Once upon a time, we took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Costa Rica, thinking it would be a big adventure. For a variety of reasons, it...Read More
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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