Spunk up vegetables with spices

Why would we eat bland food, except in the case of stomach troubles, imprisonment or mom punishment?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

As a child, I was made to force down boiled brussels sprouts and steamed broccoli. For some reason, it didn’t occur to my mother to season with anything but salt and pepper. It took me a while to get back to eating both of those vegetables.

I will probably catch flak from readers who really do love the flavor of steamed broccoli for dissing it. But why not give it a squirt of lemon or a dash of sriracha?

So many of my friends (and my husband) are working toward the life change to a plant-based diet. Not just a new year’s resolution, but a permanent life change. A change like this is hard, but there are ways to make the transition easier and so much more likely to stick.

It’s true that vegetables don’t have the natural umami flavors of meat, but there are countless ways to make steamed broccoli and boiled carrots delicious and satisfying. Sauces are one tool, and they don’t have to be high fat, high calorie. Herb mixes are other tools.

Herbs for Mediterranean herb mix

You can buy many herb mixes ready-made off the store shelves although you may need to visit higher-end groceries to find some of the more exotic ones. Or you can mix your own. I grow herbs and chile peppers and dry them all summer. Then I mix my own mixes. It’s so easy to simply toss a tablespoon of homemade Italian seasoning into a marinara sauce.

Try to avoid ready-made packets, like spaghetti and chili mixes because they often contain ingredients that you may not want. For example, Lawry’s spaghetti sauce mix has these ingredients: “Modified Food Starch, Sugar, Salt, Onion, Mushrooms, Garlic Powder, Spices (Including Paprika And Parsley), Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Whey (Milk), Natural Flavors (Beef And Pork), Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Torula Yeast, Citric Acid, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate.”
While these are not inherently bad ingredients, why not make a cleaner simple Italian mix of oregano, basil, marjoram, paprika and garlic?

The ethnic aisle in the grocery is my favorite place to browse. Mose ethnic cuisines have intriguing spice combinations and sauces. My latest love is Za’atar seasoning which is made of thyme, sesame, sumac and sometimes cumin and coriander. I love this sprinkled on roasted potatoes and chicken, and used to season minestrone for a change from traditional Italian seasoning. I was able to buy a big package at my local grocery.

Here are some sauces and herb mixes to bring your cooking up to the highest standards of flavor and healthy eating. Most are readily available in the grocery. Have fun shopping!

Sauces:
Moroccan harissa
Japanese miso (white and dark)
Korean Go-chu-Jang
Indian garlic curry paste
Thai red or green curry paste
Thai sriracha sauce (try mixing this with coconut milk for an astounding sauce for roasted broccoli)
Mexican salsas (way too many choices here)

Spice mixes:
Indian garam masala
Spanish sazon
Creole blackening
Italian
Mediterranean
Mexican adobo
Jamaican jerk
French herbes de provence

Roasted Potatoes with Za’atar – Warm, comforting and full of umami flavor

For two:
Preheat the oven to 425. Peel (or leave the skin on) and cube 1 pound of potatoes (Yukons or golds work well). You can also quarter small red potatoes. Rinse in a colander and roll dry on a dishtowel. Drying them off makes the oil and seasonings stick.

Toss with 2 tablespoons of high-quality olive oil, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of Za’atar or any other seasoning mix. For spicy potatoes, toss with chile oil in place of the olive oil.

Prepare a baking dish large enough to hold the potatoes in one layer with a film of olive oil or cooking spray. Place in a cold oven in the bottom third of the oven. Roast for about 20 minutes, stirring and turning them once at the halfway mark.

Noodles!

Farfalle noodles with spinach, roasted peppers and shrimp

I know many of us reach for mashed potatoes when longing for comfort food. I reach for noodles. Any kind of noodles. Nothing delights me more than to find leftover noodles in the fridge because the possibilities are endless.

It’s so easy to make a delectable dish with only a few additions. All it takes to start is a bowl of cooked noodles. Add vegetables, sauces and proteins for a complete meal. Whatever your taste preference – Chinese, Italian, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese. It seems every culture has a favorite noodle dish.

I like to keep a few commercial sauces in the pantry, just in case I don’t have time to whip up a sauce of my own. Thai peanut satay sauce tossed with cooked fettucini or egg noodles, a couple of torn basil leaves and you have an “almost” pad thai.

Lovely leftover linguini or angel hair noodles tossed with sesame oil, soy sauce and a little sambal olek (garlic chile paste) make as good a cold noodle dish as any you find at an Asian food truck. All you need is the little white turtle box to look completely authentic.

Hot spaghetti noodles dressed with chopped fresh tomato, minced garlic, minced fresh basil and olive oil create a quick Italian noodle specialty that tastes like summer.

Pasta with kale and mushrooms

The types of noodles are endless, from long pasta like fettuccine and linguini to rice-shaped orzo to bowties and elbows. Asian noodles widen your repertoire with cellophane, Canton, and ramen noodles. The additions are also limitless – be creative with whatever you find in the fridge. Or, simply do as I do and heat leftover noodles, drizzle with olive oil and garlic salt and toss with parmesan. Mmmmm.

Here’s a kitchen hack I learned from a professional chef:

Cook your noodles until they are not quite done. A little less than al dente if you use that as a guide. When you drain them, do it over a measuring cup and save the pasta water. When you are ready to sauce your noodles, make the sauce and add the noodles. Then add about the same amount of pasta water as sauce. Heat everything gently. The noodles will finish cooking and the sauce will be velvety and delicious. You can certainly use broth instead of pasta water, but the water from draining the noodles thickens and adds extra flavor.

Also, when cooking noodles, salt the water more than you think necessary. Don’t put oil in the water. Put the noodles into rapidly boiling water and stir them for a while to separate. Turn down the heat and cook, watching them and tasting until they are ready. You can throw a piece of pasta against the wall, the old Italian way, and if it sticks, it’s done. Seriously, keep tasting.

Once done, return them to the cooking pot, drizzle with a little olive oil and put the lid on to keep them from becoming sticky.

Whole wheat pasta with sauteed romaine lettuce

Here are a few recipes to get you started:

Pasta Primavera

2 minced garlic cloves
1 T. olive oil
1 c. fresh mushrooms
½ basket cherry tomatoes halved
½ roasted red pepper, chopped (jarred is fine)
¼ c. parmesan

Sauté garlic in stock. Add mushrooms and sauté for 3-4 minutes. Add rest of ingredients and cook 2-3 minutes. Add cooked penne pasta (or your choice), mix in enough leftover pasta water to make a creamy dressing.

Pasta with Fresh Herbed Ricotta

2 c. fresh spinach rinsed and stemmed
1 c. ricotta
2 scallions minced
¼ c. packed basil leaves, minced
1 tomato, chopped
1 T. parsley, chopped
2 T. olive oil
½ lb farfalle

Blanch spinach in salted water for about a minute. Drain, cool, pat dry and chop. Put the ricotta in a large bowl and beat with a fork until smooth. Stir in the rest of the ingredients, except the pasta. Cook the farfalle, saving the water. Toss with the cheese mixture, adding pasta water as necessary to make it creamy.

Caramelized onion pasta

2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, very thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 t. red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 T. tomato paste (about half a can)
6 oz. pasta of choice (penne works well)

Heat olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally until they become totally softened and caramelized with golden-brown fried edges, 15 to 20 minutes.

Add red pepper and garlic and saute for about 2 minutes. Add tomato paste and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly to prevent scorching until the tomato paste has turned from bright red to deep brick red, about 2 minutes.

Remove from heat. Cook pasta until just a bit chewier than al dente. Mix with sauce and ½ c. pasta water. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring to coat each piece of pasta. Cook until the sauce is thick and sticky, 3 to 5 minutes.