No More Bland Diet Food!

All of us are striving to cook in a way that's healthy and simple. Unfortunately, healthy and simple can sometimes add up to bland: A plain piece of broiled fish or baked chicken isn’t particularly exciting, right?

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 really elevate the dish.

Add flavor without all the fat by trying these five "secret" ingredients!

Lemon Juice
Squeeze half a lemon (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 (not to mention cheaper and healthier) 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.

  • Try preserved lemons: Traditionally a Mediterranean ingredient, lemons that have been preserved in salt punch up a range of dishes. Buy them at a specialty food store, or make your own—it’s super easy to do; here’s how. Add preserved lemon to marinades, dressings or rubs for grilled or roasted meat.
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 not overly so) and deeply flavored. Pimenton is fantastic on vegetables—it’s crazy good on steamed or creamed corn. It’s also wonderful on grilled meats and a terrific addition to any Tex-Mex dish in your repertoire.

  • Cayenne can pack a lot of heat, and the fresher it is, the hotter. So, use cayenne sparingly when you want just a bit of a kick. 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.

Herb blends
Yep, you know the ones that are sitting in jars gathering dust in your cabinet. How many of us buy specialty blends and then completely forget we have them? But interesting herb mixes can add tremendous flavor to simple dishes. (Hint: If you have no idea when you purchased that jar of Italian seasoning, then you should pitch it and get a new one—then USE IT! Jarred herbs and spices lose their flavor after more than a year.) You can find good herb or spice blends in the grocery, but the specialty retailers are really worth checking out—their proprietary blends are terrific, and make wonderful gifts for yourself or for foodies you know. I recommend these two: The Spice House and Penzey's.

You can always find these herb/spice blends in my kitchen:
  • Herbes de Provence, a blend of French and Italian herbs like thyme, rosemary, tarragon, basil, marjoram, and others, plus lavender (which gives the unique flavor). This blend is fabulous sprinkled on sautéed or steamed green vegetables, or mixed with goat cheese for a cocktail spread.

  • The Spice House’s Lake Shore Drive Seasoning is a mix of chives, dried shallot and green pepper, with onion, garlic and salt. It has become essential on grilled fish, is delicious on scrambled eggs when we do breakfast for dinner, and it’s great on sautéed green vegetables.

  • Italian Herb Blend is an easy-to-find combo of basil, oregano, thyme and often rosemary. Make your own Italian dressing by combining 2 tsp. of herb blend with 1/3 cup of red wine vinegar and 1/2 cup of olive oil. Use in spaghetti sauce, marinades, or toss with angel hair pasta and a bit of butter for a simple side dish.

  • Chef Meg's Taco Seasoning really packs a punch of flavor in a 3-ingredient mix of chili powder, cumin, and red pepper flakes. Add this to chili, burritos, tacos and more.

Simple, vegetable- or herb-based sauces make flavorful, low-cal toppings for grilled or broiled meats. Try these ideas:
  • Salsa, either homemade or prepared, goes well with mild fish (like tilapia or sea bass). You can top grilled fish with room temperature salsa; here’s a great homemade version to try. For a neat variation, try Chef Meg’s Spicy Stone Fruit Salsa. You can even grill a steak and top it with a combination of 1 cup diced fresh tomato, 2 Tbsp. slivered basil and 1 Tbsp. each of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Salsa can also take the place of dressing on a salad for just a fraction of the calories!

  • Chimichurri is a South American blend of fresh herbs—primarily parsley, with garlic, wine vinegar and olive oil. Some variations call for fresh oregano or cilantro. Try spooning chimichurri over grilled steak or fish. Its Italian cousin, of course, is pesto, which traditionally is fairly high in fat (thanks to olive oil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese). Chef Meg’s lighter version of pesto, made with parsley instead of basil, is great on fish.

  • Roasted red pepper sauce enhances grilled pork or chicken, and it’s a terrific sandwich topping. Here’s how to make it: Roast 2 whole red bell peppers under the broiler until the skins are blackened; remove and place in a paper bag to steam the skins loose. Peel, seed and chop into 1/4 inch dice. (You can even use a jar of roasted red peppers.) Add a clove of garlic, smashed, 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, and salt and pepper.

As you can see, eating healthy doesn't have to be tasteless or boring. Once you try these secret ingredients, you'll be hooked!