Ask the Cook: Herbs and spices: The secret to healthy (and tasty) cooking

Diane Balagna

This week I was asked how to add flavor to food without adding additional fat or salt. It’s a great question that leads to one of healthy cooking’s best-kept secrets: herbs and spices.

Chances are you already have some classics in your pantry: cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg will warm up the flavor of any fall fruit dessert. Add them to your morning oatmeal or sprinkle them on your buttered toast.

Or, try something new. Have you ever put cinnamon on pineapple chunks? Give it a try! Be daring and experiment with different flavor combinations.

Want to give a kick to your baked potato? Try cayenne red pepper or garlic powder. You can also use minced garlic, but take note minced is much stronger. With these pungent spices, your potato may only need a light sprinkling of cheese instead of a cup.

Two excellent health benefits make spices like these especially good for you this time of year. First, they warm you up. Anyone who has ever taken a bite of a hot pepper knows it can make you sweat in seconds.

Remember, a little goes a long way, so start with a small amount. Second, strong spices such as garlic, cayenne pepper and ginger have been shown to have anti-microbial properties. Eating spicy foods may help ward off colds and sinus infections, helping you stay warm and healthy in the cold fall and winter months.

If you’re not sure where to start, visit Penzey’s Spices. It’s a mail-order company that sells herbs and spices and just happens to have a shop at 79th St. and Santa Fe Drive in downtown Overland Park.

Trust me, it is worth the short drive. The store is so fragrant you can catch whiffs of the delicious scents while you’re still outside on the street.

Inside, you will find just about every herb and spice you can think of, including many obscure ones you may have never heard of.

Jars come in different sizes and the prices are very reasonable. Each individual item or blend can be smelled before you buy it.

If you find recipes that call for fresh herbs, dried herbs can work just as well, and the conversion ratio is simple. Substitute one teaspoon dried herbs for every one tablespoon fresh herbs.

Use spices to explore world cuisine. Indian spice blends like Maharajah, Tandoori and Vindaloo sit on a shelf near Asian seasonings from China, Singapore and Indonesia.

Not quite ready to go that far out? Spices closer to home include ancho chili and chipotle pepper powders from Mexico, and English Prime Rib Rub, Sunny Paris and Tuscan Sunset seasonings from Europe.

Looking for classic American herbs and spices? Try Green Goddess, Fox Point seasoning and BBQ 3000.

If you stick with the smaller sizes, $25 will get you a nice assortment to start your spice pantry. Or just buy two or three of your favorites and get started right away.

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