A Few Minutes to Flavor
Cooking food for health and performance can be tricky. On one hand, it’s easy to make potatoes taste good using sour cream and butter or smother all your salads in ranch dressing. On the other hand, it might seem easier and safer to eat all your food unseasoned and bland to avoid hidden calories that mess up your macronutrient ratios. You’d think there has to be some middle ground, that adherence to a diet or meal plan would be easier if your “healthy” food tasted good, right? While my experience in the strength and conditioning world is still in its infancy, I do have professional experience as a culinary school graduate and cook. During lunch breaks at school and work, I notice how many people substitute convenience for flavor. When I pop open my prepared lunch of lean beef burger, broccoli, and spaghetti squash, people always ask what smells so good or they make some crack about how bad they feel for eating one of those 100-calorie cereal packs. While my aim isn’t to make anyone feel bad about his lunch or jealous for mine (mainly because I don’t want to share), it usually leads to a conversation concerning how I make vegetables, lean meat, and starches taste good without loading on the sugar and fat. I also get frequent requests for me to take someone home and cook as a personal chef.
Sometimes, as soon as I say “cook,” people’s eyes glaze over and they stop listening. They’d rather have you make the food for them, but if you have 15 minutes to spare, I have some easy tips for preparing what I call “flavor bases,” flavorings that you have on hand and can add to whatever you’re making for flavor and texture. They don’t add much in the way of calories, but they taste great and can be tweaked to mix things up when you get bored.
One last thing before we get started—one of the easiest ways to add flavor to foods is by browning. That bears repeating. Let things get brown when you cook them! It’s the act of browning that creates so many wonderfully complex flavors we associate with everything from grilled meat to baked bread. In the above cases, that browning is due to the Maillard reaction or the browning of proteins and complex carbohydrates (1). Caramelization is similar in sight and taste but involves the browning of simple sugars (1). Either way, these reactions result in the formation of hundreds of aromatic compounds that take food from bland and boring to delicious, no added butter or sour cream required. To the person about to boil their chicken breasts or microwave their broccoli, please stop and read these tips. As a caveat, yes, there is evidence that high levels of browning can turn foods slightly carcinogenic with HCAs (heterocyclic amines, 1). This is basically a reaction between the amino acids and creatine/creatinine in the protein. However, many vegetables like cabbage contain chemicals that prevent HCA binding, and the concern is almost negligible unless you never eat vegetables…or smoke between bites.
First, I’ll list twelve ingredients that will give us room to make the following four flavor bases along with options for tweaking them however you want.
- Whole garlic
- Fried peppers (such as Mancini)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Greek yogurt
- Pure olive oil
- Balsamic vinegar (Choose real balsamic vinegar here. You will need to read the label, but imitation brands often say “real” and are just white vinegar with caramel color and wine added, which tastes awful and can give you a headache.)
- Kosher salt
- Sweet potatoes
Feel free to pick up spices, too. I get most of mine in the Spanish food section of the grocery store because they’re the exact same thing and usually only cost around a dollar. I like turmeric, paprika, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, and coarse ground pepper.
This first one is super easy and you probably already have the oil on hand, so all you have to do is buy some pistachios. I like pure olive oil because it has a neutral taste, but it’s just below extra virgin in quality and noticeably less in price.
- 1/4 cup pistachios
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups pure olive oil
Roast the pistachios on a pan in the oven at 350 degrees until toasted for around ten to twelve minutes. Put them in a small saucepan and cover with oil. Heat on low for about eight minutes (the pistachios will start to “foam” or fry a little) and then take them off the heat and let cool to room temperature. Remove the pistachios and store the oil in the refrigerator. This is important because it will prevent microbial formation (3). The pistachio flavor will be subtle on its own with a slight green nutty taste but will brighten up as soon as it’s combined with something that has salt in it. The pistachios themselves can be saved and eaten as a snack or put on a salad. They’re delicious. The oil is great drizzled on salads, fish, or pork. You had the oil in your cupboard anyways so might as well make it taste good.
Scallion, Garlic & Pepper Oil
The second flavor base is three ingredients—scallions, garlic, and peppers. These are similar bases in dishes like Pad Thai or Spanish Sofrito, so it’s versatile. Heck, the roasted garlic on its own is great.
- 3 whole garlic heads
- 3 stalks of scallions
- 2 tablespoons of pure olive oil
- 1/4 cup of jarred fried peppers
The first step is to roast the whole garlic heads. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and chop the non-root end of the garlic off, just exposing the cloves. Rub one tablespoon of the oil into the bottom of a Pyrex or oven-safe dish and place the garlic, cut side down, into the pan. Bake for around 35–40 minutes or until the cloves look brown. Longer is better here, so don’t be afraid to let them brown and shrivel a little. They’ll taste better. Take them out and let them cool to room temperature. Then all you have to do is squeeze the heads from the side with your bare hands and all the garlic will squeeze right out on to a plate. There isn’t any peeling, chopping, or mess.
From here, you can use the garlic in burgers, rice, or any veggie dish. I like to take it one step further. To make a great base for beef and chicken, finely chop the scallions and fried peppers. Heat a pan with the second tablespoon of oil. When it’s very hot, add the scallions, peppers, and one head of your roasted garlic. Stir it constantly until you see the scallions brown around the edge. Then turn the burner off. I let this cool and then mix it in lean beef for burgers or add it to sautéed chicken. It has a sort of garden-like flavor and adds a nice mix of textures to your food. It keeps a few days and can be made in bulk for multiple uses.
Because it’s summer, here’s a recipe for an uncooked tomato sauce that is super easy. Everything gets thrown into a blender or food processor for something quick and delicious that you can use as a salad dressing or top over chicken, fish, or (gasp!) pasta.
- 1 pint of ripe cherry or plum tomatoes (4)
- 8–10 basil leaves
- 2 tablespoons of pure olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon balsamic/red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon each kosher salt and pepper
The premise for this is simple. The ripe tomatoes (cut the stem out first) go in a blender or food processor. Pulse the tomatoes a few times to get them chunky and then add fresh basil with the oil, salt, and pepper. Blend low at first and increase the speed until finely blended. If you have a mesh strainer, you can pass the sauce through it to improve the texture and either save the chunky stuff for a salsa type consistency or save the liquid for a smooth sauce. But if not, it will still taste great as is.
If you feel the sauce is lacking kick, I recommend adding the balsamic or red wine vinegar at the end. It will add sweetness with minimal carbohydrates (balsamic has a tendency to make things brown, so go with red wine if that freaks you out). This one is great for when you feel like just spooning it on top of something. It tastes good cold for times you don’t want to think about turning on the stove. I tried both cherry and plum tomatoes and preferred the cherry. They’re sweeter and you don’t even have to cut the stems out, so it’s a win-win. (I realize the picture I posted is of a plum tomato.)
This next recipe is a sauce type flavor base for the stir and go lovers out there. Yogurt based sauces are delicious. They go well with meat and starches (Greek food anyone?) and serve as a great substitute for sour cream.
- 1 cup part or full-fat plain Greek yogurt
- Juice from 2 lemon wedges
- 1/4 teaspoon of each cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, and paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
I recommend using 2 percent or full fat Greek yogurt for these sauces because they hold together better. They’re also lower in carbohydrates and high in protein and the fat helps curb the otherwise too tart taste some associate with fat-free yogurts. Also, full fat yogurt holds up better on hot dishes because the fat will help prevent curdling (which is basically clotting of cooked proteins), but I suggest not going beyond moderate heat anyway. As far as the carbohydrate content is concerned, usually around half of the listed carbohydrates in yogurt are from lactate that has been digested by cultures into lactic acid and can’t be converted to glucose through digestion (4), making this another good, low carbohydrate choice. To the yogurt, simply add all of the above ingredients and stir well. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can grind your own spices, as they taste more floral and usually cost less in bulk. But either way is fine. Stir all this together and taste to make sure you don’t have too much of one flavor. Feel free to add scallions or basil if you want some color.
The last flavor base is the most complex, but it’s still relatively easy and can be manipulated to go low or high carbohydrate. This meal is a stir fry of sorts and I credit Elements of Taste (3) for the recipe.
- 1/2 head of green or Napa cabbage
- 1 medium sweet potato
- Juice from 1 lemon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons pure olive oil
- 2 tablespoons of water
- Optional basil
Using a box grater, grate the sweet potato into shreds as seen above. Roughly chop the cabbage into half-inch cubes and slice your lemon into wedges, or square off the sides as seen in the picture above (this method gets more juice from the membrane). With a large frying pan on high heat and hot, add the oil and then your cabbage. Cook the cabbage until it’s browned and slightly crispy for about five to eight minutes. To this, add all your sweet potato and cook an additional ten minutes until cooked through. Before serving, add two tablespoons of water and all the lemon juice and stir to mix it well. Then add some basil to garnish if you want. For this recipe, I found you can keep the heat on high the whole time because the cabbage holds so much water. If you want to go low carbohydrate, only add a little potato and vice versa for high carbohydrate days. You can add this to pasta, pita wraps, or stir fry or just eat as a vegetable side.
Even though I didn’t get into detail here, I chose all these ingredients because they all go well together. You can swap things in and out if you want and can rest assured that it will still taste good. As an example, the yogurt sauce goes well on the cabbage and potatoes, but you could add tomatoes, basil, scallions, or garlic to the yogurt, too. So feel free to mix and match. I also like ingredients with a high nutrient density and low glycemic impact, thus the cabbage, sweet potato, tomatoes, yogurt, and fresh herbs. I hope these recipes give you some insight on ways to have fun with healthy food and some confidence experimenting on your own. I will answer any and all cooking questions that I’m able to, so feel free to post your inquiries.
- Mcgee Harold (2004) On Food and Cooking. New York: Scribner.
- Dornenburg Andrew, Page Karen (1996) Culinary Artistry. New York: Wiley & Sons.
- Kunz Gray, Kaminsky Peter (2001) The Elements of Taste. New York: Time Warner Book Group.
- Dolson Laura (2010) “Eating Yogurt on a Low-Carb Diet.” About.com. Accessed on: Feb. 24, 2010. At: http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/whattoeat/a/yogurtcarbs.htm.