Tuesday 16 July 2019

Nutritonal Star: How celery can replace salt in your diet

Rozanne Stevens
Rozanne Stevens
Celery is terrifically healthy food

Rozanne Stevens

Celery is a low calorie, heart-healthy veg that can even help you cut down on salt, writes nutritionist Rozanne Stevens.

Celery is one of those vegetables that some people just loathe with a passion and there is no convincing them otherwise. I've even heard it referred to as 'the devil's work'! A bit harsh, I think, for an innocuous vegetable. But love it or loathe it, celery has some incredible health benefits that make it a nutritional star.

For years, I have recommended to my cookery students to use celery and celery salt in cooking as it has a natural salty flavour without the negative side effects of consuming too much salt. It also contains potassium - which is key in managing high blood pressure.

This alone makes it a wonderfully heart-healthy ingredient. And you can even use the seeds as a seasoning and salt substitute.

Celery has many more heart-health benefits such as phthalides that help relax the arteries and blood vessels, helping reduce blood pressure. Potent antioxidants such as coumarin have great anti-inflammatory benefits to protect heart tissue.

And to top it off, celery has mild diuretic benefits, which helps the kidneys manage water retention. This is often a problem with high blood pressure.

The Harvard Medical Journal recently published a report showing that high-sodium diets, irrespective of other lifestyle factors, still play a dominant role in current cases of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. The unfortunate truth is that we are just not listening to health warnings. Whether it is alerts about eating too much sugar, salt or saturated fat, we have tuned them out.

It's not enough just to say to people to eat less salt. That is easier said than done when it is lurking in so many different foods. The first thing I would do is dramatically reduce all pre-packaged and convenience foods. Breakfast cereals are a real culprit as are the obvious cold meats, ready meals, crisp breads and crackers. And don't be fooled by sweet foods, they often contain almost as much salt as savoury foods.

The second prong of the attack is to cook more of your own meals and snacks from scratch and to look at how much salt you are using. It's easy to add more salt than is necessary without actually tasting your food. Also, be aware that some ingredients - such as stock, soy sauce and condiments like ketchup - are very salty. Make up half-strength stocks and try mustards, tomato paste, vinegar and dried herbs and spices to add flavour without the salt. Flavour bases such as French mirepoix and Italian soffrito are wonderful for adding flavour and extra nutrients.

The last step is to look at your table seasoning. I'm a fiend for freshly ground black pepper and add it to everything. Many people are the same with salt, automatically adding a generous sprinkling, often without even tasting the food first. This can drive the cook bonkers, but I think rather than get in a tizzy, give the salt lover an alternative. Celery salt makes a great table seasoning that satisfies the desire for a salty flavour, but with far less sodium.

Celery salt

You might already have a jar of celery salt in your pantry and never use it. Well now is the time to dig it out or make your own. Celery salt is not just for Bloody Marys! It is great as a seasoning as you cook, instead of salt, and, most importantly, as a table seasoning for the salt fiends. It has a definite salty taste and other savoury and herbaceous notes. You can make celery salt from dehydrated celery stalks, but I find celery seeds work perfectly well.

If you are new to celery salt, you can mix it with sea salt and gradually reduce the salt as you get used to the flavour.

Homemade celery salt

÷ 1/4 cup celery seeds

÷ 1/4 cup coarse sea salt

The best way to grind the seeds and salt together is using a pestle and mortar. Grind the celery seeds and salt to a fine powder. Or you can mix them well and then fill a refillable pepper grinder and grind it as you go.

French mirepoix

Mirepoix is a classic French flavour base that is widely used throughout the cuisine. It is simply made up of finely diced onion, celery and carrot. The onion adds a savoury flavour, the celery a naturally salty flavour and, for balance, the carrot adds a little sweetness. It is surprising how such a simple idea can add so much flavour and nutrients.

Simple mirepoix recipe

2 cups onion, finely diced

1 cup celery, finely diced

1 cup carrot, finely diced

2 tablespoons light olive oil, to saute

I deliberately haven't given you amounts of vegetables as the size of vegetables vary greatly and it's the ratio of the onion, celery and carrot that is important.

Dice up the veggies and place in different bowls. You can eyeball the quantities to see if the ratio is right, or you can even weigh it if you want to be precise. Heat up a little light olive oil in a saucepan and add the veggies.

Cut out or tear a circle of parchment paper and place directly on top of the vegetables.

This is called a cartouche and helps the veggies steam or 'sweat' in their own moisture. Sauté the mirepoix on a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until soft.

Italian soffrito

Italian soffrito is very much like French mirepoix but with added garlic and woody herbs. The recipes vary greatly, it just depends on which dishes you will be using it in. The most important thing to remember is to add the garlic later in the cooking process, so that the natural oils don't burn. Burnt garlic has a horrible flavour and there is no saving it.

I think the best herbs to use in this are rosemary and thyme, or just thyme on its own. They can withstand the long cooking process and they are universal flavours that will suit lots of dishes and cuisines.

You will need:

2 cups onion

1 cup carrot

1 cup celery

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons light olive oil, to sauté

The cooking method is pretty similar to making a mirepoix. Start by gently heating a little olive oil in a saucepan and add the onion, carrot, celery and herbs. Cover with a parchment paper circle (cartouche) and simmer for eight minutes on a medium head, stirring occasionally, until soft.

Add the garlic and cook for a further two to three minutes until the garlic is fragrant and cooked. It doesn't take long at all, so don't overcook the garlic.

How to use mirepoix and soffrito

These flavour bases are really useful coming into autumn and winter when we are cooking more soups and stews. My best advice is to take a couple of hours every few weeks and make up big batches of mirepoix or soffrito and freeze it. I buy the plastic take-away containers and freeze one-cup portions of cooked and cooled mirepoix at a time. I find it best to cook the mirepoix, rather than just freeze the diced raw veggies.

You can then use the mirepoix from frozen. Simply add to a large pot of stew or to start off a soup. If you are making a meat-based stew, brown the meat in the pot first, set aside and then defrost the mirepoix in the pot. You can then add the meat back in, your sauce and continue to cook.

For a soup, defrost the mirepoix or soffrito in the soup pot, add the rest of the vegetables, and continue to simmer. A vegetable soup only needs about 20 minutes to cook then you can serve it chunky or blitz with a blender.

You can use mirepoix to add flavour and nutrition to any minced-meat-based recipes. The favourites would be spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and chilli con carne. Simply brown the meat, add the mirepoix then the rest of your herbs, spices and sauce. This is a great way to hide veggies!

Recipes taken from Relish and Delish cookbooks by Rozanne Stevens. For courses and cookbooks log onto rozannestevens.com.

@RozanneStevens

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