Tuesday 10: Paleo Flavor Boosters


I don’t know if it’s the 100-degree temps or merely general laziness, but I’ve been craving super simple meals lately: crisp green salads, grilled chicken, tuna salad with a pile of raw vegetables, hard-boiled eggs with Sunshine Sauce. I want bright, fresh tastes that don’t require much more than chopping and piling on a plate.

But as those of us with a dark history of dieting know all too well that keeping it simple can sometimes wander dangerously close to boring. And boring leads to binging. That’s why it’s essential to amp up the flavor whenever possible, and a first step to that is understanding how our tasting mechanism works.

Humans can recognize five basic tastes: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. Ooooo, umami!

That’s a Japanese word, defined by Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who discovered this unique taste. It’s based on the words uami (delicious or savory but not meaty) and mi (taste). In practical terms, it’s that almost undefinable thing that makes certain foods so luscious. Think about a Thai coconut curry and that little something extra underlying it all. That’s the umami of the fish sauce. (Is it a coincidence that umami and yummy kinda sound the same? I think not.)

This post includes fast, easy ideas for adding a Super Flavor Power Boost™ to ordinary ingredients. By satisfying our desire for different flavors, we can eat healthful, tasty food that’s never dull.

I know “creamy” isn’t a taste, but it is a sensation that I think adds to the pleasure and satisfaction of eating. So my flavor graphic, technically incorrect but emotionally appropriate, looks like this:


Good Finishing Salt
When I’m playing in the kitchen, I usually use iodized sea salt during the cooking process, but at the end, when it’s time to “taste and adjust,” I like to finish with fancy salt: truffle salt, smoked salt, Jane’s Crazy Mixed Up Salt (which I used to eat on popcorn all the time, but now enjoy on steamed veg with coconut oil), or the Savory Spice Shop’s Ornate Onion Salt. Try a pinch of flavorful salt on browned ground meat, grilled chicken or chops, and cooked veggies to instantly amp up the flavor. And if you want to do a little kitchen alchemy, try this Citrus Salt recipe from 101cookbooks.


Tomato Paste
That humble little can is packed with umami flavor. Try this: Sauté onion in a little coconut oil. When the onion is tender and translucent, add a clove of garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then add a tablespoon or two of tomato paste, frying it in the onion-y, garlicky oil for a minute. Then add whatever seasonings you like — chili powder+cumin or ginger+Chinese five-spice powder or Ras el Hanout — and crumble in ground meat. Cook ’til browned, place on top of a pile of veggies, and chow down.


Citrus Juice
No matter what you’re eating, I bet it can be improved with a spritz of citrus juice. Try it! You’ll see! Grilled chicken and broccoli? Ho-hum. Grilled chicken and broccoli and a spritz of lemon juice? YUM! But don’t put yourself in lemon jail; limes and oranges are badass flavor boosters, too. Lime is particularly good with Mexican flavors: cilantro, chili powder, cumin. Orange is nice with Asian (five-spice powder, ginger) and Middle Eastern (orange + cumin + parsley = profound deliciousness). Want to be even bolder? Sure you do! Grate a little of the zest over your plate of instant WOW.


Oils or Homemade Mayo
Sometimes it’s not about spicing things up so much as making them luscious. Even half a teaspoon of flavorful oil like high-quality extra-virgin olive oil,  drizzled over a plate of meat and veggies transforms them from “ingredients” to “meal.” Rather than cooking with a lot of fat in my food, I reserve my fats for flavoring on top where I can enjoy the tastes the most. A tiny drizzle of sesame oil instantly makes Chinese food taste more like the eat-it-from-the-takeout-carton restaurant food I don’t enjoy any more — and a dollop of homemade mayo on top of a hot-from-the-grill chicken breast tastes decadent. TRICK! It’s really healthy. Neener.


Crushed Garlic
Here’s a trick I learned from Cook’s Illustrated: put a little fat — coconut oil, ghee, extra-virgin olive oil, whatever you like — in a pan, along with 1-2 crushed garlic cloves. Turn the heat to low. (I know! I usually crank it up to high, but I’m learning restraint.) Let the garlic and fat hang out together for 10 minutes or so, ’til the garlic is tender and mellow, then spoon over whatever meat and veg are making a guest appearance on your plate.



Chopped Chives
This is my secret weapon when my plate looks like it might be boring. I use dried chopped chives from Penzeys — Don’t judge! I hate gardening. — on everything from fried eggs to hard-boiled eggs to broccoli to cucumber salad. I have never eaten a vegetable or meat that was not improved by the application of chives. (For Asian food, I usually use the thinly-sliced, green tops of scallions instead because they’re bolder.)


Fresh Herbs
Forget the sad sprig of parsley used as garnish on the side of the plate! Grab a handful of fresh parsley, mince it, and throw it with abandon over the top of whatever you’re eating. It’s an instant picker-upper, kind of like the right red lipstick or a coat of mascara. Suddenly, everything is brighter, fresher, and more attractive.


Coconut Aminos (or homemade substitute)
If you use the recipes from my site or Well Fed, you’re familiar with coconut aminos in Asian-influenced dishes, but they’re also a good stand in for Worcestershire sauce in other recipes — anytime you need a dark, salty, underlying flavor. Don’t be afraid to splash a little into soups and egg or tomato dishes to deepen the flavor.


Toasted Coconut
So easy and instantly makes a plate feel exotic and tropical. Heat a non-stick pan over medium-high heat, then throw in a handful of unsweetened coconut. Stir, stir, stir until it’s toasted, then season generously with salt. Sprinkle the coconut over curries, grilled meat, cooked veg… whatever.


Toasted, Chopped Nuts
Same instructions as #9. Toast the nuts, chop with a sharp knife, and toss onto your plate with abandon. Sliced almonds and green beans are a winning combo. Broccoli and pecans. Macadamia nuts and… anything.

Turn it up to 11: Combos

This probably goes without saying, but just in case: Holy shmoly! You will be so happy if you combine these tricks. For example:
#5 + #10
#9 + #10
#5 + #7
#5 + #6
#3 + #7
#3 + #5
#4 + #6

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  • Angie says:

    Consider yourself pinned. . .

  • Coconut aminos are new for me. I’m looking forward to experimenting with that. Thanks!

    • Mel says:

      They’re super handy to have around. Usually available at Whole Foods and online if you can’t find them locally.

    • sandy says:

      I bought some and realized I was allergic to it due to it being fermented. I have a yeast allergy. 🙁

  • Melissa says:

    Smoked salt? How did I not know this existed?! I haven’t quite gotten hooked on coconut aminos yet, they’re ok. I do love a drizzle of sesame oil, and probably will try walnut and avocado oil also Many of the other things on the list I can’t eat for other reasons (citrus/tomato, garlic, anything hot/spicy). 🙁 Enjoying my homegrown basil, just moved it to a larger pot, and and my lettuce is trying to take over the planet! (or at least my front porch)

  • Judi says:

    I can’t imagine a world where Coconut Aminos doesn’t exist….seriously it keeps me up at night thinking about it which then causes me to buy 10 bottles the next time I’m at WholeFoods just in case a shortage occurs 🙂

  • Martin says:

    Curse you, Melissa, for writing about truffle salt. I bought a jar of the brand you recommended and it now haunts my dreams. And my cupboard. The aroma is so intense it invaded my bottle of vitamin D capsules, so now my vitamin D tastes like truffles. I love it.

    Seriously, I cannot recommend this stuff enough.

  • Amy says:

    I’m the third generation in my family that’s addicted to Jane’s Crazy Salt. My grandmother would salt the bowl of salad so it was wilted by the time we ate it, but it was still good. My mom shakes it on all sorts of meats, and I have a shaker in my kitchen, one in my desk and there’s the one I sent to work with my boyfriend. Herbamare is also great and can be found at many health/natural food stores and Whole Foods.

    • Mel says:

      Oh! I love that so much!

      There is NOTHING that can compete with popcorn that’s buttered and sprinkled with Jane’s. Sigh.

      But veggies with ghee and Jane’s are a good substitute.

  • Jill says:

    Hi Mel just found your site today and made the homemade mayo for the first time! It turned out perfect. A hint for helping the oil pour slowly is to put in in a biking bottle with the top on the oil just drizzles out real slow!

  • Terri Luna says:

    On the salts, Penzey’s shallot salt is must. It’s super yum! We love it on avocado and in mashed cauliflower. 🙂

  • Anne says:

    Thanks for the suggestions! I love using the tomato paste idea with the italian seasoning in your book…add some meat and julienned zucchini/butternut squash, delish!

    On an unrelated note….I made the bora bora fireballs last night. I ate a couple after I made them and they were so so for me….today however, delish! I think these are awesome after a night in the refrigerator and then toasted again. Yummy! I will definitely make it again!

    • Mel says:

      Yes, the Bora Bora Fireballs are among a handful of recipes in Well Fed that actually taste better the next day: all of the stews/curries, eggplant strata, Fireballs… all better with age.

  • Shannon says:

    I love and need posts like this! I didn’t grow up in a cooking household, so I need the direction. Thank you. 🙂

    Looking at your graphic and trying to imagine a flavor that combines sweet and bitter. There must be something, but I can’t figure out what ..?

  • aseafish says:

    I often feel like I’ve tried everything out there. It’s so great to be reminded how wrong I am about that. Thank you. I also tend to forget I have something until I see someone else talk about it and remember. So, thanks again. These are delightful suggestions.

  • Casey says:

    Sad news… Savory is discontinuing their Ornate Onion Salt. They’ve built themselves a test kitchen and are developing new mixes as we speak… but they don’t have an alternative onion salt lined up (that my saleslady knew of).

  • Molly says:

    Thank you so much for this! This Texas summer heat has all but zapped any desire I have for cooking & almost (almost) eating! I’m pinning this up in my kitchen somewhere & using it often.

    • Mel says:

      Me, too. My appetite is totally flat, and I’m having trouble getting excited about cooking. All I want is raw veggies and cherries. Glad you like the list — hope you have lots o’ fun with it!

  • Becky says:

    Wonderful flavor hints … I’m starting to branch out into “finishing” flavors, too, because with ancestral eating there’s so much repetition, and finishing stuff with flavor is easier than cooking complex, fussy stuff. The Flavor Bible is also excellent.

    I am going to give you something, from one popcorn lover to another. Haven’t seen this anywhere else, but IT WORKS for the popcorn craving. I toast up some coconut chips ’til they’re golden brown and crispy. Do not burn them. 🙂
    Toss them in a bowl with melted ghee, and salt generously. Eat immediately, with a spoon. Close eyes and imagine MOVIE POPCORN! It zaps the craving, and is way more filling than actual popcorn. The coconut flavor harks back to the day when coconut oil was used for movie popcorn, before it was banned as too unhealthy.

  • Alison says:

    Thank you. This is such a great post. I don’t have this talent, so I am learning. I recently switched to sea salt and what a difference, I had no idea! I am collecting spices now from your list, a little at a time.

    • Mel says:

      Stuff like this is fun ’cause you can’t really mess it up — go crazy and try stuff. You never know what might taste great. That’s how I learned I like sharp spices on fruit — just goofing around.

      And I built my spice collection a little at at a time, too. Now it’s taking over my kitchen but I eased into it 🙂

  • Katie says:

    I have heard from the rumor-mill that the vast majority of grocery store-bought olive oil has supplemental oils (PUFA oils, ack!) in it as well…and I have noticed that there are no ingredient labels on the bottles for me to check….any truth to this? On another note, my issue with making mayo with olive oil/blender method is that it is super bitter in the end…sad face. What am I doing wrong? I have heard a mix of bacon and walnut oil is do-able…thoughts?

    • Mel says:

      I read that article, too — basically, I buy high-quality extra-virgin olive oil and hope for the best. I mean, at some point, I just have to eat, ya know what I mean?!

      As for mayo, you MUST use light-tasting olive oil, or it tastes terrible. Extra-virgin doesn’t work. If you’re concerned about the olive oil, you can use avocado oil for mayo instead, but it’s quite expensive.

      I’ve never made the bacon mayo, so I can’t help you with that… sorry!

    • Cathy M says:

      I’ve used bacon fat for mayo, and you just have to be careful about your ratio of bacon fat to other fat because the bacon fat is saturated, so when you store it in the fridge, it gets really solid if there’s too much bacon fat relative to the other fat(s).

      Sometimes, if I get a little carried away with the dry mustard in my mayo it gets bitter. Maybe try cutting back on that a little?

  • Julie L. says:

    These look wonderful! I grew up in a Hamburger Helper family (that was the “delicious” food in my house,) and I have an autistic daughter that I have to cook from scratch for now, so your book and blog are going to be staples for us here. Any advice on how to flavor a puree of cooked meat and boiled veggies? I have to puree for my kiddo who can’t chew. It always comes out bland unless I use a possibly iffy broth from a bouillon cube, which is a no-no these days. Help!!!!!!

  • Katie K. says:

    I have been experimenting with a few of the recipes in your book and have been enjoying them thus far. I love that you offer suggestions for alternative versions of the recipes. I’m not confident in the kitchen (yet!) so I always feel like I have to follow a recipe exactly or everything will fall apart! I had never heard of coconut aminos and I’m interested in trying it out. Do you have a specific brand that you recommend? I don’t think I saw a recommendation in the book, but I may have missed it…

    Thanks for your awesome cookbook! I have used your recipes online but its a lot harder for me to use the computer these days as I have kids that like to pound on the keys whenever I’m using it!