I truly believe one of the secrets to healthier cooking is learning how to better use spices. For many years, I was like many home cooks out there – I had my simple go-to recipes with salt and pepper, and the only time I really used the ones in my pantry was around the holidays. Even then, spices were measured out perfectly according to my cherished recipes and that was the extent of it.
When E.J. and I started our journey to healthier eating, my first few attempts were awful. They were horribly bland, and because our taste buds were still accustomed to the assault of sugar, I really had to wonder how anyone lived on this stuff. At some point in those early days, I decided that I had to find a way to make these dishes taste better, so I started doubling the spices that were called for in many of the recipes (except salt… always add salt sparingly since it can easily be added on the plate to taste) or adding new ones. The result was amazing. All of a sudden the vegetables that we were struggling to choke down tasted great, and I could actually appreciate the way the flavors worked together.
So what started out as a survival mechanism has now become a bit of an obsession. It is honestly a bit rare for me to carefully measure out spices in recipes anymore. One, it takes longer, and two it doesn’t really matter what the recipe says… I know what I like. I LOVE garlic… honestly, if the recipe has garlic, then that just means I can dump as much as feels good into it, and I know it will be just that much better. I also love rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, paprika and onion powder. I have to be a little more conservative with the parsley, sage, dill, and cayenne…. I’ve overdone them and therefore know my limits.
I rarely keep an Italian spice blend in the kitchen anymore, because it’s an excuse to pull together my favorite spices and be creative. Even better, every spring I plant a bunch of fresh herbs in planter boxes that E.J. built into the fence indentations in our back yard. My garden always has basil, flat leaf parsley, rosemary (this one is tricky if you have a sprinkler system), sage, dill, thyme, oregano, and green onions. This year I planted a few cherry tomato plants to go with it all and so far they’re doing well. You haven’t had great Italian until you’ve had it with a sauce that started as vine ripe tomatoes and a whole bunch of fresh herbs.
But since most of my plants are annuals and only yield part of the year, I still rely on dried spices most of the time. Going to a spice store (Like Penzeys) is like going to a candy store now for me. I end up buying way more than I should, but I really appreciate the quality difference from the regular store brands, and their blends are great shortcuts for busy weeknights. This week E.J. was in the mood for Chicken Vindaloo, and like many recipes, the spices are the most complicated part… but with Penzey’s “Vindaloo” spice blend, I just dumped half a jar into the Instant Pot along with the onions, salt, and tomatoes, submerged the chicken, and pressure cooked it to perfection. The Penzeys Chili 9000 blend is also the secret to E.J’s favorite chili. Their “Northwoods” seasoning is a favorite for sauteed or grilled veggies. I still have to be careful to avoid the blends with sugar, but a quick ingredient check makes it easy to find the ones that are on the “ok” list.
What are your go-to spices or spice blends?