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Tips to make low-sodium dishes taste great

By Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Low-sodium salmon with cucumber-dill sauce, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

This is actually true: If you go to the Food Network website and look for low-sodium recipes, you will find one for Instant Pot Corned Beef and Cabbage.

Corned beef? Low sodium? The word “corn” in corned beef actually refers to the salt that is used to cure it.

The dish that Food Network promotes as being low in sodium contains 2,172 mg of sodium. That’s almost as much as the recommended amount of sodium for an adult in an entire day (2,300 mg). Someone on a low-sodium diet should aim for more like 1,500 mg for a whole day.

There are plenty of reasons to adopt a low-sodium diet if you need it: It’s better for your heart, it’s better for your blood pressure and it lessens the chance of a stroke.

There is only one reason to not adopt it: Food just doesn’t taste as good.

In my mind, those two considerations are of equal importance. So I set out to cook a few dishes that are low in sodium but still taste great. Corned beef did not play a part in any of them.

The trick to cooking with little sodium is to use strong flavors that aren’t salt to excite and stimulate your taste buds. Acids work particularly well, such as lemon juice or vinegar, and so do hearty herbs and the sharper-tasting spices.

I used these ideas to create three entrées without using any salt at all, and each was better than the last.

OK, the salmon actually could use a little salt on it, and that’s fine. Everyone needs sodium to survive, even people on low-sodium diets. The sauce on the salmon is flavorful enough that it only needs a minimal amount of added salt. You’ll be fine.

It occurred to me that the best way to perk up a pork chop without using salt would be to serve it with a gastrique. In all modesty, I’d have to say that was brilliant.

A gastrique is a reduction of vinegar and sugar or honey that turns into a sweet-and-sour syrup. You can pump it up with fruit if you want, but I made an exquisitely simple version: nothing more than honey and cider vinegar that, when reduced, brings out the apple flavor of the cider vinegar.

I also cooked the pork chops simply, with butter, slices of apple (to play off the tart apple taste of the gastrique) and onion. I used bone-in pork chops because they taste better and cooked them for only a few minutes on each side in the mixture of apples and onion. I wanted the gastrique to be the star in this dish, and it was.

It absolutely was.

Next up was lemon chicken, a dish I often make using salt. Typically, I marinate the chicken for an hour or so in a lemon-based marinade and then I grill it. Less frequently, I bake it.

But I wanted to make my salt-free chicken on the stove top, so I decided to braise it. It’s one of my favorite ways to cook chicken.

All you have to do is sear the chicken on both sides in olive oil or butter infused with garlic and thyme or rosemary. I usually pour off the fat, which can be considerable, and then add enough liquid to come up about 1 inch in the pan.

Usually, I use chicken stock, but that has salt in it. So I added water, along with the juice of two lemons. Then I covered the pan, simmered it until it was done and used a cornstarch slurry to turn the braising liquid into a zippy, salt-free gravy.

That brought me to the salmon. I decided to poach it as a way of imbuing it with plenty of low-sodium flavor. My poaching liquid was full of goodness: carrot, onion, celery, the juice of a lemon and that lemon’s peel. The fish only took a few minutes to cook.

What made the salmon such a low-sodium treat was the sauce I served it with, a kind of simplified tzatziki. I started with plain Greek yogurt (less sodium than regular yogurt) and stirred in some lemon juice, chopped cucumber and salmon’s favorite herb, dill.

It was luscious. It was fabulous. It was delicious.

And maybe it needed just a little bit of salt.


Pork chops with gastrique, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)


Yield: 2 servings

1/4 cup honey

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 large onion, sliced thin

1/2 large apple, sliced thin

2 pork chops

1. Heat the honey in a small saucepan over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, until it becomes a noticeably deeper shade of brown. Add the vinegar and continue to cook, swirling the pan a few times, until the sauce has thickened to the consistency of thin maple syrup. Set aside and keep warm.

2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add slices of onion and apple, and sauté until onion is translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add pork chops and cook 3 minutes on one side, flip, and cook to your desired doneness; the time will depend on the thickness of the chops.

3. Serve with the gastrique spooned on top.

Per serving: 352 calories; 10 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 87 mg cholesterol; 26 g protein; 37 g carbohydrate; 36 sugar; no fiber; 78 mg sodium; 24 mg calcium

Recipe by Daniel Neman. Gastrique slightly adapted from a recipe adapted by David Lebovitz from a recipe by Bobby Flay.

Low-sodium lemon chicken, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)


Yield: 4 servings

3 pounds chicken, cut into serving pieces

1 tablespoon butter

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

3 sprigs fresh thyme or

1/2 teaspoon dried

Juice of 2 large lemons (or 3 small)

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1. Pat the chicken dry. In a large skillet with a lid, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add chicken skin-side down and cook until golden brown on the bottom. Remove garlic, flip chicken and cook until golden brown on the other side. Pour off the grease.

2. Add water to pan to a depth of 1/2 inch. Add lemon juice. Cover and cook at a simmer until chicken is done, around 20 minutes for white meat and 30 minutes for dark. Add more water if necessary. Remove chicken to a platter but keep the heat on under the liquid.

3. Mix cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of water in a small bowl and stir into liquid. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, and cook until thickened. Serve over the chicken.

Per serving: 443 calories; 12 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 256 mg cholesterol; 77 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 154 mg sodium; 23 mg calcium

Recipe by Daniel Neman


Yield: 2 servings

1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt

Juice and peel of 1 lemon, plus 2 wedges of lemon

1/4 cucumber, diced small

1/2 teaspoon dill

2 (4-ounce) salmon fillets

3/4 large onion, roughly chopped

1 rib celery, roughly chopped

1 carrot, roughly chopped

1. An hour before cooking, combine yogurt, juice of 2 lemon wedges, cucumber and dill in a small bowl. Refrigerate until use.

2. Rub fingers over top of salmon fillets to detect pin bones, if any. Remove with tweezers.

3. Fill large skillet with water to a depth of around 1 inch. Add onion, celery, carrot and the juice and peel of 1 lemon. Bring to a simmer. Move aside some of the vegetables and lemon, and gently add the salmon; the liquid should completely cover it. If it doesn’t, add more water. Cook at a simmer until fish is thoroughly cooked and flakes easily, 5 minutes per inch of height.

4. Drain and serve with the cucumber dill sauce. Taste and season with a small amount of salt, if necessary.

Per serving: 259 calories; 11 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 72 mg cholesterol; 30 g protein; 10 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 113 mg sodium; 114 mg calcium

Recipe by Daniel Neman