December 27, 2011 § 5 Comments
Everybody knows that one of the easiest ways to enhance the flavor of a dish is to add butter, cream, stock, or cheese. Our brains are designed to reward us with positive messages when we eat fatty foods. You could call it an evolutionary holdover from more austere times, when we as a species did not have the reliable food sources we now take for granted. And while it is sometimes fun to go crazy, making a rich, decadent meal for you and your friends, on a day to day basis, this kind of cooking is incredibly unhealthy and can get to be very expensive.
So, where do you turn when you want food that is full of flavor, but not unhealthy? You turn to herbs, spices and aromatic vegetables, that’s where. I like to call this assortment of ingredients “free flavor.” Free flavor means seasonings that you can add freely to food to make it delicious, without it being unhealthy or expensive. Herbs and spices are so low in calories that their contribution to an over-all calorie count is negligible, and most contain no fats or sugars. Don’t believe me? Look it up for yourself!
You can find a wide assortment of spices in the bulk bins at health food stores, and even many regular grocery stores. I can’t in good conscience recommend to anyone that they go spend eight dollars on a small jar of cumin when you can get an equivalent amount out of the bulk bin for a fraction of the cost. Some of the spices that I use regularly are garlic powder, cumin, coriander, paprika, turmeric, and of course, black pepper.
Also easily found in bulk bins are dried herbs. While I prefer the bright, aromatic contribution of fresh herbs, dried herbs are convenient and available year around. They are great for adding depth to pasta sauces and meats. I have found that heartier herbs, such as thyme, oregano and sage are more satisfying in dried form than brighter herbs such as parsley, tarragon or cilantro. I feel like the latter end up just tasting grassy and are either best added fresh, or left out entirely. Personal preference. Make your own decision.
Fresh herbs are one of my favorite parts of cooking, especially when doing pastas. While it can be expensive to purchase bundles of fresh herbs regularly, it is worth it every now and then to splurge. I have also seen some health food stores begin selling fresh herbs in bulk. Better yet, for about the price of a single bundle of herbs, you can buy a small plant, and start your own herb garden. This is convenient and cheap, giving you access to free flavor whenever you want, without worrying about your herbs going bad in the refrigerator.
Finally, onions, garlic, scallions, shallots and ginger are some of the best free flavor you can get. They tend to be very cheap, and enhance just about any dish. All of these ingredients are also very good for you – garlic and onions are great for warding off sickness, while ginger can soothe an upset stomach. When cooking, you will want to add the onions into your dish first thing, and cook them until translucent, so they release their full aroma. Garlic, ginger, scallions or shallots should be added once the onion is done cooking, and need only a minute (sometimes less) to release their aroma. Then, you can add in the rest of your ingredients.
As you can see, there are any number of ways to both literally and figuratively spice up a dish without adding tons of fat or dairy products. By keeping a well stocked pantry, and a variety of pungent vegetables, you can create full tasting dishes that are also low in calories. Even if you are watching what you eat, you can have great tasting meals that don’t cost a lot to make.
For more info on free flavor, check out these articles:
Rice Cooker, part 02: rice variations/scallion rice
3 Pepper Blend