Turns Out Not Eating Salt Is Not the End of the World
Five flavorful dishes that demonstrate the beauty of your other options
It’s not a sexy problem to have, but it’s one that almost half of Americans share: Our doctors want us to eat less salt. They’re not wrong—too much sodium can increase the likelihood of hypertension, and hypertension is a scourge, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and a contributor to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. every year. See? Not sexy! (I warned you.)
Here’s the bad news, which I’ve mentioned before: There is no substitute for salt. It’s a singular ingredient, incomparable and alluring and essential. There’s just too much of it around these days, that’s all, and many of us are not built for it. And so, we get creative.
The best and most effective way to reduce salt in your diet is to ditch the prepackaged snacks and processed foods, and eschew the drive-thru. But you can also reduce the salt you use at home, in ways that don’t feel like undue deprivation. Honest.
The secret is to trick your palate and give it something else to chew on. Which brings me to the good news: Your arsenal is bigger than you think. A glug of chili oil tossed with the pasta and you’ll forget the absent parmesan. A crunchy corn meal coating on fried tofu and you’ll forgive the lack of salty breadcrumbs. Be liberal with aromatics. Go hard on caramelization. Bloom spices in oil. Brown the butter, toast the grains, double the herbs (hell, triple the herbs), add another spice to the blend. Keep the acids—citrus, vinegar, etc.—close at hand. Your mind is open, so fill it with new ideas.
And, remember, you always have an ace in your pocket for when the craving comes on too strong: A small scrunch of flaky, mineral-rich sea salt, showered over your otherwise-saltless supper just as you dig in, will give your tongue the feedback it seeks with a relatively light footprint on the rest of your body. A pinch in the bucket.
Keep reading for five of my new favorite salt-free recipes.
Lemon-Chili Spaghetti with Tuna and Tons of Herbs
Makes: 4 servings
Time: About 45 minutes
Tossing the just-cooked noodles with chili oil, rather than waiting to add it at the table (though you should do that, too), delivers heat in every bite. I like about 3-4 tablespoons of oil, but I like it hot—feel free to adjust down (or up!) to suit your taste. You will likely have leftover chili oil (lucky you); keep it in a tightly-sealed jar in the fridge and it will last for a couple of months. You can also buy chili oil—there are endless varieties—but read the labels carefully to avoid stealth sodium. Same rule applies for canned tuna; many brands offer a no-sodium product. Use whatever herbs you love. My druthers here is parsley, because I love its bitter edge, but marjoram, dill, basil, oregano—alone or in combination—would be great too. Just don’t skimp. Zest the lemons before you juice them.
1/4 cup red pepper flakes
1/2 cup olive oil
1 pound spaghetti
1 chubby shallot, sliced thin
2-3 fat garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1/4 cup lemon juice plus 2 tablespoons zest (about 2 lemons)
2 cans or jars (5 to 7 ounces each) tuna packed in olive oil
2 cups chopped fresh parsley or other fresh herbs
1. Make the chili oil. Put the red pepper flakes into a heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat oil until very hot but not smoking, about 3 minutes. (If you have an instant-read thermometer, oil should read 375 degrees F.) Carefully pour oil over chilies. Set aside to cool completely, at least 30 minutes.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook spaghetti until al dente, about 7 to 8 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of cooking water. Return noodles to now-empty pot and toss with 3-4 tablespoons chili oil. (This makes a pretty hot dish; add less if you’re not a fan of heat.) Cover and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons chili oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add shallot and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Add garlic, stir for 30 seconds, and reduce heat to low. Stir in lemon juice and zest and simmer, allowing liquid to reduce by half. Add another spoonful of chili oil, scooping deep into the bowl to bring up plenty of chili flakes—you want those too.
4. Add noodles to the skillet with a glug of pasta cooking water and toss, adding more water in small splashes if needed for consistency. Add most of the herbs and toss. Use a fork to break up tuna into large-ish chunks, then throw that in too. Shower the rest of the herbs on top. Serve in hot bowls, with extra chili oil at the table.
— Recipe developed by Tucker Shaw
Turkey Meatballs with Roasted Tomatoes and Tahini
Makes: 4 servings
Time: About 30 minutes active time, plus about 90 minutes unattended
Roasting plum tomatoes concentrates them into intense, complex, sweet-tannic little bites. To avoid salt in the meatballs, I use no-sodium matzo meal instead of bread crumbs—check the label to be sure it contains no sodium. If you can’t find matzo meal, just blitz a few matzo squares in the food processor. Use dark turkey meat for juicier meatballs, or lamb, if you like lamb. Some tahini brands add salt, but many don’t. Check the label. The tomatoes need to cook for up to 90 minutes, so don’t wait til you’re hungry to start this recipe. (You can make the tomatoes several days in advance and keep them in the fridge—and if in the meantime you change your mind about serving them with meatballs, put them on a sandwich or in a bowl of pasta.) These meatballs would be great with a salad of cubed cucumber, shallot, and parsley. Recipe serves four people, with leftovers for lunch tomorrow.
Ingredients for the tomatoes:
2 pounds plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2-3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
Ingredients for the meatballs:
2 pounds ground dark meat turkey
1/2 cup unsalted matzo meal
1 large egg plus one yolk
1 cup chopped parsley
Zest from 1 lemon
Cracked black pepper
Ingredients for the tahini:
1/2 cup tahini paste
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon olive oil
Juice from half a lemon, plus more if needed
1. Prepare the tomatoes: Heat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut tomatoes into quarters, lengthwise, and remove pulp and seeds. Toss tomatoes with olive oil, sugar, and cayenne. Spread over baking sheet in a single layer and bake until they’re dried out and have begun to darken, about 60-90 minutes. Let cool on the sheet then remove to a bowl (some may stick to the parchment). Toss with fresh thyme and set aside.
2. Increase oven temperature to 425°F. In a large bowl, use your hands to mix together turkey, matzo meal, egg and yolk, parsley, lemon zest, and pepper. Roll into 24 meatballs. Don’t pack them too tight, or they’ll be tough. Arrange meatballs, evenly spaced, on sheet pan and bake until browned and cooked through, about 25 minutes.
3. While meatballs cook, whisk together tahini, yogurt, olive oil, and lemon juice. If consistency is too thick, whisk in a drizzle or two more olive oil. If you want more zing, add a bit more lemon juice. Serve meatballs with tomatoes on the side, and tahini drizzled with abandon. If you’ve got some more parsley around, throw that over the top, too.
— Recipe developed by Tucker Shaw