Home cooks can discover new and exciting tastes while trimming sodium from their cooking. For National Nutrition Month in March, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics encourages everyone to experiment with new combinations of herbs and spices as they cook at home.
So, indulge your desire to sample and discover new foods and flavors. While experimenting with new dishes that incorporate tuberous vegetables, leafy greens, red and orange vegetables, and whole grains, nuts and seeds, you can embrace the world of flavor by rediscovering time-tested flavor combinations. Herbs, spices and other regional food flavors offer a palette of possibilities.
Herbs and spices are major carriers of flavor. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines herbs as plants or plant parts (leaves, stems or flowers), valued for their medicinal, savory or aromatic qualities. Examples are parsley, basil and rosemary. Herbs grow in temperate climates and are widely available, with many uses in flavoring and garnishing food. Spices, available in whole or powdered form, come from the seed, fruit, root or bark of a plant. Black pepper, cinnamon and paprika are spices used for flavoring and coloring food. Many spices grow in tropical climates, which encouraged the early spice trade.
Libby Mills is a registered dietitian and an academy spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Mills notes that every culture has its traditional favorites when it comes to flavor combinations. Below is her top 10 list of popular ethnic cuisines and the flavors associated with them:
• China: Low-sodium soy sauce, rice wine, ginger.
• France: Thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram, lavender, tomato.
• Greece: Olive oil, lemon, oregano.
• Hungary: Onion, paprika.
• India: Curry, cumin, ginger, garlic.
• Italy: Tomato, olive oil, garlic, basil, marjoram.
• Mexico: Tomato, chili, paprika.
• Middle East: Olive oil, lemon, parsley.
• Morocco/North Africa: Cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger.
• West Africa: Tomato, peanut, chili.
Try some of these time-tested combos. A modest assortment of dried herbs and spices will provide for basic cooking needs. These include oregano, garlic powder, thyme, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, chili powder, Italian herb blend, basil, thyme, poultry seasoning and rosemary.
Try a new herb, spice or seasoning blend and see how it works with your cooking repertoire. There is no need to keep something you find lacking in flavor.
Two of my own favorite recent discoveries are common Mediterranean seasonings. Za’tar is a combination of thyme and a bit of sesame seed and salt, and occasionally other ingredients. I first tasted it on a tour of ethnic restaurants in Chicago. It is commonly used to sprinkle over oiled bread prior to heating under the broiler and is a nice change from garlic bread. It can also be added to olive oil and used for dipping bread. My second discovery is sumac, a purple-red berry, ground to a powder and used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Sometimes it is an ingredient in za’tar. It has a bright citrus flavor, so try it in those dishes you enjoy with lemon. Sprinkle it on top of hummus or use it with broccoli, cannellini beans or fish. It has a nice tart flavor that is not as overpowering as lemon.
Fresh herbs offer an additional culinary and sensory experience — try using a pair of herb scissors to make quick work of them. And, herbs and spices benefit from dark, cool storage — in a cabinet or drawer away from the oven.
So, continue to experiment with new flavor combinations and enjoy a satisfying palate of tastes.