March is National Nutrition Month and this year's theme is "Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right." Given that taste is the biggest indicator of whether we will eat a food, the theme is certainly appropriate! With warmer weather on the way, I'm asking you, too, to bring the heat and try my favorite way to make healthy foods more exciting – by spicing it up.Of course, one of the most commonly known (and probably most widely used) seasonings is salt. Salt enhances the taste of most foods and can be a very useful addition to foods like vegetables, which are naturally on the bland side. That's all well and good, but you probably know that too much salt is linked to high blood pressure.
Keep in mind that salt is an acquired taste. Table salt can certainly be used to season foods, but sparingly. If you tend to have a heavy hand, cut back gradually. Take heart, because our taste buds have the amazing ability to adjust. Over time you will notice that your taste buds become more sensitive to salt. Your desire for salty foods will also go down.
When you use less salt, you will want to punch up the flavor in other ways. Herbs, citrus, hot peppers, and spices change the flavor of food by adding new dimensions. I love to add heat with ground black pepper, cayenne, or red pepper flakes to everything from pastas, soups, and casseroles to vegetables, poultry, seafood, and meat.
Fresh or dried herbs can take a dish from ordinary to outstanding when paired in complementary ways. Italian dishes make use of oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary. Southwestern or Mexican-style cuisine often have cumin, coriander (cilantro), oregano, and chili powder. Turmeric, mustard seed, curry powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and cumin are characteristic of Indian food.
Try using small amounts of fresh or dried herbs to learn these new tastes. For the best flavor, fresh herbs should be added near the end of cooking time. Dried herbs work just as well and can be more cost-effective. Since dried herbs are 2-3 times as strong in flavor compared, use ½ or 1/3 of the called-for amount when subbing for fresh.
Pre-made seasoning blends are great ways to experiment with international tastes from the comfort of your own home. Be mindful that many seasoning blends contain salt. It almost goes without saying, but sometimes we forget that garlic and onion salt are also, well, salty. No doubt, these pungent vegetables can add savory layers of taste. Just use plain garlic or onion powder or add freshly chopped garlic and onion. If sodium is a big health concern, go for salt-free seasonings. Otherwise, use small amounts to make vegetables and proteins like chicken and fish more palatable. Beyond herbs and spices, acids like lemon juice, lime juice, or vinegars contrast and enhance flavors with their bright tartness. I'm partial to balsamic, but there are many types of vinegars to choose from at the supermarket.
Finally, fat means flavor. Butter makes nearly everything taste better, but it is not always the best choice for heart health. Make a habit of cooking with vegetable oil in place of solid fats. Try infused olive oils to add dimension and different facets of flavor.
Fat can also be found in dairy like sour cream and cheese; use lighter versions or smaller amounts of the real thing. Add small amounts of stronger-tasting, full-fat cheeses like Parmesan and sharp cheddar. High-fat ingredients can absolutely be a part of healthy fare, but it is important to treat these more as a garnish rather than building dishes around them. Even bacon can be included when used in this way. And who would argue with that?
Get cooking tonight with these delicious salt-free spice blends!
Shaker Spice Blend
Sodium: 1.78 mg per teaspoon
5 teaspoons onion powder 1 1/4 teaspoons thyme leaves, crushed
2 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 1/2 teaspoons paprika 1/4 teaspoon celery seed
2 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
Mix thoroughly and place in shaker for use at table on main dishes, vegetables, soups or salads.
Sodium: 0.65 mg per teaspoon
2 tablespoons dried basil leaves, crumbled 1 teaspoon celery seed
2 tablespoons onion powder 1/4 teaspoon grated dried lemon peel
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves, crumbled Pinch freshly ground pepper
Combine all ingredients in small bowl and blend well. Spoon into shaker and use with poultry and fish.
Sodium: 0.59 mg per teaspoon
2 tablespoons dried savory, crushed 1 1/4 teaspoons fresh ground white pepper
1 tablespoon dry mustard 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin
2 1/2 teaspoons onion powder 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 3/4 teaspoons curry powder
Mix thoroughly and place in shaker. Use with main dishes.
Today's post was written by Leia Kedem. Leia Kedem, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. She appears weekly on WCIA-3/WCIX-49 and is a biweekly contributor to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts where she regularly posts health tips and answers nutrition questions for free.