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Good Habits #12 – Spice Up Things In The Kitchen. No, Not Like That.

A while back, I posted a piece about how cooking for yourself can be helpful when losing weight.  But one of the dangers of cooking for yourself is…mediocrity.  My cooking skills have improved, but even now that I can manage to cook things that don’t qualify as Category 1 Toxic Materials on the EPA’s toxicity rating scale (most of what I cook is no more than Category 4 now), there is still a risk of making something bland.

One could always put cheese on things or sauce or whatever to avoid blandness. But I’ve noted in the past that this can be a problem. More than once. Fortunately, there is a way to add flavor to food without adding tons of calories. Put herbs and spices on it. Now, this can be a bit intimidating. Spices that go well on one thing are horrible on others. This does require you to learn expert, or at least intermediate, levels of cooking skill. But what I’ve discovered is that spices add lots of flavor when used correctly. And more importantly, they add nutrition while adding few calories.

So let’s start with the one that’s ubiquitous in Italian food, oregano.  Unlike many things the Italians use (like pasta and pepperoncini) oregano actually comes from the Mediterranean.  It’s a form of mint, although more bitter than sweet, and can add flavor to almost any dish, from meats to salads to mac and cheese.  And a teaspoon of this has only three calories.  This small amount will give you 5% or your iron and vitamin K Recommended Daily Allowance, and 2% or your calcium and manganese. As well as bits of various other nutrients.  This may not seem like much, but when we consider the calorie cost, it’s really good.

Another thing you might try is the herb that sounds like it was named after someone’s grandmother: Rosemary.  Another Mediterranean herb, it was rumored to have medicinal properties so medieval type people used to carry it around to ward off the Black Death.  Spoiler alert: That didn’t work very well.  But it is really good on food.  It has a slightly lemony taste and goes well on many things, although I really like it on fish. And it also adds a smidgeon of nutrition.  A teaspoon of this has 4 calories and 4% of my iron RDA.

Another possibility is the one that sounds like it was named after a smart guy, or at least some navel gazing guru.  I’m talking about sage, something the Romans thought was a holy plant.  They believed, amongst other things, that it could ward off evil.  It doesn’t, by the way.  I tried this.  I once put sage on a piece of liver.  If sage wards off evil, it would immediately cause the diabolical substance to shrivel into nothingness (Innards aren’t good for you, y’all).  It didn’t work, unsurprisingly.  Sage is good for eating, though.  It goes well on pretty much anything oregano is good on.  And for the price of one calorie per teaspoon, it’ll provide 10% of the vitamin K I need, 2% of the iron, and small bits of various other nutrients.

Then there’s that other herb you can find at Scarborough Fair: Thyme.  Another thing from the Med.  Which the Egyptians used to embalm mummies.  Which is gross.  But also something Romans used to season cheese and liqueurs.  Which is awesome.  Thyme is a little sweet, a little peppery, and a little lemony.  So, it goes well on just about anything.  Although it takes a while for its full flavor to emerge, so it works best in a slow-cooked stew or on a roast.  And at a cost of two calories, a teaspoon will provide 13% of the vitamin K I need each day, 14% of the iron, 3% of the manganese, 2% of the calcium, and bits of various other nutrients.

Another thing I like to season my food with is the cousin of oregano, which also has a slightly sweet, slightly bitter taste.  And also sounds vaguely like an old lady name: Marjoram.  Another Southern European spice, it has a sweet, piney flavor and goes well on vegetables and salads.  The Greeks used to use it to treat various ailments (which didn’t go well) and the English used to use it in beer (which did go well).  It may not be great as medicine, but it does add some nutrition to your food.  A teaspoon of this gives you 2% of your vitamin A, 3% of your vitamin K, 6% of your iron, and assorted other bits of nutrients.  All for only two calories per teaspoon.

I also like the Italian herb with the most British name: Basil.  Except that it’s not Italian.  It probably came from India.  And the Egyptians were using it before the Romans existed in order to make mummies.  Which is gross.  Again, it’s best use is in food.  I’m not sure why so many doctors and undertakers used to use these things, but it’s best left to chefs.  But I guess that’s beside the point.  Basil is a sweet and buttery herb that goes well on meat.  For two calories in each teaspoon, you get 10% of your vitamin K, 8% of your iron, 3% of your manganese, and 2% of your calcium and copper. Just don’t waste it on human meat that you’re going to put in the ground. 

There’s also a popular savory herb with an unoriginal name.  Savory.  Apparently, the Europeans ran out of ideas.  They figured they’d used all of the cool names and just called it “savory”.  The Romans called it the herb of love, so you’d think the people for whom the word “romance” is literally named for could come up with a sexier name.  I’m very disappointed with the Romans.  For a lot of reasons.  Throwing Christians to lions, mass slaughter in the Colosseum, brutal conquest of most of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, lame names for herbs, the list of crimes is endless.  Anyway, savory is another Mediterranean herb with a slightly peppery taste that pairs well with meat.  And for only four calories per teaspoon it provides 7% of the iron RDA, 3% of the vitamin A and calcium, 2% of the vitamin B6, and bits of various others.

Of course, you might be getting dizzy keeping track of all of these spices I’ve listed so far.  But there’s an easy way around that. They are sold as a mix called Italian seasoning at any store.  Since you’ve probably noticed that just about all of them go well with all of the same foods, it’s convenient to just get this.  Italian seasoning goes well on my eggs at breakfast, my sandwiches at lunch, and meats at dinner.

There’s another reason I brought Italian seasoning up.  Because you can use it to make my famous Best Steak Ever(™).  A trademark which no court would ever recognize.  To make this steak, preheat an oven on broil at maximum temperature.  Season the steak with salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning.  Then pan fry it for two minutes on each side until the outside is crusty. Then put the entire frying pan in the oven and cook for three minutes on each side. 

What you’ll get is a steak that’s perfectly medium rare.  And absolutely delicious. Of course you could cook it for only two minutes on each side in the oven. If you’re an animal and want beef so rare that it’s practically still mooing. Or you could cook it for four, five, or six minutes on each side for medium, medium well, or well done respectively. If you’re a degenerate who likes overcooked steaks.  

All of this discussion of my greatest culinary achievement reminds me of something.  I haven’t yet discussed that normiest of normie spices that’s a key ingredient in the Greatest Steak Ever(™).  Pepper.  The thing that’s on every table.  The thing that your father would surreptitiously add to your mother’s bland food when she wasn’t looking.  That thing that always made Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd sneeze, but for some reason didn’t work so well when you put it on your own nose.  And don’t lie to me.  I know you tried that at least once.

Black pepper comes from India.  Which makes me wonder what European husbands did with their wives’ bland food before it was brought to Europe.  Fortunately, that happened fairly early, when the Romans would, surprisingly, trade with the Indians, as opposed to just conquering and taking it.  Anyway, I don’t feel the need to educate you on what you can put pepper on or what it tastes like.  It goes on literally anything.  And it’s not just for flavor.  A teaspoon of pepper will get you 13% of your daily allowance of manganese and 3% of your calcium and copper and vitamin K.  All of that comes at a price of only six calories.

And there are certain types of pepper in ground form that can set your brain on fire.  Such as cayenne pepper.  I mentioned in a previous piece that this is a Cajun spice that is in no way Cajun because it comes from French Guiana.  This is good to spice up breakfast but also any piece of meat.  A teaspoon of this contains an astounding 25% of your vitamin A, 4% of the vitamin E (something can be hard to come by, unless you eat lots of nuts) and 3% of the vitamin B6 requirement.  And it only has six calories.

Another good seasoning is the one that’s renowned as a vampire repellent. Except there’s no evidence that actually repels vampires. Which may have something to do with the fact that vampires don’t actually exist.  I hate to disappoint any teenage girls reading this (there aren’t any), but Twilight is fiction.  Anyway, I’m talking about garlic.  Although kind of gross and pungent by itself, when cooked it goes well with anything.  Seriously, try getting any mixed seasoning at the grocery store.  They all have garlic in them.  It’s in everything.  Sadly, though, it’s actually not as nutritious as the other things I’ve listed here.  A teaspoon of this has 3% of your daily allowance of vitamin B6, 2% of your manganese, and four calories.

Another bitter and pungent herb is turmeric.  Another thing from India, this is apparently what they use to dye the Hindu and Buddhist holy men’s robes.  Personally I prefer it in food.  My wife does great things by adding this to noodles. A teaspoon of this only has 10 calories and gives you 27% of your manganese RDA, 23% of your iron, and 5% of your copper.

I should also mention that peculiar red substance that Mom always put on every piece of chicken I ever had.  Paprika.  Which originated in North America and is apparently just ground up red peppers.  Depending on which kind of peppers, it can be mild or slightly hot.  And goes on almost anything.  Which explains why Mom used it so liberally.  A teaspoon of this will give you 4% of your daily allowance of vitamin E and vitamin B6, 6% of your daily allowance of iron and only has 6 calories.

Another popular herb is the one that was also a juvenile insult in the 1980s: Dill weed.  Another herb from the Med, it tastes slightly sweet and slightly grassy.  A teaspoon of this will give you 16% of your daily allowance of vitamin K, 3% of your vitamin A and iron and only three calories.  Personally I think it goes well on fish along with a little lemon juice.  And if any one reading this is some weirdo keto bro who thinks fruits are bad for you and scoffed at the notion of adding lemon juice, get over yourself.  Fruits are fine.  I wrote about that a while back.

Next up is cumin. Yet another herb from the Med with a slightly sharp and bitter taste, I find that it goes really well with rice. It also is quite nutritious. A teaspoon has 17% of your iron RDA and 3% of your manganese, with bits and pieces of all the other ones. Save for vitamin B12, which pretty much only comes from eating dead animals. It also only has seven calories.

And let’s not forget that strange thing my wife likes to put in her rice dishes that she always tells me not to eat.  Because apparently she’s been told it’s bad for you.  But I always end up doing it because it’s buried in the rice and I don’t see it until it’s too late. I’m talking about bay leaves. Another Med herb, these are extremely pungent if eaten raw.  But if you cook them into a rice dish or stew, a sort of minty and bitter flavor will come out. These provide 3% of your manganese RDA, 2% of your iron, and bits and pieces of all the other ones (except B12) in only two calories.  Of course, you’re thinking, that’s only if you eat the leaf right?  I don’t know.  But go ahead and eat the leaf.  It won’t hurt you.  The wives’ tales are all wrong.  They’re not poisonous.  My wife, bless her, doesn’t know what she’s talking about

Most of these spices are things that go well with the main course.  But what about dessert?  I mean, I’ve noted before that desserts are something you should be careful eating too much of. But if you want sweet things with a little nutrient value in them, adding a little cinnamon is the way to go.  Cinnamon is another thing that dates back to antiquity and probably another thing the Egyptians used to make mummies with.  It’s very sweet, and goes well with almost any sweet thing.  A teaspoon provides 3% of your iron and calcium RDA, 20% of your manganese and only has 6 calories per teaspoon. But if you want to pass on dessert, there is another way to enjoy it.  Add it to the Blessed Brown Water of Life. This is a low-cal way to add nutrients to something which is already low in calories. 

There’s other good news.  Many of these things are also antioxidants and anti-microbial thingies.  How does that help?  I don’t have a clue.  I’m an accountant, not a doctor.  But it’s yet another reason to not have bland food and spice it up.  

All this research into herbs and spices caused me to realize something.  Our carnivore pals are not actually carnivores.  They eat plant-based stuff all the time and they get all the nutrients one would get from plant-based stuff.  Because they routinely douse their steaks and eggs in the herbs and spices I mentioned above. So if you are on a meat diet, don’t forget to spice it up a little bit.  It’ll give you some of the things that meat normally doesn’t give you.

But even if you’re not a carnivore, you should learn how to use all of these herbs and spices as well as the myriad others that I haven’t discussed here.  I mean, the quantities of nutrients I discussed above might not seem too impressive, but keep in mind that this is what you get from a single teaspoon.  Adding a teaspoon or two of various spices to your meals can add a lot of extra nutrients to the food, as well as a lot of extra flavor, without adding a lot of calories.

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Published by drilldowndiet

Formerly obese CPA/health humorist using Cronometer and FitBod to lose weight. Sharing assorted life hacks to squeeze nutrition and exercise into a busy schedule. Also on Twitter at @drilldowndiet and Facebook.

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