I will start the series with something dear to my heart: food! I taught myself how to cook when I was in college, and I basically made the standards: chicken, burgers, pasta and cupcakes (for breakfast? Don’t judge!)! After I graduated, working on Oakland near ethnic restaurants and shops encouraged in me a sense of adventure. As I was living on my own and buying all my own groceries, I was more willing to expand my tastes. Slowly, I evolved from a pizza-snacking, fry-popping twenty-something to a bean-sprout tasting, homemade dip-making, avocado-nibbling experimentalist. The list that follows includes some of the most underappreciated foods I have encountered in the past five years…and how I have come to respect them!
1. Plain, Nonfat Yogurt
Having begun to watch both my salt and fat intake lately (and, to his dismay, my husband’s as well), I was blown away by how much of the “bad stuff” is in even reduced-fat and light products, like ranch dressing, cheese, and flavored yogurt cups. Fortunately, plain, nonfat yogurts is an incredibly healthy ingredient – and it’s also a master of disguise! I use it as a base for homemade dressing. Portion out about a half-cup of yogurt, add a sprinkle of garlic powder, onion powder, parsley, dill and a splash of skim milk. Stir well, and you have a tasty, light alternative to ranch dip! Add hot sauce, chili powder and red pepper flakes for a sauce to drizzle over burritos or tacos. For breakfast, I combine 2/3 of a cup of yogurt with a sprinkle of sweetener and either 1/4 cup of raisins or cranberries or 1/2 cup of chopped pineapple. Plenty of protein, some fiber, calcium…a good way to start the day!
Yup. For real. The facts are plain; tofu, made from soybean curd, is one of the leanest, cheapest forms of protein you can buy, and unlike nuts, meat and eggs, tofu is cholesterol and saturated fat-free. Just make sure you’re purchasing the correct consistency for what you plan to do with it. Firmer tofu is great for grilling and sautéing, while softer tofu works great when blended in desserts. Soft tofu also works well when blended with ground beef or turkey in meatloaf, burgers, and lasagna. Tofu does pick up the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with, so it’s virtually indistinguishable in dishes with meat. I think the texture tends to turn people off as well, so if you can get away from imaging tofu as a slimy white brick and start imagining it as a great addition to a meatball sub, you’ll be well on your way to appreciating soybeans a little more.
I despised mushrooms when I was a child. I went so far as to pick tiny cubes of them out of any dish my mother made with cream of mushroom soup. I’d devour the chicken or rice, but on my plate would remain a small pile of gray blocks that eventually ended up on the dog’s bowl. For whatever reason, my opinion has changed as I have matured. Now, I love sautéing them in a bit of olive oil and eating them as a dish on their own. I also love threading them on skewers, brushing them with oil and sea salt, and throwing them on the grill. I recently tried them in an omelet with mozzarella cheese and was pleasantly surprised that a meatless meal could be so tasty. Like tofu, they function as a great filler in recipes requiring meat, but I rarely replace meat entirely. After all, you can’t get the iron and vitamins you need from mushrooms and tofu alone! The next big challenge is getting my husband to appreciate them as well!
Being conscious of my sodium intake has actually encouraged me to be more creative and daring with spices. Recent studies have shown some spices, like oregano, and cinnamon, to provide genuine, heart-healthy benefits like reducing cholesterol. Ross loves Mexican food, so I find myself loading our meals with flavors like lime, cilantro, and cumin. There’s so much intensity to these spices that we rarely need to add salt. Italian meals benefit hugely from plenty of oregano, basil and garlic, of course, and my chili always contains two secret ingredients: curry for kick and cinnamon for sass! Below is a chart for flavors that pair well. Try them on meats, mixed with side dishes, or sprinkled on top of fresh or cooked vegetables.
Lime and cilantro
Black pepper, oregano and basil
Lemon and rosemary
Pepper, lemon and garlic
Chili and lime
Basil, thyme and garlic
Cumin, black pepper and red pepper
Dill, lemon and cilantro
5. Alternative Side Dishes
Thanks to more and more stores expanding their ethnic food sections, I have been finding myself picking up packages with foreign writing all over them, taken them home and been pleased to find new favorite dishes. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes I crave me some Velveeta Shells and Cheese Dinner, but I also love the mealy, earthy bite of barley and the almost creamy texture of couscous. I add barely to my Italian wedding soup instead of the pasta. It’s healthier, creates a heartier texture, and makes it unique. Couscous tastes great on its own, but it’s also fantastic when mixed with sautéed zucchini, finely chopped onion and parmesan cheese. Another trick I like is heating plain, unflavored croutons, with spices and low-sodium broth to create “homemade” stuffing. Much faster than cooking it in the bird!
Maybe these ideas don’t get your heart racing or your mouth watering, but maybe they’re helping open the door to trying new things. It’s not always an overnight process, but in the end, it’s probably healthier, and more fun, than living on chicken nuggets, fries and ketchup (all due respect to Heinz, of course)!
Next up in the series: Stores!