, mint, savory, garlic, dill, and sage
  • With vegetables: Basil, chives, oregano, garlic, rosemary, tarragon, and parsley

Stepping out with spices

Spices are aromatic or pungent seasonings that come from the bark (cinnamon), the buds (capers), the berries (vanilla), the roots (ginger), the stigmas of flowers (saffron), and the seeds (coriander) of plants. They are always sold dried. Spices are at the heart of such culinary classics as Indian curry, Mexican mole sauce (which also includes chocolate), Chinese Szechwan dishes, and American pumpkin pie. For best results, cook with the freshest, highest quality spices.

Several spices are good for heart health. Ginger thins the blood and enhances circulation. In an animal study conducted in India, ginger was shown to lower cholesterol by stimulating the conversion of cholesterol to bile acids. And turmeric, thanks to a compound called curcumin, helps dampen inflammation that can promote atherosclerosis. Curry powder and the Moroccan spice mixture, ras el hanout, both contain turmeric.

Certain spices are best with specific foods. Here are lists of pairings that give you guaranteed successful combinations:

  • With beef: Onion, garlic, cloves, mustard, ginger, paprika, and pepper
  • With pork: Ginger, garlic, onion, mustard, coriander, cardamom, and allspice
  • With chicken: Cumin, coriander, cinnamon, anise, garlic, turmeric, and sesame
  • With fish: Fennel, capers, onion, garlic, ginger, saffron, and celery seed
  • With grains: Saffron, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, turmeric, garlic, and onions
  • With vegetables: Onions, garlic, ginger, celery seed, nutmeg, capers, and pepper

Both onion and garlic are roots, so they're technically spices, not herbs.

When more is more: A chorus line of complex herb and spice mixtures

When you combine herbs or spices, the results can be symphonic. Some mixtures have become classics, developed over the centuries:

  • Chinese five-spice powder is a pungent mixture of equal parts cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, star anise, and Szechwan peppercorns.
  • Herbes de Provence is a savory blend of basil, fennel seed, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, sage, summer savory, and thyme.
  • Ras el hanout, which comes from Morocco, means literally "head of the shop," referring to the spice shop owners who assemble their own blends. An authentic mixture may contain up to 50 ingredients, including dried rose buds.

Many upscale markets sell these spice mixtures ready-made.

You can also try blending your own spices. Grind the ingredients with a mortar and pestle or in an electric spice grinder. Here are three formulas:

  • Savory herb seasoning: 3 teaspoons basil, 2 teaspoons summer savory, 2 teaspoons celery seed, 2 teaspoons ground cumin seed, 2 teaspoons sage, 2 teaspoons marjoram, and 1 teaspoon thyme, or better yet, lemon thyme
  • Lemon garlic seasoning: 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 1 teaspoon dried basil, and 1 teaspoon dried lemon peel
  • Spicy seasoning: 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, and 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

You can make your own version of ras el hanout with just 11 herbs and spices. Here's what you need:

  • 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons dried ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Put all the spices in a small bowl and thoroughly combine.

If you own only a couple of these spices, you may be hesitant to invest in all the others. In fact, the ingredients in ras el hanout make a great starter set for a spice cabinet. Stock up on all of these useful seasonings.

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