The problem with dieting is that the most satisfying foods are often the most calorie-dense.
Or are they? While I’m not about to deny that a bar of milk chocolate or a serving of fries is not pleasurable to the taste buds, there are in fact a number of ingredients out there that can boost flavour without adversely affecting the calorie count of your meal.
If you learn to use such ingredients when cooking, you’ll be able to create meals that are both good for you and tasty. And I don’t mean that in a “low-calorie, tastes okay but feels like it’s missing something” kind of way – I mean it in a “holy crap, my mouth is alive with flavours!” kind of way.
So without further adieu, let’s take a look at five low-calorie ingredients that can add big flavour to your meals. We’re going to start with the basics, then branch out into some less common ingredients in future instalments.
1. Salt and Pepper
While you may consider this an obvious suggestion (and you’d be right), salt and pepper are often woefully underused and/or misused.
First of all, don’t be afraid to use salt and pepper in relative abundance. I know the health community is up in arms about salt intake, but if you’re making your meals from scratch, you are incredibly unlikely to use too much. The human body is a remarkable machine, and is more than capable of telling you when you’ve put too much salt in a meal.
Secondly, consider using freshly ground sea salt and black peppercorns. While sea salt has no real flavour difference when compared to table salt, it offers a unique texture (with little ‘pops’ of flavour as each flake hits your tongue) that can’t be matched by table salt. As for freshly ground black peppercorns, when it comes to adding depth of flavour to a meal, nothing beats it.
Garlic (along with onion) serves as the base for most Western recipes, and with good reason. I love garlic, and personally speaking, I think it’s woefully underused. An obligatory clove of garlic in a recipe for two is doing its taste potential a disservice.
In my humble opinion, it’s tough (but admittedly possible) to put too much garlic in a dish. Don’t pay it lip service by dismissively throwing a clove into your recipes; toy around with amounts until you know how much garlic you should include so that you can taste and appreciate its presence.
I once considered herbs a bit pointless. I didn’t appreciate what they could bring to meal. But the thing about herbs is that it’s not all about the taste (although certain herbs can add big flavour to a dish) – it’s about their aroma, and how they alter the appearance of a meal.
Coriander is definitely one of my favourites. Included in asian-style dishes (like my chicken stir fry or chicken tikka, lentil, and spinach salad), it not only adds a unique flavour, but the smell it produces is pretty divine – not to mention the bright green colour that it adds to a dish.
Aside from coriander, herbs I tend to use more than most include basil, dill, mint, and thyme. Go for fresh if possible (it makes a big difference), but don’t turn your nose up at dried herbs – they’re better than nothing.
Spices can define a meal – turning it from something utterly bland to bursting with flavour. If I could only use one item from this list of five, it would be spices.
While there are an enormous number of spices available that I encourage you to experiment with, a few of my favourites include cinnamon, paprika, cumin, coriander seed, and cardamom. Furthermore, popular spice mixes (such as Chinese five spice and curry powder) can completely transform a meal.
Want an example of how big a difference spices can make to food? Coat a breast of chicken with a teaspoon of allspice mixed with olive oil and fry it over a medium heat until cooked through (around 10–15 minutes). Yum.
Stocks are the savior of many a bland meal, turning otherwise unexciting (yet healthy) ingredients into something far more appealing.
My favorite example is couscous. Cooked plain, it could hardly be more unexciting. But add some vegetable stock (and as I often like to, some chopped onion and pepper) and it is transformed. Throw some freshly ground black peppercorns into the mix and you’re really firing on all cylinders.
No cook’s cupboard should be without a selection of stocks (in cube form is fine). I tend to most commonly use beef, chicken and vegetable stock.
This is the first of a multi-part series. I’ve started with some of the more obvious examples of low-calorie ingredients that can offer big flavour, but as we get deeper into the series I’ll be discussing some lesser-known ingredients, along with examples of how they can be used.