After all the more recent weightier posts about getting older and such, I decided this was a good week to lighten things up and share with you some of my favourite cooking hacks of late. Today’s theme, as per title suggestion, is “free” (meaning they don’t factor into my nutritional calculations for calories, macronutrients, etc).
*Disclaimer time: I am not a dietitian, nutritionist, or any kind of nutritional coach/professional. I am also NOT claiming that any of the following foods are calorie-free. What I AM saying is that, I add them (in reasonable/smallish quantities) to my meals on a regular basis without tracking them and have not noticed a detriment to my efforts at counting macronutrients/eating for performance and wellbeing. Now that we have the fine print outta the way, ready to learn how to stock your summer kitchen (although many of these apply year-round) with a few key ingredients that will bump up the flavours of otherwise ho-hum daily meals? Good. Let’s do this.
1. Lemons and limes. A nice, bright citrus finish can take any dish from “meh” to “yeah.” Use the juices to squeeze over grilled meads, roasted veggies or pasta dishes. Squeeze into water or unsweetened iced tea. Swap out for vinegar in salad dress. And don’t forget the zest! If you don’t own a microplane grater – get one (they’re not expensive). Then add that zest to a those dishes I mentioned above (also try in baked goods). One thing that is surprisingly good with the addition of lots of fresh lemon juice? Hummus. My go-to recipe has a lot and it tastes so fresh and bright (PSA: do NOT use the bottled stuff. Just don’t). Also if you’ve never tried making your own lemonade from scratch with real lemon juice: a) it’s SO easy and b) the flavour can’t be beat.
2. Fresh herbs. These play really well with their citrus friends mentioned above. Just
about any place I mentioned using citrus, herbs are delicious too. And if you’re fortunate as I am to have an herb garden, herbs are both calorically and monetarily free. And the fun thing is you can play around with them – different herbs are good for different recipes; but it’s also fun to try the same recipe with different herbs just to switch things up. Add your fav fresh herbs of choice to your usual salad and it suddenly becomes a whole new taste sensation. These days, I’m loving fresh mint on my morning fruit and Greek yogurt or cottage cheese. I’ve also been making a raw fresh herb (I switch them up depending on my mood)/avocado sauce on repeat to top off zucchini noodles (seriously amazing and a great no-cook meal for hot summer nights). Plus if you’re cooking to impress/feeling fancy, a fresh herb garnish is a low-effort way to take a dish to the next level visually.
3. Nutritional yeast. This one is a bit more “out there”/unconventional/weird. From what I hear, it’s a vegan favourite because it has kind of a cheesy taste (remember, I am definitively NOT vegan, but I do enjoy the flavour profile). And it is not yeast, as in, the stuff that makes bread rise. Also don’t be scared off that it sort of resembles fish food. It’s a great finisher for anything that you just want to add a bit of punch/flavour boost to. I love it on kale chips or any other roast veggie. It’s amazing in the avocado/herb sauce I just mentioned. You can also experiment with stirring it into your favourite dips or dressings.
4. Unsweetened cocoa powder. Because chocolate. I will never not want to eat chocolate. I stir this into everything, from iced protein coffee (dissolve it in a bit of hot water first just so it stirs in better), to Greek yogurt, to smoothies, to hot coffee drinks as well. If you want that deep chocolate taste without all the extra sugar, cocoa powder is your BFF. Just remember that it is NOT sweet, so you will either have to add your sweetener of choice or add it to something that’s already sweet.
5. Hot Sauces/Seasonings. If you don’t like it spicy, then this one’s not for you – sorry. I came to the hot sauce game rather late in life, but I’m making up for time. I love me some spicy food these days, and I got even more excited when I realized that most hot sauces are basically just vinegar and spices – meaning they pack major heat and flavour with minimal caloric impact. Bam. Suddenly Buffalo chicken everything seems like a great idea. I also discovered that both Frank’s Red Hot and Sriracha make powdered seasonings (I found at Costco) that are amazing on grilled meats and veggies, or also on kale chips.
6. Vinegars. Vinegar is seriously versatile and is another great flavour booster. I stock my pantry with a wide range of different ones, as they all bring something different to the table. Balsamic is delicious drizzled over grilled or roasted veggies, and also surprisingly wonderful over steak. Rice wine vinegar is perfect in peanut sauce, or anytime you want a light and bright dressing, or something with Asian flair. Red wine and cider vinegars are great in all kinds of salad/slaw dressings. And this is just barely scratching the surface. You can also add just a splash of vinegar to any cooked dish that you feel just needs a hit of flavour right at the end.
Although this list is only 6 ingredients long, I keep thinking of more ideas….so maybe that means I need a part 2? Stay tuned. In the meantime, what did I miss? What are your favourite flavour boosters? (Summer or year-round)