Seasoning and the Jaded Palate
Americans are peculiar. As a country, we are known to love our food- big food, pretty food, processed food- and lots of it. At the same time, we do the strangest thing. We prepare all that glorious food in ways that minimize its natural flavors, loading it with salt, sugar, and chemicals.
Many common cooking practices here turn foods with incredible flavor profiles into bland, monotonous lumps through overcooking and chemical processing. Even worse, these preparation methods rob food of its natural goodness and often require artificial ‘fortifying’ in order to have any nutritional value.
It’s rather disturbing to look at popular foods here and realize how many of them are the same color- a sort of beige-brown. Store bought chicken nuggets, fish sticks, breakfast cereals, cookies- all beige. Researching the most popular foods in this country has revealed a rather alarming revelation: size of the pieces aside, they all look like pet food.
Identically shaped processed food chunks designed to be prepared with minimal effort and swilled quickly and thoughtlessly.
Yuck. There has got to be a better way.
Here is how to make healthy food taste better!
Too Much Salt, Too Much Sugar
The problem here stems from our childhoods- when we learned what we liked, what was traditional and accepted- and we ate what our parents ate. With every meal, every snack and treat provided (healthy or not), we developed a baseline of taste perception.
For example, when eating French fries we have a preconceived notion of what constitutes not salty enough/ just right/ too salty. An American’s perception of acceptable saltiness (or sweetness, for that matter) is ratcheted up very high.
Subtle salty and sweet flavors are not perceived at all…as a country, we are rather ‘mouth-blind’ to the rich variety of flavors out there.
We haven’t always been like this. If you look up recipes from a couple of hundred years ago, you are as likely to see desserts sweetened with raisins or dates as with white sugar. We’ve always been driven to love sweet things- but we haven’t always had the ability or desire to over sweeten food to the degree it is today.
This tells us something important: we can change. Just because you currently love two spoons of sugar in your coffee now doesn’t mean that you can’t retrain your palate to enjoy less sweetness.
Food can still taste marvelous without so much sugar and salt- you just have to learn how to taste again. Much like learning a foreign language it requires practice, and is an equally worthwhile pursuit.
Re-learning how to taste and season your food is an enormous step in transforming your daily portion into something truly worth eating. It comes with a bunch of side effects I’ll warn you about right now, though: lower cholesterol, more energy, less inflammation, weight loss, and a sense of wellbeing.
You can possibly also save money by not buying overprocessed store bought crap. Win- win situation.
There’s some great news here. Creatively speaking, there are dozens of ways to prepare food that enhance its natural flavor. Many are ridiculously simple. Most are relatively easy. Some changes can fit seamlessly into your current preferences, and others might require a little bit of adjusting.
It’s not like there’s a lack of variety to experiment with, and with a little tweaking you can discover delicious new flavor combinations you never knew existed.
There are three aspects to experiencing food on a whole new level. Your body (and your taste buds) will thank you!
1. What’s In The Fridge (or Cupboard)?
It’s a common adage in computer programming that ‘garbage in, is garbage out’. It applies to our daily diets just as well. How many ‘convenience foods’ do you have on hand? How many do you eat every day? How many of them have lots of salt, sugar, and/or chemical preservatives?
Well, this is a very simple fix. Where and when you can, invest in the best quality food possible. This can mean organic, this can mean free range, this can mean your local farmer’s market. Food with this kind of quality is more expensive for the same reason that gold is more expensive than plastic: it’s more valuable.
This is food that you’re going to build your body with, that your family will fuel themselves with, too. Are you all not worth an investment?
Try for simple changes for starters. No need to go overboard!
Brown rice for white, or organic carrots instead of conventional. Both, I know, are much tastier options that fit nicely without making a huge dent in your wallet.
It’s also worthwhile to check out what produce in your area is the most pesticide- laden. Everybody knows to wash their fruits and veggies first…but we all unthinkingly grab an apple out of the fruit bowl, or greedily gobble fresh strawberries. If you make wise choices, you can avoid ingesting more carcinogenic chemicals than you absolutely have to.
Put like that, it seems like a bit of a no-brainer.
The same goes for meat and dairy products. Organic always tastes better but can be pricey.
Look into local farms and cooperatives for better- sourced products this way. It may not be fully organic, but often there are very good, ethical sources for your animal proteins to be found locally.
You can often arrange to buy in bulk, or have a weekly portion set aside. As an initial investment, buying a whole side of quality beef or several free range chickens to freeze can be a shock. Go in with another like-minded family or two, and your budget takes less of a hit in the end. Everyone ends up healthier in the long run- and you potentially start a support system to network the best sources of local food possible.
Want to take a walk on the wild side?
Depending on where you live, you can potentially raise your own chickens for eggs and meat. Many towns don’t zone against them, and they make wonderful pets that will rid your lawn of grubs (hey, saving money not needing the lawn guy!).
They also produce high quality manure that subsides into the soil quickly. Poof, a healthy bright lawn! And you thought that this was just about your sweet tooth. If you make careful choices, a few dietary changes can have an enormous impact on all aspects of your life.
So you have switched to at least some organics, upped the quality of your protein sources, and possibly taken a cautious step into homesteading. Good for you!
This all involves monetary investment which can be worrisome, especially when you figure that you are not bringing as much food home with the same amount of money.
Here’s the trick: everything you’ve changed, even though lesser in quantity, is much more nutritious than its predecessor. A smaller serving of meat or helping of produce will be more satisfying because it has a higher load of usable vitamins and nutrients with a lower dose of artificial chemicals.
It’ll also taste infinitely better- making it worthwhile to slow down and savor what you’re eating.
It sounds easy in theory, but in practice the adaptation can be challenging. Don’t give up, because there are more changes you can make that’ll improve your food’s flavor and have a huge impact on your overall health.
2. Adding Flavour- Without Sugar or Salt (or at least without too much, anyway)
Once you’ve committed to reducing the processed foods in your life and increasing the whole foods in your diet, you might feel a little stuck. Fresh things taste good raw, but what about those intense flavors we Americans love so much? How can you build those without too much added salt or sugar?
Oh, there are so many ways!
So many fascinating, delicious, satisfying ways to take your awesome base ingredients and create a meal to rave over. With a little practice you can become a truly astonishing chef, even if you’re not much of a cook to start with. You’ll be able to blend flavors together as easily as a child stacks blocks.
We’re talking true flavor enhancers here, ones that turn the mundane into the astonishing. Yep, this isn’t me getting overheated about food (though that is pretty easy). It boils down to simple if/ then statements on what seasonings to add to your dish.
In short, you’re going to be experimenting with herbs (fresh and dried), spices (ground and whole), acids, and citrus zests. Sounds pretty amazing, right? All these components have collateral health benefits, too- some are anti- inflammatory, other improve digestion or help with memory.
Hippocrates, in Ancient Greece said, ‘Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.’. Oh, how tasty a pill this will be to swallow!
Fresh or Dried Herbs
I don’t judge here- sometimes you just don’t have the convenience of fresh- plucked mint or whatever. Dried herbs work- they’re just a little more concentrated in flavor so you have to keep that in mind when adding them to a dish. I will admit the sad crime of optimistically buying fresh basil one week…only to find the sad zombie remains in my crisper the next.
Nobody’s perfect. Mistakes are okay. And fresh herbs aren’t that pricey, so the times I do use them, I love the effect and impact they make on my food.
I also try to grow some of my own in pots on my kitchen windowsill. I am nothing if not an optimist. I currently have a gigantic afro of thyme that makes washing dishes and tidying said windowsill…challenging. But it smells like heaven, and my chicken soup is to die for!
To top it off, a lot of these herbs have medicinal properties, so they don’t just make your food taste better, they also help you feel better in general.
Green leafy herbs are forgiving and adaptable in most dishes. Try oregano, sage, thyme, dill, or rosemary in a savory dish of meat or vegetables. With a little trial and error you can compound your own rubs for meats (also try using dried tea leaves here for a pungent Asian- inspired flavor).
Looking for a little guilt-free sweetness? Try crushing mint leaves in ice water for a bright change of pace. No matter which herbs you choose, there are many ways to incorporate them to improve your meals.
There’s some hard- hitting flavors here, covering both savory and sweet profiles. Think about chili powder, curry, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron.
Many of these can be heated in oil or butter and sautéed before the main ingredient is added to a cooking pan. Hot fat of some variety helps to release more volatile components from intense spices. Cooking meat or vegetables in a prepared man like this makes for a satisfying, flavor- infused end product.
Looking to enhance the natural sweetness of fruit, or kick up plain yogurt? Sweet spices like cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg enhance the natural taste without detracting from the original food.
In both cases, a small amount of salt or sugar can really transform a particular recipe- but use both of these to enhance the original flavors. ‘Sugar-sweet’ and ‘salty’ should never be flavors on their own. Think about how wine tasters describe what they drink- always in terms that reference specific flavors, ones that impact the nose as well as the taste buds. You don’t smell ‘sweet’ or ‘salty’, but you do taste ‘peachy’, ‘woody’ or ‘nutty’ flavors.
Fat has gotten a bad rap, and sometimes it deserved it (I’m looking at you, trans fats).
Going hog- wild on butter isn’t healthy for anyone; that doesn’t mean that this glorious staple of French food needs to be avoided. Far from it! Butter only intensifies in rich flavor as you cook with it- and brings about the best in many herbs and spices.
Olive oil is a culinary go-to in any kitchen, but don’t let that distract you from yummy options like nut oils or those infused with flavors (like truffle oil).
Fats that help flavor come in all forms, too, not just pourable ones. Invest in a microplane and try adding a soft dusting of hard cheese to salads for a punch of salty- not salty flavor.
Avocados are more than guacamole here- added to a salad, spread on whole wheat toast with tomato slices, or blended into sauces it lends buttery, earthy notes. Nuts can be huge flavor accent here because of their fat content, especially when they are toasted before being added to a dish. Yum.
The two most common acids used in cooking are citrus juices and vinegar.
Acids tame bitterness and bring a bright tang to mildly flavored foods. They form a useful base when concocting marinades, helping to infuse flavor while simultaneously tenderizing meats.
Best of all, there are a lot of them to choose from! Lemon, limes, and oranges all work well with poultry and fish dishes, as well as salads.
And as for vinegar, most people are familiar with white distilled vinegar and balsamic. Step a little further down the aisle and you’ll see champagne vinegar, apple cider vinegar, even port vinegar. All of these are delightful and easy to use, with their own particular notes and values.
If you’re truly adventurous, you can even make your own from leftover wine. It’s ridiculously easy, though it requires a little patience. In the end, any homemade vinegar will be infinitely better than anything store bought (and will make a welcome gift for foodie friends in the know).
3. Cooking Techniques That Make It Count
Everything today moves so quickly. That doesn’t have to intrude in your kitchen!
It doesn’t mean that you have to spend all day cooking, either. With a small amount of patience, your cooking skills will soar. How you cook something will heavily impact the way it tastes in the end, while simultaneously changing the textures and colors it presents.
Browning is the most versatile form of cooking, ever. It covers baking, roasting, and toasting. The whole idea is to form a tasty crust on the outside of whatever you’re preparing, whether it be meat, veggies, or baked goods.
It’s extremely satisfying to bite through and chew, and forms a barrier to keep moisture or juiciness inside. When toasting nuts or grains in particular it releases oils and adds an aromatic intensity to your dish whether it is savory or sweet. Plus, it makes your house smell terrific!
Caramelizing is a technique where heat is used to convert starch and volatile compounds (usually acids) into sugars.
Onions and garlic are glorious prepared like this, both sweet and savory at once, and a perfect compliment to meats, fish, and vegetables. The beautiful deep-brown color compliments just about every meal, and the flavors infuse whatever you’re cooking with outstanding richness.
All veggies in the allium family (onions, garlic, leeks, shallots) caramelize beautifully, all they all lend their own unique and delicious notes.
Two kinds of slow cooking add healthy flavor to any dish, with two entirely different approaches.
Poaching (usually in white wine or broth) has you slowly simmering vegetables, chicken, or fish over low heat. This is particularly rewarding because once your main dish is cooked, you can toss a handful of herbs into the pot and reduce the liquid to form a delicious, no- fuss sauce. I like efficiency; when it comes with a built in tasty drizzle, I like it even better. Mmm, efficiency.
The second kind of slow cooking is more familiar, where you use a slow cooker or and let a meal slowly develop over the course of several hours. Slow heat introduces flavors throughout the whole item you’re cooking, and in the case of meats results in a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.
It’s hard to not enjoy a slow cooked meal because on top of the deliberate accumulation of flavors, the aromas that fill your home in the process are mouthwatering.
Eat Up, and Enjoy!
Making your food healthier isn’t that difficult. It involves many steps, some which may work for you, others may not.
That’s okay, because you’re making improvements. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you’re not going to overhaul your whole way of life overnight. Slow down.
Enjoy your transformation, and having fun exploring your food. It’ll make it all the more worthwhile when you sit down to a carefully composed meal that becomes family legend.