People love to use salty or sweet flavors to spruce up otherwise healthy food. That tangy barbecue sauce you use on your chicken breasts or that aggressive work with the salt shaker to spruce up your veggies ... these are pretty commonplace practices, even for people who think they're eating healthy. You can do better for yourself without compromising on taste.
There are so many flavors out there to explore that do more than liven up bland dishes — they're actually better for you, either because they omit harmful white stuff, or include other health-rich compounds, or both. Fresh or dried herbs and spices not only add tons of flavor to your foods (without adding salt or oil) but also have a host of health benefits of their own. So take a look at your spice cabinet, note what you already have and then stock up the remaining herbs and spices on this list!
- Black peppercorns add peppery taste to any meal. Freshly grinding your pepper in a pepper mill or coffee grinder is the best way to bring out its flavor (pre-ground pepper tends to lose its spark sitting on the grocery store shelf).
- Cardamom, a spice that resembles black pepper, has a minty flavor. Take your knowledge of seasoning to the next level with ground cardamom by using a pinch in desserts and sweet breakfast foods for a hint of the exotic.
- Chili powder is an easy way to get out of a bland cooking rut. Look for chili powder that is mild to hot, salt-free, and sugar-free. Start with mild chili powder and gradually add pinches of hotter ground chili, such as cayenne, to build your tolerance to the heat.
- Chipotle chili peppers in adobo sauce heat up your metabolism and tingle your taste buds, and they also happen to be rich in antioxidants and vitamins, including vitamin C.
- Chili flakes, made up of chopped dried chilies and seeds, are a grocery store standard. They're perfect to perk up Italian fare. Add them to jarred marinara sauce for a zesty flavor boost. Capsaicin, the compound found in chili peppers that gives them their heat, can also aid in fat-burning while lowering blood pressure.
- Cinnamon, a much-loved American spice, is ideal for breakfast foods like hot cereals, French toast, and smoothies. Sweet-tasting cinnamon may actually help control blood sugar spikes, so it is an ideal companion at breakfast time, when leveled blood sugar can help to break your morning haze more quickly. Cinnamon has also been correlated with lower levels of inflammation.
- Citrus zest isn't officially an herb or a spice, but it adds such bright flavor to meat mixtures, fish, and spice mixes that I can't resist recommending it here. Some studies say that citrus zest may be protective against certain forms of cancer, like skin cancer.
- Cumin gives Latin fare its characteristic tang. It is surprisingly high in iron compared with other spices. Be cautious with the amount since the flavor can be overpowering. Try using cumin seeds that you can grind yourself, or toast in a warm dry skillet for a gourmet garnish.
- Fennel seeds, often used in ground sausage, give off a sweet licorice taste that doesn't require any added sugar. Grind fennel seeds in spice mixes to contrast with spicy chilies or add them toasted to bean mixtures or taco meat.
- Garlic powder is a fast and flavorful way to get that garlicky taste — no mincing required! Be sure to pick up garlic powder and not garlic salt, which adds unwanted sodium.
- Ground ginger, milder in flavor than fresh ginger root, is typically used in gingerbread cookies and curry mixes. It works equally well in savory dishes and is a base component in Chef Rocco's spice mix or in a tangy homemade salad dressing.
- Basil paired with fresh tomatoes or as a sprig added to your favorite marinara sauce is just about the best thing going. Basil has fresh flavor and a few interesting health benefits — it may calm blood pressure and relax the nervous system.
- Chives, part of the onion genus, have a mild flavor that is perfect with eggs, in dips, or sprinkled over white fish or shellfish.
- Cilantro, a lemony floral-flavored herb, is popular in cooking around the globe including Mexican, Thai, and Indian cuisines. Cilantro, like rosemary, has antibacterial properties that may ward off food poisoning.
- Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant. Grind the seeds with cumin or chili powder for a savory mix for ground meat, or add powdered coriander to hot chocolate for a great flavor boost.
- Mint is delicious in smoothies combined with greens like spinach and kale. If you have leftover mint, simply pour hot water over the fresh leaves for a refreshing calorie-free tea.
- Parsley, rich in vitamin K (important for bone health), is a fresh herb that's easy to find year-round. Flat-leaf parsley has more flavor and is easier to chop than other varieties.
- Thyme's earthy flavor perks up almost any dish: stews, bean mixtures, mashes, and soups. Thyme has a strong taste, so use smaller amounts (about 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves to start).
- Rosemary, part of the mint family, is savory added to seasoning salts, in meat marinades, and combined with vinegars like balsamic or sherry. Like thyme, rosemary contains antibacterial compounds and is used in the meat industry as a natural, safe preservative. It has also been correlated with better heart health and lowered cancer risk.
- Oregano is packed with antioxidants, which help prevent cell damage. Dried oregano is found in herb mixtures like Italian seasonings and herbes de Provence. Add a pinch when cooking onions and vegetables or sprinkle some into the calzone recipe on page 254 or the pizza recipe on page 301.
Adapted excerpt from The 20-Minute Body: 20 Minutes, 20 Days, 20 Inches by Brett Hoebel. Copyright ©2015 by Brett Hoebel. A HarperWave book, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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