Low Sodium Spotlight: Johanna Chong

Happy New Year, everyone!  Let’s kick 2012 off right with a new & invigorating Low Sodium Spotlight!

Today’s special guest, Johanna Chong, is co-founder of the fabulous Low Sodium Blog.  Johanna and her husband, Jeff, launched the site last spring in order to share their base of low-sodium knowledge with the world.  A feast for the senses in every sense, with inspiring photography, tempting recipes, travel tips & more, Low Sodium Blog offers worlds of flavor for those on a salt-free diet. 

Johanna, first things first. Why a low sodium diet?!

Unlike many of the other low sodium champions, I’m a “voluntary” low-sodium convert – a care-giving family member and not the diagnosis recipient. This December marked the 4th anniversary of my husband’s diagnosis of coronary artery disease and emergency stent; in May, my mother will be celebrating her 4th year (live-donation from her sister) kidney transplant anniversary. Initially, only our family members who adopted low sodium diets related to their health-related diagnoses did so.

The reality of trying to juggle a busy life and trying to cook multiple variations (“regular” vs “low sodium”) of the same dish quickly became overwhelming. Over the years, I’ve moved my pallet and recipes into the “low-sodium spectrum,” converting one dish at a time.

When and why did you start the Low Sodium Blog? Had you always wanted to write about food or was this something that grew out of the diagnoses?

I wrote our first blog entry shortly after Jeff came home from the hospital; unfortunately, life put blogging on the back burner for quite some time. This past spring, several close friends and family members found their way to the start line, running their own low-sodium marathon. Blogging seemed like a good way to share our own experiences (we used to just post photos) — particularly since some of our close friends/relatives are now unable to travel. The blog “launch” was a great way of setting a personal goal (because I only had three, maybe four blog posts when we “launched”); it definitely helps to have a goal!

On Low Sodium Blog you stress using the freshest and best ingredients possible. What inspires you, Johanna?

I spent my early childhood growing up on the prairies in a community where farmland was literally across my backyard, before urban sprawl and pavement set in. Each summer we’d plant a huge garden and eat fresh rhubarb, corn, lettuce, carrots, peas, and more. Harvesting fresh food is such a great experience, regardless of whether the food comes from a small container garden, u-pick, the farmer’s market (and yes, it’s possible to find inspiration in the grocery store); inspiration is a wonderful thing to share. In our own small way, we try to send a little love back to the farmers because they work so very hard to help provide a foundation for healthy eating.

You and your husband are fellow foodies, which I of course LOVE and appreciate! What were meals like before salt was cut out the equation? What’s a typical meal like now? Have things changed for your extended family?

Pre-health condition meals were entirely different: red meat, fried foods, cheese, creamy pastas/sauces… some balance of vegetables and salads, but a lot of “convenience” restaurant or prepared foods, which coincidentally contained a lot of salt. Now we cook and eat healthier: we plan our meals ahead and the blog partly drives this. Dietary changes that are now rules are things like: eating less saturated fat, less fried foods; more fish, lean chicken (no dark meat); grilling and steaming foods; more salads, nuts and whole grains; (surprisingly) more vegetarian and gluten free foods; cream sauces are now an exception rather than the norm; and we no longer cook with added salt. Salt has pretty much disappeared from our kitchen.

Meals with extended family are complex, especially given that many of us have different dietary needs. We’re a motley crew of “special consideration” eaters. Coincidentally, a great way to keep track of special diet considerations at pot luck dinners is by using tent cards that indicate dietary categories — these were introduced by fellow blogger Andrew Wilder and used at a recent LA Food Blogger meeting.

What are some of the low sodium dishes you use to wow “normal” eaters? What are your absolutely favorite salt-free foods, products or recipes?

For non-low sodium eaters, we’ll often cook dishes with more intense flavors, such as:

Easy Cranberry Orange Granola/Bars

Homemade Chicken Soup

Barbequed Oysters or Ceviche

Low Sodium Paella

My taste buds are always on the lookout for something new and innovative; some of our favorite ingredients this year were truffle oil (drizzled on a simple serving of pasta, finished with a sprinkling of black pepper), fresh figs with a very small splash of mascarpone cheese, and saffron.

As readers can see from the dishes above, your site is STUNNING. Do you do all of your own photography, Johanna, or do you have a stylist?

Thanks! We’ve done all of the food sourcing, testing, writing, styling, and photography unless we’ve specifically noted the contributor’s credit (i.e., photos taken by other people at events, etc.).

Sadly, there’s no external food stylist or food photographer, there are days when I really wished we’d had some extra help. Writing a food blog and testing recipes is a lot of work, as you well know. With any given dish, we’ll try a few different approaches: there are often days when the photos or food don’t turn out the way we were expecting them to – we chalk it up to a learning experience and keep at it until we achieve a tasty result (at a minimum, the recipe has to work)… and then we move on.

Low Sodium Blog is more than just delicious food and a pretty face. You also write about travel! Can you talk a bit about what that’s like? How difficult is it to travel on a salt-free diet? Any challenges you’ve conquered?

Wanderlust is a fun thing to experience. Often, we pick places that we know very little about and a couple of key things we want to do, the rest is “unscripted.”

Having said that, traveling on a specialty diet means thinking ahead — especially when food comes into play. Most people usually want to help out, so we do our best to give them an opportunity to be able to accommodate our requests; being prepared ourselves and allowing for plenty of advance notice (i.e., not same day requests) seems to work the best.

I am a big believer that my own lack of planning should not constitute an emergency for someone else.

What’s next, Johanna? Any goals for the site you’d like to achieve in this new year?

One of our goals is to have a smoother year – we hit quite a few potholes in 2011. We’ve since enlisted the help of fellow blogger, Andrew Wilder @ blogtutor.com, and we’re in the process of planning some minor changes to Low Sodium Blog, so keep posted!

The best thing that we can hope for is to be able to expand our repertoire of low sodium recipes, flavors, collaborate with, and make more low-sodium friends – just like you!

Thank you Christy for including us as part of your low-sodium family; we’re looking forward to collaborating on more fun projects this coming year!

You’re so welcome, Johanna!  Wishing you and Jeff all the best in 2012 and beyond. 

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