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Shake the salt habit, but don’t give up flavor

Salt shaker with spilt salt

Salt shaker with spilt salt

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Updated: April 10, 2012 9:58AM

Why does food always seem to taste better in restaurants? One reason is because it’s made with salt, and often lots of it.

And not just fast food. Big-name chefs — from Anthony Bourdain to Girl & the Goat owner and “Top Chef” winner Stephanie Izard to dessert maven/pastry chef Gale Gand — have extolled the virtues of salt as a flavor enhancer.

Ah, but wait a second. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine out of 10 adults consume too much sodium, which can increase blood pressure and the risk for heart attack and stroke. U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that about half of all Americans — people 51 years old or over, African Americans and those with other risk factors — consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day while the rest of the population limit their daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams.

The average American gets far more — 3,300 milligrams, not including salt added at the table. Eeks!

But does cutting down on sodium have to mean cutting out flavor?

No, says, Greg Biggers, executive chef of Cafe des Architectes. “It’s all about finding flavor in other ways,” says Biggers, otherwise “food kind of flatlines.”

One way to ramp up flavor is to use fresh herbs and spices. Jonathan Lane, executive chef at Benny’s Chop House, adds them to marinades, rubs and sauces. For steak, he suggests a marinade of olive oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme, cumin and coriander. For salmon or tilapia, he says, olive oil blended with lemon zest, oil, tarragon, garlic and shallots will add “a nice balance and delicacy that doesn’t overpower.”

Lane says cooking with dried herbs and spices is fine too, but be forewarned: The flavor is normally more pronounced so use them more sparingly( generally, one part dry to three parts fresh).

And to intensify the flavor of whole seed spices such as fennel seeds, coriander and peppercorns, toast them, says Biggers. Want to up the flavor ante even more? Grind the seeds in a coffee bean grinder.

Acid is another way to brighten food. Think vinegar — sherry, champagne, apple cider, red wine or a host of other varieties. Vinegar can give a dish “a punchiness and complexity” says Ellie Krieger, host of the Cooking Channel’s “Healthy Appetite” and author of Comfort Food Fix. For added depth and a touch of sweetness to lentil or split pea soup, try a splash of balsamic vinegar at the end of cooking.

Citrus fruits such as lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange or tangerine get thumbs up, too. Krieger squeezes lime juice into chili, and she uses grapefruit in a salmon topper.

As for other ways to add zing: Krieger says to cook with “aromatics” such as garlic, onion, leeks and ginger, while Chef Lane’s advice is to use a grill — even an indoor one. The smoking and charring will enhance the flavor of steak, chicken, seafood and even vegetables.

And speaking of veggies, several Chicago area chefs, including Scott Halverson, executive chef of Prasino in Wicker Park and La Grange, and Sarah Stegner, chef/co-owner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, say for maximum natural flavor start with organic, local, seasonal produce.

Still, the news for salt lovers isn’t all bad. Krieger, who also is a registered dietitian, says to reduce sodium intake, you don’t have to throw away the salt shaker.

“Use salt judiciously,” she says. “Just don’t lean on it for flavor.”

Judy Marcus is a local freelance writer.

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