Before making the change to a low-sodium diet, Jess Goldman Foung, the author of the popular blog Sodium Girl, was like a lot of Americans who ate fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, not nearly enough servings of vegetables and rarely strayed from her comfort zone of basic food groups.
With a degree from Stanford and a budding career as a Development Manager, Jess was becoming an expert at fundraising and grant writing, and loved it. Her body, however, did not.
“The autoimmune disease, Lupus, was aggresively attacking my brain and my kidneys and after three months of chemo, dialysis, and amazing medical care, I survived. My kidneys didn’t, ” she says.
After researching and educating herself, Jess realized she needed to take her health into her own hands, and she started with nutrition. “I swore I would do what I could with my own two hands to help stay strong and live a full life and that meant going on a strict low-sodium diet. But I also happened to be an extremely stubborn person, who refused to eat dull food or miss out on anything life had to offer. So that meant rewriting the low-sodium rules.”
“After a tough-love session with my mother, who asked, ‘Do you want to live five years or fifty years?” I realized I needed to quit my job and find a career that let me take care of myself,” Jess acknowledges. “It wasn’t until a fateful day when I watched two movies back-to-back —Julie and Julia and then Food, Inc.—that I realized what I should do: 1) blog and 2) write about the power of food.”
And that she does with the release of her new book Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook.
Jess and her husband Alejandro
Jess hasn’t let the banished flavor of salt restrain her love of cooking and creating. It’s simply defined it. Through her tips, tricks and recipes, Jess has taken control of her own health and now is helping others do the same. Whole foods play a major part of her diet, with sodium-packed, pre-packaged foods getting the heave-ho.
As Jess states in her new book, according to Malcolm Gladwell‘s calculations it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert in any given field. Given those stats and the fact that Jess has logged more than eight years and over 70,000 hours creating, eating and enjoying a low-sodium diet, she certainly could be called an expert when it comes to de-saltifying your meals but keeping them full of flavor.
Flavor. And personality. Jess has plenty of both.
So what do you eat when you’re cooking the low-sodium way? Jess’s favorites include some of the obvious like fruit, baked potatoes, yogurt and steamed rice. But she also sheds light on great low-sodium options like Frosted Mini-Wheats, baby food (!) and canned fish that are all within the salt-free eating options.
Instead of bottled teriyaki sauce try a combination of molasses and rice wine vinegar and instead of using high-sodium hard cheeses for white sauce, try blended cauliflower, a low-sodium ricotta or coconut milk.
And her best salt substitutes? Try salt-free garlic powder, a squeeze of citrus, and chili pepper all help enhance and brighten the other ingredients, just like salt.
Jess challenged a few bloggers to recreate a recipe from their blog that is heavy in salt, converting it to a low-sodium option. I gladly adorned my Wonder Woman bracelets and accepted her challenge.
I didn’t have to think twice of which recipe that would be part of Sodium Girl’s for FoodieCrush: Truffle Bacon Popcorn: a salt lover’s dream and healthy artery’s nightmare. So how did I make it over? Here’s the nuts and bolts.
The basic premise of air-popped popcorn stayed. But out went the sodium laden bacon and farewell to my tastey truffle salt. Hello to sweet brown sugar and hot mama spices to replace the salt and kick up the flavor. Sweet and spicy made a great substitution including Jess’s suggestions of chili pepper, plus dry roasted, unsalted Marcona almonds offered an added bit of protein and heartiness to the snack.
Sweet and Spicy Popcorn with Marcona Almonds
- ¼ cup light brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon chili powder
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 4 cups air popped popcorn
- ¾ cup dry roasted , unsalted Marcona almonds
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Mix brown sugar, chili powder, cinnamon and cayenne pepper in a small bowl and set aside.
- Combine popcorn and almonds in a large bowl. Place butter in a small bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir and then microwave for another 30 seconds.
- Pour over popcorn and almonds, stir and then toss with half of brown sugar mixture. Stir, taste and add more of the brown sugar mixture to taste.
I asked Jess which recipes from the book were some of her favorites? “The salt-free pickle recipes (there are several ideas for everything from cumin scented carrots to kimchi) and my Salt-Free Bloody Marys. They’re my favorites because I think they tend to make converts out of the most skeptical people.”
Congrats on your book debut Jess, and thanks for being our foodie crush.
1. Describe your blog in 3 words:
Colorful, playful, informative. (Hopefully that whole salt-free thing is just an afterthought.)
2. If you could be one food blogger other than yourself, who would you be?
Not to be creepy, but I just adore Joy the Baker. Of course, because she has such a killer sense of humor and a killer sense of style. I mean, she wears blazers. But I think I’d be Joy for a day mostly because that girl can bake. And I, my friend, am not a baker. As I say in the book, I’m an adder, a thrower-inner, an improviser. Not a measurer or ingredient-reader. Which is why all my baking projects usually end up in the compost or sprinkled on ice cream. So I would be her because then I’d have beautiful cookies and cakes to eat all the time.
3. Which 3 blogs do you follow/are obsessed with/can’t live a day without?
Joy the Baker (see number 2), 101 Cookbooks because when I don’t know what to cook for dinner I look to her recipe log, and Cheryl Sternman Rule who makes me laugh out loud all the time. There’s also Hogwash by Jess Thomson who’s my doppleganger in life, so I can’t leave her out. And of course you, how can I not write you! Oh, and Spoon Fork Bacon. I love those girls and their website is just so beautiful. Clearly I’m bad at this whole three blog thing.
4. What is the one kitchen tool you could never give up?
The rice cooker. It’s my sous chef on nights when I’m starving and I don’t have the energy to cook. I throw some green onion, shiitake, and rice in that ‘ol thing and let it rip. Saute some veggies while I wait, pour on the rice wine vinegar when it’s done, and sit down and eat. If you have no other room for anything else, this is your essential item. And it is really coming in handy now with this whole baby deal. You barely even need one hand to set it up. And when it comes to low-sodium food (and babies), quick meals, quick clean up, and convenience can’t be beat.
5. What dish are you obsessed with mastering that you just can’t get quite right?
Bacon. It’s pretty much the only salty food I haven’t been able to remix and remaster. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried. And it did not end up well. But with all those molecular gastronomists in the world, I have a feeling I might be able to make some sort of salt-free replica at some point!
6. What did you have for dinner last night?
Curried butternut squash and chickpea stew with cumin and smoked paprika spiced chicken thighs. Did I mention I’m having salt-free peking duck and plum sauce tonight?
7. What’s one secret talent outside of the kitchen nobody knows about you?
Um, I love to dance. Like, dance when there’s no music. Especially when there’s lots of people around. And sometimes, I even have tap shoes in my purse, just in case.
8. You’re happiest when cooking/eating:
Jook. It is my absolute comfort food and the perfect way to use up leftover chicken parts (if you buy whole birds). I’d eat it morning, noon, and night. It contains luscious shiitake mushrooms, plump rice full of rich chicken broth, and steaming savory smells. I love putting in yuba skins (tofu), green onion, and fried garlic. Confession: sometimes I eat so much, I get the meat sweats.
9. You share in your new book tons of tips on how to recreate favorite recipes the salt-free way. What are the three easiest ways to incorporate salt-free alternatives into family meals?
First, remember that whole foods contain their own natural flavors: raw radishes are peppery, mushrooms contain natural umami, beets and celery contain a high amount of natural sodium. Use them to boost the flavor in your meals.
Second, roasting, grilling, and reducing can add and enhance a lot of flavor to your food. So remember to see your oven, grill, and slow-cooker as flavor-enhancers as well.
And finally, EXPLORE! The more you try unfamiliar ingredients, meats, spices, and cuisines, the more surprised your palate will be and the less it will miss the salt.
10. The one secret ingredient to your success is:
Seeing obstacles and challenges as motivators. The best advice I got when I was in fundraising was that every no was just a 15% yes, and with charm, patience, and perseverance you could easily change things around. I’ve applied that to everything in my life, from Lupus to making salt-free pigs in a blanket. And so far, it’s serving me pretty well.