In my journey to real foods, the biggest, and frequently the most exciting component to creating new, real food recipes was flavor. A a chef-to-be, I know that even a plate of veggies in its most natural state can be jazzed up by nothing more than a little salt and pepper. But creating good food is more than just a little seasoning. Being creative and making fresh, wholesome foods better than they were to start with is my passion. Sure fresh foods straight from the source are the most flavorful. But life would be boring without herbs, spices! So in my last installment of my Food series, I will introduce you to some of my favorite all-natural additives.
I LOVE sweets. Not like you could tell, though 😉 During my weight-loss and disordered eating days, sugar was the devil (which it is, but I will get back to that) and artificial sweeteners took sugars place in my diet.I didnt stop to think what I was putting in my body may possibly be worse than sugar! I mean, there are a plethora of articles out there warning about the dangers of Sweet nlow, Nutrasweet, Equal and Splenda. Sure theyre scary, but the bottom line is they are chemicals. And if I dont want chemicals in my fruit and veggies, why was I ingesting them in concentrated forms? So I quit the Splenda habit. But the other hidden sources of A.S.- my addiction to gum and diet soda, were still prevalent in my diet. It wasn’t until recently- and I mean VERY recently, about a month and a half ago, that I truly kicked artificial sweeteners out of my diet. Now I am happy to say I am A.S. free- aside from my favorite sweetener, Stevia. Stevia is a plant in the sunflower family, whose leaves happen to be 30 times sweeter than sugar when dried and ground. You cant get more natural than a naturally-sweet plant! There is some controversy surrounding the safety of Stevia, and it was only recently FDA approved. However, my theory is everything in moderation and until I hear anything else, I will continue indulging in my weekly coffee and daily tea 🙂
As for baking, I try to stay away from white sugar at all costs. Why? Well, as the authors of Skinny Bitch proclaim, Sugar is the Devil. It is refined, stripped of any healthful nutrients- it is nothing but simple carbohdyrates that raise the blood sugar and eventually make you more hungry than you were to start- to put it simply. But I wont write you a book on why I avoid white sugar, Ill just say this: it is highly processed. And processed foods, for the most part, are unnatural. Please, dont get me started on High Fructose Corn Syrup. That would be a post in itself.
So, for baking I like to rely on a few favorites for sweetening purposes: Agave nectar, from the Mexican cactus (Yes, there has been a large amount of controversy around this lately, as well. My opinion? Natural is better than unnatural, simple as that). Raw honey, All-natural unrefined cane sugar (like turbinado, demerara- pretty much Sugar in the Raw), Maple syrup, Maple sugar (pricey, but oh so worth it!), Brown rice syrup and Dates, truly natures candy.
Some other all-natural options that I have not yet tried, but are worth looking into include- Date sugar, Blackstrap molasses, Pomegranate Molasses, Barley Malt syrup and fruit juice concentrates.
Herbs and Spices
As with any vegetables, fresh is best. So I try to use fresh herbs when I can. Ideally one day I would love to have my own herb garden. But living in a closet-sized apartment with no deck and small windows, let alone a yard, sends me to the grocery store every couple of weeks to stock up on my favorite fresh herbs.
A few of my picks-
Cilantro, or coriander
For sauces and soups where fresh herbs for garnish are not necessary, I have a few favorite spices and blends I always turn to.
Garlic & Herb Mix – nothing beats this in scrambled eggs!
Old Bay – the best for fish!
Red pepper flakes
Saffron – super pricey, but a little goes a long way and it is so worth it!
And last but certainly not least, Salt and Pepper. PLEASE season your food. A little salt, especially sea salt, which is the only thing I use, will NOT make your sodium levels skyrocket. Eating processed foods will. So go easy on the canned soup, and add a pinch to your homemade. Salt brings out the flavor in food- dont leave it out! And freshly ground pepper is far superior to the ground stuff.
In addition to these herbs and spices, onions- white and green, garlic, shallots and lemons are indispensible in the kitchen and I always have them around!
Sauces and Vinegars
I like to make my own sauces and dressings, so having ingredients on hand that spice up a dish are crucial.
Vinegars- Balsamic, Red Wine, White Wine, Apple Cider, Umeboshi, Brown rice. They all have their purposes in cooking, and I love them all in their own special way! Plus there are incredible health benefits to both apple cider and umeboshi vinegars- although it sounds contradictory, both are alkalizing in the body, and therefore are disease fighting!
Mayonnaise and Veganaise- Truth be told, I used to hate the stuff. But I am growing to love it, in small amounts of course, and it is a great addition to thick sauces and dressings, or by itself on a big healthy sammie! I choose the real full fat stuff-because the light usually contains tons of chemicals and I only use a little, so the high calorie content isnt a big deal.
Soy sauce and miso paste- For dishes with an asian flair, these two are imperitive. I love soy sauce to add dimension and salitness to many dishes, however, not just asian ones. My favorites are Nama Shoyu and Tamari. Nama means raw, and Tamari is the wheat-free version of shoyu.
Hummus and Tahini- Not just condiments anymore, both make a wonderful, creamy addition to many sauces, casseroles and middle eastern dishes.
Nutritional Yeast- I talked about its benefits in my Protein Power post, but I love it for its slightly salty, robust, cheesy flavor that is a great addition to many vegan dishes!
Organic sour cream and yogurt- Both of these give an amazing creaminess to many dishes, and their slight tanginess adds a new dimension of flavor. However since they are both dairy and go bad, I only buy them on the occasion I know I will use them more than once in the week, because my organic container of sour cream usually runs me around $5!
I do still enjoy a good barbeque sauce, squeeze of ketchup or dollop of dijon mustard, so I look for the most natural, organic, least processed kinds. Annies and Trader Joes make good varieties. I also love having Mirin, Sake and ginger around for asian dishes.
Whew! How is that for a post? Glad you all like my new layout, and keep the blog content suggestions coming!!