Tell us your story. Why did you embrace a no-salt diet?
Shortly after my twenty-first birthday, I went from wrestling for the perfect dorm room to fighting for my life. The autoimmune disease, Lupus, was aggressively attacking my kidneys and brain. After three months of chemotherapy, dialysis, and amazing medical care, I survived; my kidneys, however did not.
From the beginning, though, I was determined to do whatever I could, on top of medicine, to give myself the best chance of staying strong. That meant taking on a strict, no-salt, low-sodium diet. But as a very stubborn twenty-something, I was equally resolute to taste and experience everything life had to offer me. That meant rewriting the low-sodium rules.
Today, I live on medication and diet alone, having been off of dialysis and the kidney transplant for over seven years. I cook with love and respect and joy. I eat more adventurously than I did before restrictions.
How do you go about altering your favorite recipes?
I love the task of “salt-freeing” super salty recipes. Like an Iron Chef challenge, I feel like I get total creative license in order to successfully use the secret ingredient (or, in this case, not use it). Which means that I start with a traditional dish, and using imaginative and playful swaps, then I end up with something familiar but new and fun.
What other ingredients do you rely on to create big flavors without salt? Do you recommend salt substitutes?
I’ll start with a quick word on salt substitutes. They can be a great way to begin weaning off of the shaker. But many salt substitutes replace the sodium chloride with potassium-chloride, which can cause medical issues for some kidney patients and those on certain medications. So if you’re using salt-substitutes, be sure to check with your doctor or registered dietitian.
Personally, instead of trying to replicate salt, I find it is more exciting to replace it. When it comes to taste buds, the surprise of something unfamiliar will always win over an imitation. So I am personally partial to using exotic spices, chili peppers, citrus, salt-free garlic and onion powder and celery seed as the best ways to perk up the palate after kicking back on the salt. From there, I also recommend looking beyond the spice rack and using the oven, the grill, and the slow cooker to add and enhance flavor in your food.
Do you have any favorite recipes that went from big salt to no salt?
Almost all the recipes I create these days are makeovers of the saltiest dishes I can think of. But one of my absolute favorites is my salt-free Bloody Mary, which is in my new cookbook. Between the prepared vegetable juice (over 150 mg of sodium per cup depending on product), Tabasco and Worcestershire (around 200mg for just a few dashes of both), the horseradish, salted rim, and pickled vegetables, just one glass can drink up a huge chunk of your daily recommended intake. So I wanted to tackle this beloved cocktail and find a way to greatly reduce the sodium while keeping all the classic flavors.
How do you limit sodium when dining out?
Limiting sodium while dining out is not as difficult as it seems. There are a few really simple steps you can take that make eating beyond the kitchen effortless and tasty.
First, good communication is essential. Early on, I realized that, if I focused on the “can dos” instead of just the “cannots,” chefs were much more willing and enthusiastic to take on the challenge of salt-free food. I always keep a laminated dining card with me that lists my needs and gets easily passed from the waiter or waitress to the kitchen— ensuring that nothing gets lost in translation. Secondly, you must know how food is cooked. This will help you stay away from salty key words on menus, like cured, brined, pickled, blanched. Finally, gratitude goes a long way. Sending your thanks to the kitchen or even writing the restaurant a thank you note makes a big impact. Simply put, the more you create a relationship with those that feed you, the better you will eat.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing your first cookbook?
Waiting for it to come out! So many people have been given the opportunity to improve their health with food, which seems like a no-brainer. Yet, no one is taking the bait. So what’s the problem here? The messaging.
For a long time, we’ve talked about low-sodium diets as something outside of the normal food circle. It’s food that “makes due” instead of food that makes a delicious dinner party. And in that moment, when people receive a medical diagnosis as well a dietary restriction, they not only feel like they’ve lost their health, but their culinary membership. But this book means to flip the conversation and welcome a low-sodium diet back to the table. It aims to refocus on all the gains instead of losses.
If you had to choose, what’s your favorite recipe from the book and why?
One of my favorite recipes are my Chicken Wraps With Plum Sauce. This was one of my first huge high-sodium makeover successes. I grew up on a lot of Chinese takeout, so this was a dish I greatly missed—especially that sweet and savory plum sauce. But when I simply broke the ingredients and tastes down, I realized that it might not be so difficult to recreate.