Thursday, January 6, 2011

Life in the Low-Sodium Lane

Four weeks ago, I began my new journey with cardiomyopathy (a weak heart) and congestive heart failure (CHF). This journey brought with it the need for a low-sodium diet. This was reasonably easy to accomplish in the hospital, as the catering group knew that I was on a special diet. Of course, that didn’t stop them from occasionally bringing me something not on my diet. Sometimes I sent it back, sometimes I didn’t. The three weeks spent eating hospital food prepared me for my return home. Basically, I came home with the knowledge that I could make food that tasted so much better than what I was served during my hospital stay. Tastier, and more interesting.

Along with the aforementioned burger, crustless quiche, and breakfast burrito, I also made a Southwest chicken lasagna from a recipe I’d printed out in 1998. The recipe came from a “healthy living” website, but only the fat and calorie content could be considered low. I didn’t calculate the sodium content, but I knew it couldn’t be good. I did my best to lower this by using all low-sodium products and adding more veggies than called for. I’m sure it still exceeded my limit of 600mg of sodium per meal. LA loved the lasagna and gave me the greatest compliment on it: This doesn’t taste healthy. Since we both enjoyed it so well, I plan on making it again, but there will be additional adjustments to make it healthier and lower in sodium. Once I have created a great version, I will be posting a recipe. Until then, you’ll just have to wait.

The home health care group sent out a cardiac nurse to check on me today. She asked if anyone had told me about the diet I was to follow. Only 6 different people, providing me with pages and pages of dietary information. All of which I read, partially out of boredom. So, to answer her question, yes, I am aware of the diet. I ordered two low-salt cookbooks, which arrived yesterday. LA and I both read the labels on everything at the grocery store (if you want to extend your grocery-shopping experience, take the time to read the labels of every item you buy. You’ll be there for hours!). I keep a food log in which I write down everything I eat and drink. Sadly, or maybe not, I actually kept a food log even before I went into the hospital. The nurse looked over my food log and challenged me on a couple of items. “Can you explain how chips and salsa are low sodium?” Yes, I can. The chips only had 30mg of sodium per serving. I may have gone over a serving, but that is beside the point. She did recommend that I start listing the amount of sodium that I am consuming with each item, to ensure that I am staying under 2000mg per day. After doing that for only half a day, I am convinced I’ve been going waaaay over my limit. A serving of Triscuits (135mg) is only 6 crackers. I did know that one, so I’d been pretty good about it. Some of the others were a little more challenging. The garlic melba crackers I love only have 130mg in them, but a serving is 4 crackers. Who only eats 4 crackers? 6 crackers is borderline ridiculous!

With the two new low-sodium cookbooks I got, I now have recipes for everything from low-sodium soy sauce to condensed cream of mushroom soup to fried chicken. I’m looking forward to trying those books to see how things turn out. Both were highly reviewed on Amazon, but I’ll save my reviews until I’ve cooked from both. Tonight’s dinner, sadly, won’t be coming from the new books, but is a recipe from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. The dish is essentially only lentils, black pepper, and brown rice. She also calls for an onion carmelized in an unholy amount of oil, but I am omitting that for the sake of my already weakened heart. LA enjoys the dish with a bit of feta cheese in the onion’s place.

Low-sodium cooking is harder than it may seem, but also easier than I expected. The hardest part is getting used to the taste of normal foods without salt. If you don’t know what I mean, go to McDonald’s and order unsalted fries. LA said it best with, “They taste like potatoes!” The salt does allow the natural flavor of food to come through, and I’m sure the natural flavor is something few of us have tasted in quite some time. As I continue cooking and experimenting, I will be posting more recipes, including the Southwest chicken lasagna. Even salt-eaters are going to like these!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year and All That

Happy 2011!!  I am happy to report that I was able to ring in the New Year in the comfort of my own home, having been discharged from the hospital on Tuesday.  Now that I am no longer being served low-salt, low-taste food on a regular schedule, I am forced to cook my own.  I can't go out to eat--there's too much salt in everything.  I can't buy prepared foods--there's too much salt in everything.  That leaves me to fend for myself.

Having watched (and smelled) LA eat some sad-looking burgers from the hospital cafeteria, I was craving a burger.  I'm sure I could make a healthy version.  And I did.  96% lean ground beef seasoned with black pepper and garlic powder, low-sodium sliced Colby-Jack cheese (thank you, Sargento), lettuce, tomato, and a whole-wheat roll.  The burger was a bit overcooked and dry, and the roll was overtoasted.  Even so, we both agreed it was the best burger ever.  I guess context is everything.  Had we not been burned out on hospital food, we may not have been so enamored of the burger.  As it was our first post-hospital meal, we were thrilled by it.  The meal was rounded out with a baked potato.  I thought about making potato wedges, but just didn't have the energy.  Baked potatoes would have to do.  Fat-free sour cream, low-sodium shredded Cheddar (thank you again, Sargento!), and imitation bacon bits topped the spuds.  Who knew low-sodium could taste so good??  On a side note, imitation bacon bits have lower sodium than real bacon bits, so I am allowed to have them.  On another side note, Morningstar bacon (which we call "facon") tastes just like imitation bacon bits.  Don't waste your money.

The next evening, we were having company and I was feeling a bit lazy.  I cooked up some frozen "Southern-style" hashbrowns, chopped broccoli, and green peas.  This I dumped into a small casserole dish and seasoned with black pepper, my stand-by garlic powder, and some chipotle powder.  I mixed Eggbeaters with milk to create the custard, then poured it over the veggies, then topped it all with more of my low-sodium shredded cheddar.  I baked it for 50 minutes at 375 degrees, and it came out puffed up and golden.  I'll admit it was a tad spicy, but LA and I were thrilled with the outcome.  He even went back for seconds!  The leftovers were combined with more Eggbeaters and hashbrowns, then wrapped in a tortilla, and we had breakfast burritos the following morning. 

I won't lie and say that this whole low-sodium thing is easy, but it's turning out not to be as difficult as I thought.  I can't buy a lot of my old standards at the supermarket, and I'm having to cook a lot more than I was before, since we can't just pop out and grab something.  But it's totally worth it, to keep me alive and keep LA healthy.  More to come on the low-sodium lifestyle!