Spice It Up
It's been said that variety is the spice of life but to me, spice is the variety of the diet. Seasonings define a cuisine. Chinese food usually means ginger and garlic; Mexican, spicy with chili and cumin; Italian food relies on herbs like basil and rosemary. But what herbs and spices define traditional American food? Sadly, typical American fare is flavored simply with salt, pepper and sugar. Just look in your grandmother's recipe box and you'd probably be hard-pressed to find many highly seasoned foods.
And that's too bad, because seasonings do more than just make foods taste good. Herbs and spices are natural plant products and so, just like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, they offer a host of healthy antioxidants and phytonutrients. Calorie-free herbs and spices provide much more flavor than the fats, salt and sugar that we rely on, so using them instead can help cut calories. And, for those who need to watch their sodium intake, swapping the salt shaker for some herbs and spices is a great strategy.
On top of that, tasty foods tend to more satisfying than bland ones, so you may find that smaller portions of well-seasoned, flavorful foods leave you more satisfied and that can help keep your weight under control.
Many people are baffled when it comes to using herbs and spices at home.
Cooking should be a creative endeavor, so why not just experiment? Buy a few common herbs and spices to start, then take a whiff and a taste and see what you think might work. There are no hard and fast rules in cooking, but if you're unsure where to start, you can find guides to popular pairings in cookbooks or online. If you're timid, here are a few suggestions to get you started. Add a little dried basil or oregano to your salad or tomato sauce, or a dash of curry powder to your steamed rice for a boost of flavor and color. Most people are familiar with sweet cinnamon which is great on fruit or oatmeal, but try changing it up with other spicy-sweet flavors like clove or nutmeg.
Seasonings work wonders with vegetables, too. Try a little ginger on carrots or a hint of mint on fresh peas. You'll transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, and you might even sway the non-veggie lovers in your family to try them.
You can use either fresh or dried herbs and spices but you'll need about twice as much fresh herb as the dry form to get the same intensity of flavor. Spices can be added at just about any time during the cooking process, but herbs retain their flavor a bit better if they're added towards the end. To store, keep dried herbs and spices out of the heat and light to preserve them, and pay attention to those 'best by' dates on the containers, as they do lose flavor if they're stored for too long.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.