Leia Kedem: Spice it up to enjoy the taste of eating right

Leia Kedem: Spice it up to enjoy the taste of eating right

By Leia Kedem

March is National Nutrition Month, and this year's theme is "Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right," given that taste is the best indicator of whether we will eat a food. With warmer weather on the way, I'm asking you, too, to bring the heat and try my favorite way to make healthy foods more exciting — by spicing it up.

One of the most commonly known (and probably most widely used) seasonings is salt. It enhances the taste of most foods and can be a useful addition to vegetables, which are naturally on the bland side. That's all well and good, but you probably know that too much salt is linked to high blood pressure.

Keep in mind that salt is an acquired taste. Table salt can certainly be used to season, but use it sparingly. If you tend to have a heavy hand, cut back gradually. Take heart, because our taste buds have the amazing ability to adjust. Over time, you will notice that your taste buds become more sensitive to salt. Your desire for salty foods also will go down.

When you use less salt, you will want to punch up the flavor in other ways. Herbs, citrus, hot peppers and spices change the flavor of food by adding new dimensions. I love to add heat with ground black pepper, cayenne or red pepper flakes to everything from pastas, soups and casseroles to vegetables, poultry, seafood and meat.

Fresh or dried herbs can take a dish from ordinary to outstanding when paired in complementary ways. Italian dishes make use of oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary. Southwestern or Mexican-style cuisine often have cumin, coriander (cilantro), oregano and chili powder. Turmeric, mustard seed, curry powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and cumin are characteristic of Indian food.

Try using small amounts of fresh or dried herbs to learn these new tastes. For the best flavor, fresh herbs should be added near the end of cooking time. Dried herbs work just as well and can be more cost-effective. Since dried herbs are two or three times as strong in flavor, use half or a third of the called-for amount when subbing for fresh.

Premade seasoning blends are great ways to experiment with international tastes from the comfort of your own home. Be mindful that many seasoning blends contain salt. It goes without saying, but garlic and onion salt are, well, salty. No doubt, these pungent vegetables can add savory layers of taste. Just use plain garlic or onion powder or add freshly chopped garlic and onion.

If sodium is a big health concern, go for salt-free seasonings. Otherwise, use small amounts to make vegetables and proteins like chicken and fish more palatable.

Beyond herbs and spices, acids like lemon juice, lime juice or vinegars contrast and enhance flavors with their bright tartness. I'm partial to balsamic, but there are many types of vinegars to choose from at the store.

Finally, fat means flavor. Butter makes everything taste better, but it is not always the best choice for heart health. Make a habit of cooking with vegetable oil in place of solid fats. Try infused olive oils to add dimension and different facets of flavor.

Fat can also be found in dairy like sour cream and cheese; use lighter versions or smaller amounts of the real thing. Add small amounts of stronger-tasting, full-fat cheeses like Parmesan and sharp cheddar. High-fat ingredients can absolutely be a part of healthy fare, but it is important to treat these more as a garnish rather than building dishes around them. Even bacon can be included when used in this way (and who would argue with that?).

If you want to learn even more ways to enjoy the taste of eating right, please make plans to join me for a brand new, free monthly program. Studies show that social support is essential to making lasting changes, yet this part of a healthy lifestyle is often neglected. Are you setting yourself up for success?

Come get science-based nutrition education (from yours truly) in a relaxed and fun atmosphere. The Wellness Wednesday Support Group will provide a space to share stories, swap healthy recipes and build a social support network with others who have similar health goals.

We'll cover dining out, cooking light, emotional eating, smart snacking strategies, best practices for breakfast and more.

The first meeting will be at 6 p.m. March 19 in the Champaign County Extension Office, at 801 N. Country Fair Drive, C.

To ensure that there is adequate and comfortable space, please RSVP by Thursday at web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv or call 333-7672.

In the meantime, get cooking with these delicious salt-free spice blends:

Shaker Spice Blend

5 teaspoons onion powder

1 1/4 teaspoons thyme leaves, crushed

2 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 1/2 teaspoons paprika

1/4 teaspoon celery seed

2 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard

Mix thoroughly and place in shaker for use at table on main dishes, vegetables, soups or salads.

Herbed Seasoning

2 tablespoons dried basil leaves, crumbled

1 teaspoon celery seed

2 tablespoons onion powder

1/4 teaspoon grated dried lemon peel

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves, crumbled

Pinch freshly ground pepper

Combine all ingredients in small bowl and blend well. Spoon into shaker and use with poultry and fish.

Spicy Blend

2 tablespoons dried savory, crushed

1 1/4 teaspoons fresh ground white pepper

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin

2 1/2 teaspoons onion powder

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 3/4 teaspoons curry powder

Mix thoroughly and place in shaker. Use with main dishes.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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