Wellness Wednesday – Summertime, and the Eatin’ is Easy!

Family“Fat is flavor”, as Michael Ruhlman says, but you don’t need to use fat or sugar to get food to taste good. There’s plenty of room in a balanced diet for sweet and savory, but there are other ways to bring out the flavors of whole foods, which are often more complex and delicious that just adding brown sugar. Although, a little brown sugar helps just about anything! Here are my four “ingredients” that have zero calories and are super-easy to use:

1) Heat. Don’t be scared of a little browning or charring. If ovens were meant to be used at 350*F all the time, they would have on/off switches, instead of temperature controls. Roast your food at 425*F and get crispy, deliciously browned exteriors. The heat carmelizes the natural sugars in the food, creating a rich, sweet taste with no added time or refined sugar. Plus, it cooks faster

Try it! Super-Easy Sweet Potatoes. Heat oven to 425*F (220*C), and turn on the convection fan if you have one. Rinse/scrub 3 or 4 whole sweet potatoes (yams) and toss them in a pan or dish. Stick them in the oven and wait 45-60 minutes, until they are tender all the way through. Let them cool until you can handle them, slide the skins off, and mash them up with a little salt. The skins are delicious – snack on those while you finish dinner!

2) Vinegar. If the only vinegar in your pantry is plain white vinegar, you’re missing out. White vinegar is for mixing with baking soda for volcano science projects. For preparing food, you should have sherry vinegar. It should say “Vinagre De Jerez” on the bottle, be from Spain, and not be terribly expensive. I like this stuff, which is available just about everywhere. This stuff is potent, so use it sparingly! A quick dash on roasted veggies or in a soup is the solution for “this is missing a little something…” 90% of the time. For more general use, keep apple cider vinegar around. It has a lore more complexity than white vinegar, and is still cheap enough to buy by the gallon. Finally, you should have some balsamic for dressings and garnish. The cheap stuff is useful, but the good stuff is divine… and insanely expensive. If you can find it and afford it, anything from Italy with “grape must” as the first ingredient will knock your socks off. And probably be $20-40 for a tiny bottle:save this for special dishes and occasions. All cooking acids do the same basic thing – fresh lemon and lime juice and/or peel should also be at the ready for dishes that are missing a little something.

Try it! Not Yet Pickles. These are a fast and easy snack that we have around most of the time. Kids love them, and they give me something to snack on while I make dinner, other than the cookies Lindsey always has on the counter. Just slice some cucumbers up, and put them in a plastic container with a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water, and add some salt and some dill weed (just dried stuff in the spice can works fine). Eat them right away as crisp “not yet pickles”, or eat them a month later as actual pickles: they keep essentially forever.

3) Salt. Studies linking high-sodium diets to health issues are actually linking diets high in processed, packaged foods to health issues. So, don’t worry about using the salt shaker at the dinner table. Mostly whole foods explode with flavor when you lightly dust them with some salt, or brine them in a salt water solution.

Try it! Brined chicken breasts. It’s hard to get a boneless, skinless chicken breast to not taste like cardboard. I prefer to leave the skin and bone intact while cooking, but either way, brining them will help a ton. Add 1Tbps of salt per cup of water, using just enough to cover the chicken. It’s much better if you take the time to simmer the brine with some onions, garlic, and herbs, but just dumping salt water over some chicken breasts and letting them sit in the fridge for a couple days is still a massive improvement over grilling them straight out of the package. The salt will not only provide flavor, but also keep the meat much moister. Also – take the chicken off before it gets to 165F in the center! 140F will normally do it. Let it sit, covered for 5 minutes, and check again – it’ll be 165+ in the middle, and totally safe to eat without being dried out.

4) Spice. Not everyone likes it hot, but just a smidge of heat can help many dishes. Powdered cayenne packs a ton of heat, chipotle has a richer flavor (it’s roasted before being dried and powdered), and a bottle of Sriracha isn’t just for hipsters. Mustard is also a good one to keep around – I like the whole-grain kind to use in things like egg salad.

Try it! Chipotle avocado sandwich – slice an avocado and put it on bread with some mayo, turkey, and cheese. Or, for a really healthy snack, just leave the slices plain. Either way, put plenty of lime juice and a little salt on them, and then hammer them with chipotle powder. The avocado can handle quite a bit of heat, so don’t be shy!

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