Diane’s Natural Flavor Boosters ~ Part One

It’s simple to add fantastic flavor to dishes without bathing them in fat, sugar and salt. For years, healthy cooking seems to have been placed in a category of its own. There’s Latin, Asian, Indian and Healthy. What’s up with that? It just takes a little finesse, the right cooking techniques and wholesome ingredients to revamp a dish to be better for you without sacrificing flavor. Totally digging that health is now infused in our culinary culture, finally my passion is validated!

Check out some of the things that I use every day to enhance natural flavors and add zest to my recipes.

1. Herbs

Herb: any plant with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine or perfume. One of the best times of the year is fresh herb garden time. Incorporating fresh herbs into your culinary repertoire will pop the flavor in your cooking. May sound crazy but the aroma and taste of fresh herbs make me feel better. If you are not familiar with the various flavors of herbs the best thing to do is pick up a few different types of fresh herbs, pinch off a leaf and take a bite. Make a note of what you like about it and what foods you think it would pair well with based on your own personal taste. Then chop up finely, place in zip top bags, label with a sharpie and stick in the freezer (do this for all fresh herbs that you’re not sure if you are going to use before they waste away before your eyes). Now you will have that herb ready when a recipe calls for it or when you want that distinct flavor in your dish. Some herbs, like rosemary and sage, have a much more powerful flavor than others so a little goes a long way. Dried herbs are stronger than fresh herbs, so use this ballpark swap: three times as much fresh herbs for dried (less or more to taste). Add fresh herbs near the end of cooking to maximize flavor and choose fresh whenever possible.

Some of my favorite herbs are: oregano, basil (numerous types), dill, tarragon, chervil and, of course, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (immortalized in the Simon & Garfunkel tune “Scarborough Fair”).

2. Spices

Spices: pungent or aromatic seasonings obtained from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds or stems of various plants and trees

Spices were once literally worth their weight in gold and have been used since the dawn of time for medicinal purposes. In cooking they add fantastic flavor, as well as numerous health benefits. Just a dash of spice will take a dish from blah to aah! Spices are almost always used dried and can be found in whole form or ground. New spices are popping up in the culinary arena all of the time so pick up a new spice every now and then and try it out. I like to use cooked brown rice to sample spices. Sprinkle, grate or crush a little on top, stir in, then taste. Experiment combining your favorite spices to create a personal rub or “sprinkler” that will transform any dish.

Pepper, cumin, nutmeg, ginger, anise, allspice, cloves, mace, cinnamon, saffron, and turmeric are all spices.

3. The Whole Fruit

The whole fruit and nothing but the fruit! Fresh fruit and juices add that burst of flavor and nutrition that makes food shine the healthy way. Fruits are convenient, easy to use and can jazz up marinades and dressings, silken smooth purees, stimulate savory sauces, moisten baked goods and give that extra umph to salsas, chutneys and relishes. Toss chopped fresh fruit into salads, salsas, chutneys, relishes, baked goods and cereals. Grate citrus zest to give refreshing flavor to foods in place of extra salt. Dried fruits are delicious in sauces, stuffings, salads, hot and cold cereals, desserts and baked good. Substitute fruit juices, purees and nectars for some or all of the oil or fat in dressings, sauces, soups and marinades. There are so many fruits out there so step out of the box, taste and experiment with fruits you have never tried before.

4. Chili Peppers

Chili peppers are a great way to spice up your recipes and add lots of flavor without adding fat. Not all chili peppers are hot, after all the Bell pepper is a chili so there is a chili for even the most heat-fearing palate. The heat level varies from one type of chili to the other as well as from on pepper to the other in the same type. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made Chili Rellenos where one poblano was smoking hot and another had no heat at all. Best bet is to taste a tiny piece first to determine how hot the pepper is. Anaheim, poblano, serrano, jalapeno, cayenne, bell and many others are in the bins at your local market and can be found fresh, dried, smoked and pickled. I like to roast peppers to draw out a smoky flavor.

Next time…nuts, extracts, seeds and vinegars. Salt & sugar will have their own crystalline moments!

Please share your favorite flavor booster ideas, recipes, stories, cooking tips and nutrition nuggets HERE  🙂