This is a post from NF Rebel Chef Noel.
Remember those diagrams of the tongue that you learned about in school? They told you the tongue tasted different flavors depending on the section. The back tastes bitter, the front tastes sweet, and the sides taste salty and sour.
Most of us now know this is wrong. Your whole tongue tastes all flavors, and it’s not just your tongue! The roof of our mouth and your nose help out too! In fact, there are more than just the four flavors we learned about in school.
There is another lie that has been circulating the fitness world for years. It’s a lie that says healthy food is boring and bland. It drives me crazy. And in this nerd’s opinion, it’s one of the most damaging lies told about getting healthy.
We know diet is 80% of the battle when it comes to achieving our health and fitness goals. And when we tell ourselves eating healthy food is boring, flavorless, and downright gross, we put ourselves on the fast track to failure! Just like exercise can and should be fun, cooking meat and veggies should be delicious.
How? Simple flavors. Think of these like the compound movements of cooking.
Here are 6 fool proof spice combinations to help you level up your cooking skills, explore the world with your tongue, and (hopefully) get you out of your food rut!
The Core Six
Tons of rebels looking to level up their cooking have asked about re-creating their favorite dishes from around the world. I’ve got good news for you! It’s not as difficult as most people think.
Regional dishes taste the way they do because they are made from the spices and ingredients local to that community. Your ancestors didn’t need Super Processed Stir Fry Sauce™ to make dinner. They used whole foods to create delicious dishes, and we’re going to do the same.
Here are 6 simplified spice combinations that you can use to take your healthy meals from bland to bold. Each is measured for a pound of food:
- Mexican: 1 Tbsp (15ml) Chili powder, juice of 1 Lime
- Greek: 1 Tbsp (15ml) Oregano, 2 tbsp (30ml) Olive Oil, 2 tbsp (30ml) Lemon juice
- Italian: ½ Tbsp (7ml) Oregano, 3 cloves (½ tsp/2.5ml powdered) Garlic, ½ tbsp (7ml) Basil, 1 can diced Tomatoes
- Indian: ½ Tsp (2.5ml) Cumin, 1 tbsp (15ml) Curry, ½ tsp (2.5ml) Coriander
- Chinese/Japanese (this makes a marinade or stir fry sauce): ¼ tsp (1ml) Ginger, ¼ cup (59ml)Tamari (coconut aminos or soy sauce), 2 Tbsp (30ml)Rice Vinegar, 3 cloves (½ tsp/2.5ml powdered) Garlic, dash red pepper flake, 1 tbsp (15ml) Sugar (honey)
- Thai (this makes a marinade or stir fry sauce): 1/2 cup (118ml) Coconut milk, 1/4 cup (59ml) Tamari (coconut aminos), 2 tbsp (30ml) Fish Sauce, 1 Tbsp (15ml) Green or red curry paste, handful fresh chopped Cilantro
For the complete set, add these to your shopping list(herbs and spices are dried):
- 2 limes
- 2 lemons
- Can or jar of diced tomatoes
- Coconut aminos or soy sauce
- Rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- Chili Powder
- Red Pepper Flake
- Garlic Powder (or fresh bulb of garlic, your choice)
- Curry powder
- Ginger powder
If you go to the store and buy these 15 items, you’ll be set to make a wide variety of dishes from all over the world. These spice combinations can be used for chicken, fish, eggs, beef, or pork; roasted, sauteed, steamed, or microwaved veggies; stir fries, and more!
For a very minimal monetary investment and one trip to the grocery store, you can have a different dish from around the world every day of the week!
Spices in action!
Okay, you’ve got your spices. Now how do you put them to work? Glad you asked!
We’re going to take one of your favorite recipes and put your new spices to the test! Grab one of our many recipes and take one of the above spice combos and put them together.
My suggestion is that you omit the suggested spices from the original recipe posts and replace them with the ingredient measurements above. Remember, the above suggestions are by the pound, so if you’re using two pounds of chicken or veggies, double the spices!
Here are just a few examples of how you can these spices for almost any dish:
- Roasted veggies – Anyone up for some Mexican chili lime or Indian curry spiced veggies?
- Chicken Stir Fry – Try the Asian spices out to level up this classic!
- Shepherd’s Pie – Indian curry shepherd’s pie sounds like an unexpected and delightful combination.
- 7 Ingredient Fish and Veggies – Eliminate the spices from the original recipe and try an Asian twist!
- Lettuce Wrapped Burgers – Make some Italian spiced burgers, and top with fresh mozzarella, tomato, and fresh basil!
- Scrambled Eggs and Veggies – Try a different spice combo on plain old scrambled eggs each morning this week to see how the flavors differ!
- Easiest Chicken Ever – Toss the chicken in some Greek spices, lemon, and olive oil instead of the spices prescribed in the original recipe.
After a while, you’ll learn which spices you like in a dish and which ones you can live without. Maybe you like cinnamon in your curry or maybe you can’t stand the taste of ginger. That’s totally cool! Your food is YOURS!
Soon you’ll be able to spice your dishes without having to measure them every time. Be sure to use your nose and mouth to smell and taste what you’re making as you go! (Unless it’s raw meat. Never taste raw meat.)
Tips to master the core spices:
So you’re heading to the store, or you already have your spices. Awesome! Here are some tips to make shopping and cooking a little bit easier.
1. Does buying individual spices and mixing them sound intimidating? The spice companies make this easy for us. Check out the spice aisle in your grocery store. Lots of companies make pre-mixed spices for regional dishes:
- Italian Seasoning
- Greek Seasoning
- Herbs de Provence
- Taco/Fajita seasoning
- Curry powder
- Chinese 5-spice powder
To experiment with these, buy a couple and try a new one every time you cook something. Put it on something basic like eggs or baked chicken so you can begin to taste the difference between spices from different areas of the world.
2. Salt and pepper don’t do the same job. Salt makes your food taste MORE like what it is. It enhances the flavors of the food that are already there. If you over-season with salt, of course it will make your food taste salty, but that’s not salt’s function in the culinary world.
If you’re feeling adventurous and have a little extra cash, buy some fancy looking sea salt. There’s Hawaiian pink sea salt, fleur de sel, coarse sea salt, fine sea salt. There’s even weird stuff like truffle salt, grey sea salt, and black pyramid salt!
The best advice for pepper is to buy whole peppercorns and a pepper grinder. They even sell disposable ones with peppercorns already in them at the grocery store. You don’t have to get fancy. This is what I have. Fresh ground pepper makes all the difference in the world. If you like pepper on your food, this is the way to go!
Sometimes the most simple combination of coarse sea salt and coarsely cracked black pepper is all I use to season a steak, and it’s freaking delicious. Never discount simplicity.
3. Buy a pre-stocked spice rack. I might get some flack for this tip from seasoned (pun intended!) cooks. But when you’re first starting out, instead of buying all your spices individually, sometimes it’s nice just to have it all done for you. Spice racks are relatively cheap, they give you a lot of spices and herbs that you may not have thought about picking up at the store, but you’ll be glad you have it when a recipe calls for paprika and voila! You already have it!
Admittedly, spices and herbs that come in a pre-stocked spice rack from a department store may be older and therefore less flavorful, but it’s better than having no spices at all!
4. Get acquainted with acid. By acid, I mean vinegars and citrus juices. You’ll be amazed at how much adding a little bit of vinegar to a plate of sauteed veggies or your paleo spaghetti sauce makes it pop.
Acids brighten the flavors in your food and help minimize some of the bitter flavors in certain foods (like dark leafy green veggies). An acid can also help you bring down the heat if you added too much red pepper flake to a dish.
5. Fry the spices first. This is called “blooming” your spices. When your oil is heated in your pan, add your spices to the oil first and mix them around for 3-5 seconds, then add your veggies or meat or whatever you’re cooking in that oil. This is a quick and easy way to deepen and intensify the flavor of your spices.
Spice it Up
We’ve all heard people say eating healthy food is boring and bland. If you ask me, the people who are telling you this are doing it wrong.
When we force ourselves to eat the same foods over and over (like plain baked chicken and steamed veggies with minimal seasoning), it can deplete our willpower bar if we crave more flavors and variety.
Companies design Frankenfoods to make us crave the sugars and chemicals they’ve created, so they can profit off of us indefinitely. How can we fight against that? By mastering the art of using spices and sauces!
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be boring. Armed with these basic concepts and combinations you can defeat cravings and actually enjoy and look forward to your healthy meals!
So, what flavors are we missing?
Are there any other spices in your cabinet that you have NO IDEA what to do with? Let us know in the comments! Maybe we can help!
PS: We’ve recently added more recipes and meal plans (including vegetarian) to the Nerd Fitness Academy! If you haven’t joined us yet, come on and check it out – we got over 11,000 members so far in there that would love to join!