The Spice of Life…

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.

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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.

IMG_3125I 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?

Easter Goodness

I can’t believe spring is already here – well, here in Houston, at least.  I think it was 50 degrees in Dallas today, but a high of 81 here…

Anyway, we had a lovely Easter break, complete with some relaxation with a fishing trip out in Galveston Bay on Friday, and a good old fashioned fish fry on Saturday.  If you’ve ever wanted to try some paleo fried fish, we’ve pretty much decided the perfect recipe is a half & half mix of cassava and almond flour, dredged in egg (or not, still works), and served with this tartar sauce.  We managed to catch some black drum fish during this trip, so I also made some of the pecan butter sauce from this recipe to top the fish, and it was fantastic.

Then of course, we shared an Easter meal with our friends and family on Sunday, which is another opportunity to try out some new recipes (and feature some old ones).  Fortunately, Easter is a little easier than some of the winter holidays since we’ve all pretty much settled on ham as the main course (and I can serve it cold).

Here are the rest of the dishes we served for the big meal:

  • Green Bean Casserole 2 – This is the most recent paleo version of the classic recipe I’ve used, and this time I took even more shortcuts by skipping the blending step on the mushroom soup and just sauteeing the bacon and onions without the messy battering and frying.  Fortunately it still got rave reviews even with my cut corners
  • Creamed Spinach – I used this recipe as a starting point, and subbed out the regular flour with a smaller amount of coconut flour for a keto-friendly side dish with tons of flavor.
  • Sausage Cream Cheese Dip Mushrooms – Ok, this dish was just heavenly.  I’m a big fan of stuffed mushrooms any way I can get them, but this cheesy version is just out of this world.  I used coconut flour (small amount) as a sub for panko to keep it keto, but I think you could use almond flour or crushed pork rinds also.  I’m adding this one to the favorites list.
  • Cheddar Garlic Biscuits – this one is still awesome.  We discovered it several weeks ago when we made these to go with a lobster dinner with friends.  Total new favorite – so easy to make and so delicious
  • Paleo Lemon Tart – OMG, this one is amazing.  It has quite a bit of honey in it, so it’s definitely a “special occasion” sort of dessert, but is quite pretty and got 2 thumbs up by everyone who tried it.

We rounded out the meal with deviled eggs and a paleo sweet potato casserole provided by my friend Anita, and enjoyed every bite.  It’s funny – now that I’ve gotten used to paleo/keto cooking, I really don’t miss the old favorites anymore.  There’s no doubt that it’s easier to whip together the old Campbell’s green beans and some sugary desserts, but everything that was served had so much flavor, I just can’t see myself ever going back.

The danger here, of course was still in quantities on my plate and the glasses of wine I managed to enjoy throughout the weekend, but all in all I came out ok.  I got my workout in this morning (Monday) and plan to get in 3 full running sessions this week and watch my carbs more closely to compensate.