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Mindful Bytes: Healthy Cooking

So I use the handle “foodieinrecovery”, and in 8 months I’ve never posted a substantial rant on cooking!!! Figures.

Cooking is something I both love to do, while disliking the process. My wife is a great cook but I make 90% of our dinners, I do the food shopping, and because I’m a tornado of mess when I cook I clean up most of the time (Hedy and I trade off bedtime or kitchen duty, I usually take kitchen duty because I can really level a kitchen).

I never understood how easy unhealthy cooking was until I was cooking healthy. And I know some people don’t like the implied morality of the word “unhealthy”. Any food in moderation is clearly fine. But just being real, access to butter, cheese, sugar, and flour just makes creating amazing dinners pretty easy.

When you have to calorically lower your recipes, a basic understanding of flavour and texture is necessary to make up for the flavour and texture you’re losing in that process.

The most common way to reduce calories in a dish is to remove fat, sugar, and starch.

Fat enhances flavour and texture. Some foods/spices are particularly soluble in oil, giving you access to flavours you couldn’t detect without the oil. Fat also improves texture. It can give a silky texture for steamed veg, improves the gritty texture of salad, and makes cookies chewy instead of crunchy.

Sugar is a flavour and a flavour enhancer. Sugar takes the sharp edges off of other flavours by creating a perceived balance of flavour. It’s also the prominent flavour of an entire food genre: dessert. I don’t think there’s a flavour as versatile as sugar/sweet.

Starch can have flavour obviously, but it brings a lot more texture to the party than flavour. Mashed potatoes and fries are both potatoes, but their popularity is based on their texture. Crackers, chips, bread, white rice. They all have flavour, but I think it’s their texture that makes them super popular.

So when you pull fat, sugar, and starch out of dishes to lower their caloric/sugar load, even if you use substitute ingredients you’re still going to have a perceived flavour/texture deficit to go along with the caloric deficit.

So how do you make this better?

Let’s tackle flavour first. With less fat and sugar, dishes have a tendency to taste dry and flat. So at multiple stages of the preparation of a dish, you have to inject as much flavour as you can.

My spice grinder is probably the gadget I’ve used the most to help boost flavours. Sure I have pre packaged Clubhouse spice blends, but once you compare those pre ground spices to whole spices you grind yourself, it’s just not a fair fight. Grinding spices yourself is kinda fun and the flavour they bring is huge!!!

So self ground spices are a must in my books. So are lemon/lime zest. Most people think the juice from those two are the big flavour enhancements, but the zest from the skin is way more flavourful compared to the juice.

Ingredient replacement is really important as well. We make amazing butter-less chicken by replacing the butter and cream (texture and sweetness) with a lot of deeply caramelized onions buzzed up with a hand blender as well as low fat coconut milk. You get a little texture boost from the onions blended into the sauce as well as replacing the sweetness of cream/butter. Coconut milk isn’t traditional in butter chicken but it matches the flavours well and adds silkiness to the sauce.

Understanding the different flavours that come out of the same ingredients can give you more options for adding flavour too. Crushed garlic has a much more intense flavour compared to the same amount of minced garlic. Minced cilantro stems have a much longer lasting flavour and can stand up to significant cooking compared to the leaves. Zest adds very floral aromatic flavour, while citrus juice adds more acidity than flavour.

Food technique makes up for alot of the textural differences between healthy food and unhealthy food. Cooking meats to a more precise internal temperature is a must. We risk meat being slightly underdone vs overdone in order to ensure we don’t blow past the ideal temperature for chicken, beef, or pork. Dry overcooked meat can be almost inedible once you get used to meat cooked with precision. I have an instant read probe thermometer and a wired probe with an alarm for when the desired temp is reached. Understanding that food continues to cook when it’s off the heat is important too. Meat should sit at least 10 mins after it’s done cooking to allow the internal moisture to evenly distribute, but during that 10 mins the temp can rise as much as 10-20 degrees F. So we account for that when we decide what temp to pull meats from the heat. Adding zest and fresh herbs at the end of cooking gives you the biggest flavour kick. Adding spices at various points during the cooking process gives you multiple layers of the same flavours. Acids kick all flavours up significantly when a dish tastes meh. Roasting foods with a little fat (2 tsp of olive oil) can create brand new flavours and amazing textures. We’re really into roasted asparagus and roasted buttercup squash right now.

Salt is controversial. We eat so little processed/restaurant foods in our house that we feel comfortable properly seasoning food. I’ve been shocked at how much salt soup can take and end up tasting amazing in the process. I just keep adding salt and re-tasting until the soup blows my hair back. I think most home cooks vastly under-season their food and listening to chefs talk about seasoning and its importance in any cooking is eye opening.

I’m already pretty deep into this post and I’ve only scratched the surface of discussing how to make your healthy dishes stand up to their unhealthy cousins. But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t leave you with a mindset!!!!.

Whatever you’re doing in the kitchen, be bold. Take BIG risks. If a recipe calls for 1 tbsp of a spice, add 2. Two cloves of garlic, add 3. Really hit that dish with kosher salt (less salty than table salt) and pepper. Go for it. We all start off scared of making a dish that’s “too much” of something (too garlicky, too acidic, too salty) so we try and be subtle and what can often happen is we prepare food that can just tastes flat. So what if your dish has too much garlic, or too much cumin? The biggest flavoured best tasting dishes are often right up to the edge of being “too much”. That’s where their ideal flavour is found, right before they’re “too much”. So don’t be scared trying to find that edge. Be bold. Be brave. Have the courage to take big chances in the kitchen.

And it won’t be long before your family doesn’t even remember your mac and cheese or your lasagna, they’ll be asking for “that thing you did with the spices the other night”.

Go for it!!!!