When you sit down for breakfast, lunch or dinner, what you eat should be loaded with taste -- fabulous food you truly want to sink your teeth into. Eating deliciously may sound daunting to the strictest of dieters or to the novice chef, but if you have basic cooking skills, you can achieve dining bliss without unnecessary calories, fats or carbohydrates. The following six flavor boosters will fit effortlessly into any nutritional plan and easily satisfy your need for dynamite dining.
1. Start with the good stuff
Fresh, high-quality ingredients are a given. When you start with inherently delicious ingredients, you can prepare simple recipes with deceivingly complex flavor. Purchasing top-grade foods and keeping your pantry and refrigerator freshly stocked practically guarantee the tasty success of any dish. The best tasting produce is naturally ripe and fresh-picked, giving you reason to frequent farmer' markets, buy locally grown goods, choose organic and be more selective at the supermarket.
For protein-rich foods such as fish, poultry and meats, look for the leanest cuts with the fewest additives and preservatives. High-quality food sometimes comes at a higher price, but it also delivers a palatable payoff. The more flavor an ingredient has, the less you will need of it and, best yet, the more fulfilling it will be to eat. This gives you room to include more variety in your diet as well as supply your body with high-quality nutrients.
2. Herbs and spices
Variety is truly the spice of life. The large array of fresh and dried herbs and spices is staggering. Possibilities to enhance your meals with a little pinch here and a hearty sprinkle there are endless.
Freshly picked or grocery store herbs keep longer in the refrigerator if you place the cut ends in a container of water and loosely cover with plastic. Cilantro, parsley, sage, mint, thyme, dill and basil will supply a delicious brilliance to your food. Start simple with one herb, like cilantro, and experiment with its vibrant flavor. Then add more herbs to further liven up your meals.
- Finely chop a compendium of fresh herbs, add a pinch of salt and rub them into chicken breasts, lean meats or fish.
- Sprinkle them into your scrambled eggs.
- Add a hearty bunch to homemade or store-bought salsas and sauces.
- Use them to garnish anything from soup to brown rice.
Dried herbs are handy and far less perishable than fresh herbs. A few to keep in your spice rack are bay leaves, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory and thyme.
- Let bay leaves deepen the flavors of soups and stews.
- Use oregano to add Italian flair to any food.
- Rub a mixture of dried herbs onto pieces of meat before cooking to add extra flavor.
- Combine a teaspoon of dried herbs and a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese and sprinkle over low-carb pasta.
Buying all of the hundreds of spices available is impractical; a few essentials are black pepper, cayenne, celery seed, chili powder, cinnamon, clove, Chinese five-spice, curry powder, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, mustard powder, red pepper flakes and salt.
Less common but highly recommended are saffron, garam masala and herbs de Provence. Be adventurous and try an unfamiliar spice to give a familiar recipe a twist.
- Replace cinnamon with Chinese five-spice in your next bowl of oatmeal for a unique breakfast.
- Season your tuna salad with curry or chili powder.
- Kick up a marinade or dressing with red pepper flakes.
- A pinch of saffron goes a long way; add it to stews, chili, sauces and marinades.
The French classics:
Onions, shallots, garlic, peppers and gingerroot are star ingredients that enhance flavor in an infinite number of recipes.
- Saute or roast onions, garlic and peppers to bring out their fabulous sweet, mellow or hot nuances.
- Include them in casseroles, stir-fries or warm salads.
- Blended together, or on their own, they make a perfect topping for steak, chicken or fish.
- Gingerroot can be grated into anything from marinades to desserts, so try it in lowcarb pancake batter or a protein-rich meatloaf.
3. High-caliber condiments
The large variety of condiments gives you ample opportunity to fatten up the flavors of your eats and make your meals far more interesting. Flavored mustards, vinegars, oils, hot sauce, curry, wasabi pastes, prepared horseradish, soy sauce, tamari, miso, tahini, canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and Worcestershire all pack fabulous flavor in small amounts.
- Whisk up a steak marinade with mesquite-flavored mustard for extra smoky satisfaction.
- Spike mayonnaise or plain yogurt with curry, wasabi or horseradish for a spicy sandwich spread.
- Ban the brown rice and vegetable blahs with a drop or two of sesame or chili oil.
- Puree garbanzo beans with tahini and a dash of hot sauce for a rich, fired-up hummus spread.
4. Flavored extracts
Drop the blah and bland from your foods and beverages with flavored extracts. Vanilla extract is the most commonly used, but give others such as mint, almond, walnut, banana, anise, butter and rum-flavored extracts a chance to wow some of your favorite recipes. Extracts aren't just for baking; they flavorfully infuse many other foods. Use sparingly for best results; a drop or two will do.
- Almond or walnut extract will impart a nutty goodness to every spoonful of hot cereal or cottage cheese.
- Whip vanilla or rum-flavored extracts into coffee for a morning wake-me-up.
- Blend mint extract into sugar-free chocolate syrup to refresh low-carb vanilla ice cream.
- Add some buttery richness to desserts with a few drops of butter-flavored extract.
5. Aged hard cheeses
Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, dry Jack and other aged cheeses pack a strong punch in small amounts. This means lots of flavor with minimal calories and fat, and it reduces the need for salt. A little goes a long way.
- Sprinkle a spoonful of grated Parmesan as a finisher for a crisp green salad.
- Melt Parmesan cheese on steaming-hot vegetables.
- Enhance the richness of an egg-white omelet or frittata with a shaving of Romano.
- For a surprise dessert, finish off sauteed apple slices with a dusting of dry Jack.
6. Unusual and different
Being stuck in a food rut that keeps you preparing and eating the same meals over and over again is tantamount to culinary torture. Enjoying your favorites is important, but if you find yourself unenthused about a dish you make daily, it's time for a change. Your tastebuds and body will thank you. Eating a variety of foods adds interest to your diet and supplies you with a wider range of vitamins, minerals and other healthful nutrients. The hundreds of food choices available make "rut diets" absolutely unnecessary.
- Go to the grocery store this week and pick up a couple of new ingredients to cook.
- In the produce aisle, buy some fruit or vegetable that you rarely eat or have never tasted.
- Pick up a Japanese eggplant to slice, brush with olive oil and throw on the grill.
- Try a papaya in a fun fruit salsa.
- Grab a bag of baby spinach instead of iceberg lettuce for your next salad.
- Stop by the seafood counter and opt for orange roughy, tilapia or another unfamiliar fish.
- Give a new lowfat, health-centric or low-carb product a debut in your kitchen.
Healthful food that is supercharged with taste will make any diet plan a joy to adhere to and easy to adopt as a scrumptious way of life rather than a short-term pop diet. Incorporate these flavor boosters into your menus and never eat dull again.
Information adapted from my first cookbook The Fitness Kitchen: Recipes for a fad-free diet (Taylor Trade, 2004).