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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Flava Flave

What is food?

In simplest terms it is essential fuel for our bodies. A purely physiological need.

But for humans, as opposed to animals, it is also much more than that.

As social beings with complex cognitive abilities, we often meet emotional and psychological needs with our food too.

Since food is usually a key part of culture, ritual and celebration, this is natural and healthy.

It can also be unhealthy if social and emotional cues to eat override our physiological needs leading to obesity and chronic illness. Occasional overeating or eating foods with little nutritional value because we feel social pressure to eat or are celebrating or are trying to fill an emotional void are part and parcel of life. It's when this type of behaviour becomes habitual that it usually begins to negatively affect our physical or mental health and is problematic.

But the reality is, most of us eat with our eyes, noses, hearts and brains, as well as our stomachs. If we didn't, we would all be satisfied to get the exact nutrition we need from a neutral source, like a pet hamster who eats the same dry pellets every day. Now, I have met a few people in my lifetime who feel eating is merely a chore and claim they wish they could get by by just popping vitamin pills, but for most of us, food is a source of pleasure and enjoyment. We want to eat a variety of foods that look good, smell good and make us feel good inside and out.

Personally, I have to love every bite I put in my mouth. If I don't, I find that even if my belly is full, I am still not satisfied.

We typically think of comfort food as heavy, high fat foods that contain butter, cream, bacon, sugar, and/or refined carbohydrates. But I would argue that there is much pleasure and comfort to be had in healthy food. You just need great flavour and aroma...and presentation helps too!

This is where herbs and spices come in. They are a fundamental part of cooking and eating AND they are nutritious and health promoting. Every day researchers seem to be discovering more health benefits of herbs and spices. Cinnamon, for example, helps to balance blood sugar. Turmeric has anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties. Oregano is full of nutrients, is a potent anti-oxident and has anti-bacterial properties. And most herbs and spices are low-calorie and fat-free!

What's more, there are a gazillion herbs and spices out there that can tantalize your taste buds and add excitement and variety to your cooking.

If you are not a fan of 'spicy' food, please understand that it is primarily just chili peppers that provide heat (although warm spices, like cinnamon and ginger can add some bite if used in large enough quantity - like really large!) so don't shy away from using anything called a 'spice'.

Spice simply refers to: any dried seed, fruit, root, bark, or plant substance used in nutritionally insignificant quantities in food to impart flavor, aroma, and/or color.

Herbs are leafy, green plant parts used for flavoring in food.

If you are not sure what you like and don't like, don't be afraid to experiment.

If you don't know what spices and herbs go well together, it's easy to find this information. You can buy a cookbook that teaches you the basics of a particular type of cuisine (i.e. Thai, Indian, Italian, etc.) or look online. Start with a recipe, if you need to, and then let your creativity loose.

I rarely use recipes. Instead, I create my own, inspired by a particular ingredient: fresh produce at the market, some meat or fish I purchased, or a new herb, spice or condiment I want to experiment with.

For example, last week I was shopping at the No Frills here in Toronto at Bathurst and Wilson. Canadians know that this is the down-scale version of Loblaws, that is less expensive and usually offers a much smaller selection of products. This location, however, is an exception. I recently discovered that because it caters to the surrounding Orthodox Jewish community, it is well-stocked with all sorts of brands and products I have never seen elsewhere.

I found a product with a Hebrew and English label called "Amba". The ingredients included mango and spices. Hmm, I was intrigued. I bought a jar and Googled it when I got home. It is apparently a common condiment used in Israeli and Middle-Eastern cuisine. Unlike most chutneys I find, it has no added sugar, which is always an added bonus. Instead of just using it along side falafel, shawarma (which I don't make anyways), pita or eggs, as is typically done, I decided to create my own "Israeli inspired" dish and use it as a flavouring.

I did a bit of research online to see what flavours and ingredients are commonly used in Israeli food (aside from the obvious chickpeas, lemon, bulgur, etc.) and found that cumin, coriander, garlic, and pomegranate are also ubiquitous.

Sooooo, for tonight's dinner I am putting together a meal with grilled zucchini, red peppers and onions, mixed with chickpeas and bulgur in a yogurt-based dressing flavoured with some of the Amba, fresh lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, garlic, cumin and coriander. Will it be a success? Honestly, I would say that at least 80% of my experiments turn out great. If this one is successful, I promise I'll post the recipe tomorrow.

To be honest, I sometimes come up with fantastic concoctions but don't post the recipes because they include rather exotic or obscure ingredients - one of the BEST things about living in Toronto is the access to such a wide variety of ethnic foods. If you are interested in some of these, feel free to contact me.

Some of my favourites that I have found around town are currently:

*Chinese five spice powder (look for a good quality one made with star anise)
*Fennel seeds
*Malaysian curry powder
*West Indian curry powder
*Fennugreek seeds (which I toasted and ground myself)
*Whole cardamom pods (which I ground myself)
*Ground cinnamon from Costco (I swear it is yummier and more flavourful than any other brand I've tried!)
*Tuscan herb and spice blend from Costco (amazing on Italian pasta dishes, pizza, marinated veggies, meats and fish, etc.)

Grinding your own seeds and making your own spice blends is simple. You can use a mortar and pestle or simply buy a spice grinder or coffee grinder. You won't regret it!

Even if you never try making one of the crazy, experimental recipes that I do post, I urge you to play around with herbs and spices to elevate your own meals to a whole new level. They can make, what otherwise seems like ordinary foods such as oatmeal, chicken, rice or beans, exciting, comforting, satisfying and delicious.

And don't forget about aromatics like citrus zest (lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit), fresh and dried fruits, beers and wines, and the myriad of available vinegars to liven up your cooking without adding excess salt, sugar or fat.

As the saying goes: "Variety is the Spice of Life."

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