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How to battle back against processed food and excessive sodium

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By Norm Harding, Reporter

Ask anyone about salt and they’ll tell you it’s bad for you. Well, they’re wrong. Salt is not bad for you. Your body needs it to function properly.

What’s bad for you is excessive salt, or actually, the sodium part of salt.

Americans consume an estimated 4,000-4,500 mg of salt a day. We only need 500 mg a day, and it’s recommended we get no more than 2,400 mg a day—about the amount in one teaspoon of salt.

At one time, salting was one of the only ways to preserve food. Although that’s not the case today, salt remains a common ingredient in many processed foods. Salt makes soups more savory, reduces dryness in crackers and pretzels, and increases sweetness in cakes and cookies. Salt also helps disguise metallic or chemical aftertastes in products such as soft drinks.

Only 25 percent of your daily supply of salt comes from the saltshaker. Most of the rest comes from processed and packaged foods. Manufacturers add loads of sodium to food, both for flavor and to keep it fresh. Even non-salty foods like cereal are loaded with sodium. So the best way to do battle against salt is to cut back on packaged or prepared foods.

Acorn Squash with Apples

Acorn squash is a good source of vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber. Serve this dish with whole-grain crackers and a small wedge of your favorite cheese (140 mg sodium per serving).

1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and sliced

2 Tbsps. brown sugar

1 small acorn squash, about 6-inches in diameter

2 tsps. fat-free margarine

In a small bowl, mix together the apple and brown sugar; set aside.

Pierce the squash several times with a sharp knife to let the steam escape during cooking. Microwave on high until tender, about 5 minutes. Turn the squash after 3 minutes to ensure even cooking. Place the squash on a cutting board and cut in half. Scrape the seeds out of the center of each half and discard the seeds. Fill the hollowed squash with the apple mixture. Return the squash to the microwave and cook until the apples are softened, about 2 minutes.

Transfer the squash to a serving dish. Top each half with one teaspoon margarine and serve immediately. Makes 2 servings.

Balsamic Roast Chicken

Balsamic vinegar has a dark color and rich flavor. Combined with a hint of brown sugar, this vinegar makes a sauce that’s much healthier than traditional high-fat gravy (108 mg sodium per serving).

1 whole chicken, about 4 pounds

1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary or 1 tsp. dried rosemary

1 garlic clove

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

8 sprigs fresh rosemary

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 tsp. brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the chicken inside and out with cold running water; pat dry with paper towels.

In a small bowl, mince together the rosemary and garlic. Loosen the chicken skin from the flesh, and rub the flesh with olive oil and then the herb mixture. Sprinkle with black pepper. Place 2 rosemary sprigs into the cavity of the chicken. Truss the chicken.

Place the chicken into a roasting pan and roast for 20 to 25 minutes per pound, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Whole chicken should cook to an internal temperature of 180 degrees. Baste frequently with pan juices. When browned and juices run clear, transfer the chicken to a serving platter.

In a small saucepan, combine the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. Heat until warmed but don’t boil.

Carve the chicken and remove the skin. Top the pieces with the vinegar mixture. Garnish with the remaining rosemary sprigs and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Ginger-Marinated Grilled Portobello Mushrooms

Because of their larger size and firmer texture, portobello mushrooms are good candidates for stuffing or grilling. They have a satisfying taste and texture with virtually no fat or sodium (10 mg sodium per serving).

4 large portobello mushrooms

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup pineapple juice

2 Tbsps. chopped fresh ginger, peeled

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil

Clean mushrooms with a damp cloth and remove stems; place in bowl and set aside.

To prepare the marinade: In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, pineapple juice and ginger. Drizzle the marinade over the mushrooms. Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for about one hour, turning mushrooms once.

Grill or broil the mushrooms on medium heat, turning often, until tender, about 5 minutes on each side. Baste with marinade to keep from drying out. Using tongs, transfer the mushrooms to a serving platter. Garnish with basil and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Dilled Pasta Salad with Spring Vegetables

Rice vinegar is a clean-tasting, brisk condiment favored in Asian kitchens. White wine vinegar reflects the characteristics of white wine and is thought to have more “bite”. Use either type of vinegar in the dressing for this dilled pasta salad (6 mg sodium per serving).

For the dressing:

1/4 cup olive oil

2 Tbsps. lemon juice

2 Tbsps. rice or white wine vinegar

2 tsps. dill weed

Cracked black pepper, to taste

3 cups uncooked shell pasta, medium-sized

8 asparagus spears, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes

1 cup sliced green peppers

1/2 cup chopped green onions

In a small bowl, add the olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, dill weed and black pepper. Whisk to mix evenly; set dressing aside.

Fill a large pot 3/4 full with water and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (tender), 10 to 12 minutes, or according to the package directions. Drain the pasta thoroughly and rinse under cold water.

In a small saucepan, cover the asparagus with water. Bring to a boil and cook only until tender-crisp, about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water.

In a large bowl, add the pasta, asparagus, tomatoes, green peppers, onions and dressing. Toss to mix evenly. Cover and refrigerate. Serve chilled. Makes 8 servings.

Norm Harding is a cooking columnist for the Beacon. To send him recipes, e-mail him at nharding@brunswickbeacon.com.