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Taking on “Recipes for Health”

Martha Rose Shulman’s “Recipes for Health” column in the New York Times typically offers quick stir-fry vegetarian fare that anyone can do at home. Shulman is a good and popular cookbook author, and I give her credit for her intentions. But the column reveals some serious flaws in her understanding when it comes to the actual healthiness of the recipes.

First, the recipes never include standard nutritional breakdowns. I wouldn’t expect that for glamor food magazines, but any major newspaper or magazine claiming “healthy” recipes should declare the nutrition stats per serving so people can gauge calories, fats, carbs, fiber, and especially, because we’re not used to thinking consciously about it these days, salt.

And salt is where Shulman’s recipes go seriously wrong. Time after time, they contain surprisingly and unnecessarily high salt per serving. Where does it come from? Take this week’s recipe, “Stir-Fried Snow Peas with Soba”. It’s basically Japanese whole-wheat noodles (soba) with snow peas and tofu in a peanut sauce, and serves four. Seems simple enough, but the ingredients Shulman chooses are hiding an awful lot of extra salt:

* You expect the soy sauce to contain salt. OK. It’s only a tablespoon. But it isn’t the reduced-sodium version–and why isn’t it?–so figure  1200 mg.
* Half a cup of vegetable or other broth–also not specified low-sodium. Figure 250-500 mg sodium; maybe even more.
* Salt “to taste”–TV chefs tend to sprinkle in a pinch or more. Figure 1/8-1/4 teaspoon, 300-600 mg, if you imitate them.
* Peanut butter. Not specified unsalted. Figure 1 tablespoon is 100 mg.
* And then there’s the soba itself. Ordinary Italian-style whole wheat spaghetti or fettucine has almost no sodium in it, just flour and water, but authentic Japanese soba dough contains quite a bit, 250 mg or so per serving. Times four is about 1000 mg.

Grand total for 4 servings: 2300-2800 mg, or 600-700 mg sodium per serving.

If that’s your whole dinner, ok, but most of that sodium could easily be cut without sacrificing taste. Plus, two ounces of snow peas per person isn’t enough to call it vegetabalia and get away with it in my book. You’ll notice that the glossy photo in Shulman’s article shows a generous two snow pea pods, a few slices of radish, and none of the promised cubes of tofu–her version’s a side dish, not a proper meal. Let’s revise this one.

Peanut or Sesame sauce:

  • 3-4 T. peanuts-only peanut butter (I like the crunchy kind better), or tehina (sesame paste)–more calories but more flavor than Shulman’s, more unsaturated fat, and more protein and iron. And a little fiber.
  • 1-2 t. low-sodium soy sauce–half the salt of regular, all the fermented soy
  • 1/2 – 1 t. toasted sesame oil if you have some on hand–strong flavor goes a long way.
  • grated ginger and garlic to taste — 1/2 inch ginger, 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 t curry powder (unsalted), or a pinch or two of ground cumin
  • 1-2 t. vinegar–any kind you have; don’t waste expensive ones.
  • chopped scallions
  • Hot pepper flakes or cayenne instead of hot pepper oil. No calories, and a lot cheaper and easier to find. Or use a bit of z’khug.

Mix sauce ingredients, then drizzle in water a little at a time while stirring. The nut butter will seize up at first, then smooth out as you mix.Stop adding water when the sauce is thick but pourable. NO vegetable broth, no extra salt.

Other possibilities:

Use baba ghanouj (1 eggplant nuked 10 min, 2 T tehina, 1/2 c plain nonfat yogurt or juice of half a lemon, 1/2 t cumin, 1 big clove garlic) as your sauce instead of the peanut sauce–eyeball the amount you want to add to the cooked noodles, sprinkle on hot pepper flakes as desired.

Use nonfat plain milk-and-cultures-only yogurt in place of water as the thinner for the peanut or sesame sauce and serve the dish warm or cold, just not hot enough to break the yogurt.

Noodles:

Skip the soba and use whole wheat fettucine, linguine, or spaghetti. That’s half the salt right there and a lot cheaper. And cook it in unsalted water. I don’t care what Lidia Bastianich and Marcella Hazan say, the supposed taste differences are too subtle to count.

Vegetables:

Add, or substitute altogether, a large stalk of broccoli, which goes very well with peanut sauce. Use the whole stalk–cut it into florets, peel the stalk and slice  crosswise into coins. And/or cauliflower. And/or zucchini. If you’re on a serious budget, use frozen peas and/or green beans or, if you can get them much on sale, frozen sugar snap peas rather than snow peas, which are elegant but usually hideously pricy at about $3-6/lb.  And maybe add some shredded green cabbage.

You can save on stirfrying too if you nuke your vegetables in a few spoonfuls of water, covered, about 2 1/2 to 3 minutes for 2.5 cups of vegetables, before draining and tossing with the cooked noodles and sauce. They’ll be jewel green and crisp-tender, which is what stirfrying is about, but without the fat and the greasy pan.

Protein:

Cut up and nuke your tofu (about 4 minutes on high on an open microwaveable plate for a 14-19 oz. pad) to get much of the liquid out quickly. Then stirfry it. Or you can add it cold but pressed for about half an hour to get some of the water out, your choice. Either way, add enough to give the dish some substance if it’s going to be an actual meal. And/or add some just-hardboiled eggs sliced in half or quarters on top of the noodles (more a Malaysian and Korean thing but good) and drizzle a little peanut sauce artistically over them. Sprinkle some cilantro and/or roasted peanuts or sunflower seeds on top.

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