The remedy for the healthy-but-boring dilemma is easy: Stock your pantry with a few strategic items that consistently bring a little "spark" to your cooking without adding significant cost or calories. Start with great basic ingredients, prepare them simply, and then add a punch of flavor to the dish.
Add flavor without all the fat by trying these five ingredients:
1. Lemon Juice
Squeeze half a lemon (just 6 calories per serving) over just about anything, and you’ll get a burst of flavor that’s bright and expressive. Here are some ideas:
- Toss a bowlful of Bibb or butter head lettuce with lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper, and you have a fantastic alternative to bottled salad dressing.
- Spritz lemon juice over steamed, grilled or sautéed green vegetables of any kind: broccoli, snap peas, fresh spinach, asparagus, green beans, zucchini. For even brighter flavor, grate the rind of half a lemon using a microplane or zester, and add that to the dish. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add lemon juice to marinade for chicken; when cooked, it will create a more tender and juicy dish. Squeeze lemon juice over a grilled steak.
- Make a compound butter: Combine 1 stick of salted butter (softened at room temperature) with the zest of 1 lemon and 2 Tbsp. of finely minced parsley. Wrap in waxed paper; place in a zip-top bag and store in the freezer. Use this to sauté vegetables or to top grilled steak or fish; a little bit (35 calories per tablespoon) goes a long way—and adds a ton of flavor.
Sure, you know about garlic. But here’s an insider technique that really brings out garlic’s flavor: Place a large unpeeled clove on a cutting board; place the blade of a chef’s knife flat to cover the garlic, and hit it sharply with your palm. This makes it easy to remove the papery skin. Trim off the root end and remove any green sprout inside. Hold the knife at about a 45-degree angle to the cutting board, and firmly draw the blade across the smashed garlic repeatedly, creating a paste. If your recipe calls for salt, then sprinkle some on the garlic as you work; the salt is abrasive and helps mash the garlic. Add this paste to salad dressing, marinade or a sauté pan instead of using chopped garlic.
Think beyond basic black pepper and try pimenton, cayenne and red pepper flakes for a new range of flavors. Pepper is essentially calorie-free and doesn't carry the health risks that salt (sodium) does. Try these varieties:
- Pimenton is a smoked Spanish paprika that adds a spicy, smoky taste that’s hot (but still modest) and deeply flavored. Pimenton is fantastic on vegetables and wonderful on grilled meats.
- Cayenne can pack a lot of heat, and the fresher it is, the hotter. Add a pinch, then taste and see if the dish can take more heat.
- Red pepper flakes aren’t just pizza toppers; they’re great in spaghetti sauce, as well. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes along with garlic when you sauté any vegetable, particularly if you’re going for an Italian flavor. You can also add a pinch to any marinade for some extra spice.
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