Have you ever wondered whether your dietitian or trainer really eats what they tell you to or whether they just talk the talk?
Unless you spot them at the local shops, you will probably never really know but I am going to share with you some key ingredients that sit comfortably in my pantry for good healthy eating.
For many months now, I’ve been designing and testing recipes for a special project and have found it really challenging not to let my usual pantry contents and taste preferences overly influence the recipes.
Interestingly I noticed that there are 10 key ingredient groups that I use regularly in my home cooking for their versatility and flavour. They also happen to offer health benefits.
1. Fresh lemon or fresh lime
The finely grated skin off these citrus fruits in marinades or a quick squeeze of juice at serving time lifts the flavour and freshness of meals without adding extra salt.
A squeeze of fresh juice in water makes a refreshing very low-joule drink. Bottled lime juice is quite artificial in flavour and is not a good substitute for the real juice in cooking.
TIP: When the fruits are good value and juicy, freeze them for use off-season. You can cut them into wedges, circles or halves according to how you tend to use them. Snugly over-wrap the cut fruit in plastic wrap and then pop them into a freezer bag or tub not only to prevent them drying out but also to make them easy to find.
2. Cans of chickpeas, cannellini beans or other legumes
Forget soaking overnight and cooking for ages! Canned beans are a fast and efficient meal extender and addition to a lunch box. They transform easily into falafel, rissoles, salads, mexican, casseroles and stews.
Legumes and lentils are a low fat alternative to meats. They naturally contain soluble fibre, which helps control blood glucose (sugar) levels and improve cholesterol levels.
TIPS: If you find canned beans cause a stink (flatulence), then next time you use them make sure you thoroughly rinse away the sticky packing liquid. Start with small serves to work out how much your body is happy with.
Consider getting the small rip-top cans/packs of beans for lunch because these are a perfect single-serve size.
3. Fresh garlic.
You either love it or hate it and I am in the garlic love zone, but while I’ve been working on this recipe project I’ve had to curb my garlic desires and dive into other flavours.
And although garlic won’t stop a cold and wearing knobs won’t stop vampires, if you roast a whole knob of garlic you will be able to squeeze out a fantastic flavoursome sweeter paste of garlic for sandwiches or to mix with dressings.
For a milder taste, replace 1 clove fresh garlic with 1/2 tsp fresh garlic chives.
Be cautious of garlic salt because it contains sodium salt and you’ll need to cut back on how much salt you add to the recipe. You’re better off getting jar of garlic flakes or minced garlic than garlic salt.
TIP: I’ve heard that to remove any garlic smell from your hands, rub them on stainless steel under running cold water. The obvious tool to use is the kitchen sink or a stainless steel spoon. Try it and give me feedback.
4. Fresh ginger.
Depending on the season and age of your ginger, you may get more ‘heat’ in the flavour of the meal. Young ginger which has a cleaner finer skin is milder than the thicker skinned mature ginger. Ground ginger powder has an entirely different flavour and is no where near as useful as fresh ginger. Ginger powder is not a good substitute for fresh ginger, but chopped crystallised ginger works quite well in some recipes!
TIP: Peel and grate mature ginger so that the stringy fibres get broken up more.
5. Chili of all descriptions – fresh, dried and powder.
Another ingredient that polarises diners is chili but chili doesn’t have to be so hot that it burns. Indeed, if all you can taste in a meal is chili heat or if your lips and tongue feel burnt then the meal was out of balance.
Chili is said to raise the metabolic rate of young men but we don’t know whether it speeds the metabolism of other age groups or women. Use it for its flavour rather than metabolic advantage.
TIP: Use disposable kitchen gloves when cutting fresh chili and remove them when the task is completed. That way you avoid chili juice on fingers that end up stinging the eyes.
Mustard is a versatile ingredient and this is another ingredient that is a must-have that lurks in several forms, both powdered and prepared.
Wholegrain mustard and smooth dijon-style mustard are fantastic in salad dressings and marinades. They’re great on vegetables and sandwiches.
TIP: If you add a pinch or so of mustard powder to white sauce (for lasanga, moussaka), you can reduce the amount of cheese added.
Free-range, non-caged, organic …. aren’t eggs all the same? Well when it comes to nutrition, it’s hard to spot any differences in dietary analysis papers but there is a big difference in taste between home-grown eggs and those from commercial egg farms.
I know this because we have a few chickens. They’re pretty lazy and close to hen-o-pause and we’re scratching to get a couple of eggs a day but they are treasured eggs. Their beautiful deep rich yolks are full of flavour and the eggs produce such brilliantly yellow meals, custards and breakfasts that anyone else would think they have been tainted with yellow food colouring. This yellow has to be vitamin A in the form of carotenoids.
If taste is also an indicator of quality and subtle nutritional changes and you don’t have access to home-grown eggs then it’s good to find a smaller egg supplier who really looks after their chickens.
Eggs are an excellent source of protein and they last the distance when it comes to satisfying hunger; eggs keep hunger away much better than a bowl of cereal.
TIP: Pre-boiled eggs are a fast way to add protein to salads, sandwiches, and snacks. Boil and refridgerate a few eggs each week.
8. Reduced fat milk.
It comes with many names in the supermarket from lite, low fat, and semi-skimmed. There’s no need to have ordinary milk (full-cream) unless you have kiddies under 2 years of age at home. Even if you have grandkids that age who visit, it’s not going to harm them to drink a glass of reduced fat milk.
TIP: Keep a couple of long-life UHT low fat milk cartons in the cupboard as back-up or emergency use.
Spicy food doesn’t equal hot food yet when a recipe title includes spicy, readers might assume hot like a curry. But think of all the spices that go into sweet dishes: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves.
My spice range has expanded dramatically in recent months with the recipe design project I have been working on but I am ever conscious of the risk of a pantry filled with spices that go to waste.
Spices lose their flavour, aroma and potency with time and if they’re too cuisine specific, they might get used once or twice and then die in the depths of a dark cupboard.
A few spices stand out as versatile recipe pleasers and these are turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon stick, garam masala, smoked paprika, ground cumin, saffron threads, and white and black pepper.
TIP: Always smell your spice for freshness before using it and take note of the use-by dates. Old spice may explain why a favourite meal is no longer so tasty.
10. Herbs of some description.
For a casual cooking style, coriander, flat leaf parley and basil are good choices.
Fresh, dried and refridgerated tubes of crushed herbs all have a place in fast cooking. Although fresh herbs are best for salads and add a final zing to meals at serving, sadly the gardener in me fails badly so I rely on bought herbs.
When the fresh herbs have withered away, out come the tubes of pre-crushed ‘fresh’ herbs to use in cooking. If you have never tried these, you ought to. So fast, so convenient. Plus they last so much longer than a bunch of fresh herbs. You’ll find them in the fruit and vegetable chilled section of the supermarket.
TIP: Herbs add flavour without affecting your weight. Make a move back to the natural flavours of herbs rather than use salt and commercial sauces. The intensity of dried herbs makes them better for casseroles and slow cooked meals.
What are the must-have ingredients in your kitchen?
What spices and herbs do you reach for most often?
Click on ‘leave a reply’ just below to share your ‘must-have’ suggestions with others.