There are dozens upon dozens of herbs and spices, from commonplace black pepper to more exotic turmeric and cardamom. But all share two unique features -- they add incredible flavor and aroma to food, especially low-salt dishes where flavor can sometimes be lacking.
Herbs and spices are necessities in the fight against fat. Too often, they are relegated to attractively labeled but rarely used bottles on revolving spice racks. This is unfortunate, because using the right blend of these taste enhancers produces delicious, low-calorie dishes that will make it easier to stick with your new weight-loss-friendly eating habits.
Most dried herbs and spices are low in calories, providing about 4 to 7 calories per teaspoon. So feel free to use them even if you are following a low-calorie regimen. Some are surprisingly good sources of nutrients. Paprika is an excellent source of vitamin A, parsley is rich in vitamin C, cumin is an unexpected source of iron, and caraway seeds even contribute a little calcium to your diet.
New research findings suggest that several herbs are also rich sources of antioxidants that may possibly prevent the growth of cancer cells and protect delicate arteries from oxidizing damage that begins the buildup of plaque. Among them: allspice, basil, clove, coriander, dill, fennel leaves, mint, nutmeg, parsley, rosemary, and sage.
Aside from their nutrient and antioxidant contents, there are many health claims made for individual herbs. Here are but a few: Mint relieves gas and nausea; cinnamon enhances insulin's activity; oregano has antiseptic properties; sage contains compounds that act as antibiotics; thyme is said to relieve cramps. Most, however, have not been scientifically proved.
Selection and Storage
In our opinion, fresh is best. But it's not always easy to find fresh herbs. Farmers' markets are your best bet. Supermarkets may carry them year-round in small, clear plastic containers or bags. You may find them through internet Web sites, or you can grow your own windowsill herb garden. In any case, buy fresh herbs only as you need them. Wrap them in damp paper towels, place in a plastic bag, and refrigerate or store in their plastic containers. They should last a few days to a week.
When fresh aren't available, dried will do. Store dried herbs and spices in airtight containers, away from heat and light (over the stove is the worst spot). Dried herbs will keep for a year. Whole spices, like cloves or cinnamon, keep much longer. The flavor of dried herbs tends to fade faster than that of dried spices.
Preparation and Serving Tips
Becoming acquainted with herbs and spices is a must if you're committed to low-salt cooking. When you remove salt, a lot of flavor goes with it. That loss of flavor can be masked with herbs and spices.
If you're a novice at using herbs and spices, start by using only one or two per dish. If you're using fresh herbs, don't be shy. Their flavors are often subtle, and it usually takes more than you think to flavor a dish. With dried herbs, however, a little often goes a long way, so use judiciously. Start with about 1 teaspoon until you get a better feel for the amount you like in dishes. If you're cooking with fresh herbs, wait until the end of the cooking time to add them, so they'll retain their delicate flavor. Dried herbs and spices, on the other hand, hold their flavor well -- even under intense heat.
If you're looking to add herbs and spices for a genuine multinational dish, try using fresh cilantro for a distinctive Mexican flavor. For Asian flavor, use fresh chopped ginger. Get Italian flavor with fresh basil.
To flavor your food, reach for herbs and spices rather than high-sodium table salt. Be sure to read the labels of seasoning mixes because some contain salt.
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