Nourish: Five tips for making healthful, flavorful food

By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

This time of year, we're filled with the best of intentions. Not only will daily exercise become part of our routine, but we'll love it. We'll be kinder to our co-workers. We'll never yell at children, especially our own. The garden will be mulched seasonally and weeded weekly. Of course, we'll eat better.

I won't try to guide your gardening, parenting, work or exercise routine, but I can certainly help with that eat-better resolution by sharing my favorite tips for cooking lighter. These evolved over time; I never set out to make my family's food more healthful. Like all permanent changes, it was a slow process. Now, I can't think of cooking any other way.

My five simple, inexpensive additions to your dishes will help cut down on unnecessary fatty and salty flavor boosters, and they should make your food taste better than ever.

Add citrus, and lots of it. Lemons, oranges and limes bring so much flavor and balance to dishes of all kinds, and not just with their juice. The real punch is in the zest. Use a mixture of juice and zest in marinades for chicken and shellfish and for salad dressings that go easy on the oil. The zest, mixed with a little olive oil and a pinch of salt, also dresses green vegetables nicely. Try orange zest with steamed broccoli and julienned Brussels sprouts, lemon and/or lime zest with green beans or grilled asparagus. Lemon or orange zest mixed with ricotta and some brown sugar and then topped with sliced strawberries makes a quick breakfast or dessert.

Use herbs of all kinds, alone or in combinations. Use the dried variety in dishes that cook for a long time, such as spaghetti sauce and stews; then when the dish is done, add fresh herbs for color and to brighten the flavors. Add fresh herbs to quick-cooking dishes. Chopped herbs can go into dressings, and whole leaves into the salad itself. Pasta dishes come alive with the last-minute addition of basil or fresh oregano. Simple bean salads take on a new dimension when you toss in dill, parsley, chives and/or cilantro. Salsas change their character depending on the herbs you choose. And simple sauces can be made pesto-style, taking the herb of your choosing and blending with some olive oil and seasonings.

Go global with spices that inject flavor fast. I add cumin to marinades, chili powder to burgers, cinnamon and cloves to meat dishes. I make rubs that use combinations of spices for pork tenderloins and roast chicken. I love curry powder mixed with chickpeas, garam masala on oven-braised chicken. Keep the spices handy, and buy in small amounts so you know they're fresh. If you heat with some oil, the dried spices will more fully release their flavors.

Toss together fruit salsas. They add flavor, moisture and texture to grilled, broiled or roasted meats and fish. I wasn't a huge fan until I started making my own, but now I love these various combinations of diced fruits, herbs, a flavorful liquid and perhaps some vegetables. I make them out of diced avocado, tropical fruits, citrus (see ingredient No. 1 above) and, of course, the most popular salsa fruit of all, tomatoes. Flavor with lots of citrus and/or vinegar and just enough oil to marry the ingredients, and use spices or herbs that match the seasoning of the protein. Citrus-marinated chicken, then, gets a citrus-based salsa.

Stir in a pinch of sugar, my secret ingredient of choice. When a dressing or a cooking liquid tastes flat but I've already added salt, I bypass the salt shaker and use a pinch of sugar instead. Sugar mellows the tartness of lemon juice or vinegar, rounds out the flavor of a cooking broth and gives some depth to tomato sauces. Go easy: You don't want to taste sweetness, nor do you want to add much to the calorie count, although at 16 calories a teaspoonful you have a little wiggle room here. White sugar is good for dressings, brown sugar's great in stews, and molasses or honey can be just the ticket for a barbecue sauce.

These ingredients let me ease up on the butter, oil and salt, but note that I don't eliminate them completely. Butter can be the finishing touch in a sauce that draws most of its flavor from fruit or spices. Oil can balance a dressing already well flavored with herbs and citrus. Salt can be an essential ingredient -- but not the defining one.

Consider it a delicious shift in priorities.

Recipes

Black and White Bean Primavera Salad

Chipotle-Glazed Chicken Burgers

Cornmeal-Crusted Tilapia With Cilantro Pesto

Penne With a Mushroom Ragu

Sour-Orange Chicken With Avocado-Orange Salsa

Warm Banana Sundaes With Frozen Yogurt and Pecan Crisp


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