Tip #17: (Do not) just add salt (or Herbs and spices are your friends)

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Potato Sarladaise, with a shower of chopped parsley and finely sliced raw garlic.

“Fat is flavor.”

“Salt brings out the flavors in food.”

If you watch(ed) Food Network when there were how-to-cook shows on, you heard those two statements often. They are true, but they are also only part of the story.

Fortunately, fat is not the demon we spent the 80s and 90s thinking it was; yes, we have to watch our saturated fat intake, but we need fat to function properly and the “eat this, not that” world is finally admitting that fat may not have been quite the problem they thought it was. (We are blaming sugar now, in case you missed it. There are grounds for this, but I get a little tired of the game of pin-the-single-tail-on-the-fat-donkey game we play in this country.)

There is a lot out there about fats: avocado oil, nut oils, and olive oil are all high on the happy list. Depending on which study you read, canola, grapeseed, sunflower, and vegetable oils are great or awful. Ditto for animal fats.

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Sauteéd kale, red onion, and sweet potato with a fried egg, a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper, and parsley.

One consistent fact about fat is that it is high in calories. The nutritional breakdown of those calories, particularly in saturated versus mono-or-poly-unsaturated fats, varies depending on the source, but interestingly, they all clock in between 115 and 125 calories per tablespoon. Suprisingly, butter is the calorie winner at around 102 calories per tablespoon.

Along with fat and sugar, we are advised to keep an eye on our salt intake. As with fat, we need sodium to function but we do not need the amount we tend to consume in America.

So if we have to watch fat and salt, and they are both contributing partners to the flavors in our foods, what do we do?

Load up on the fresh and dried herbs and spices. Acidity helps, too.

I tend to season as I cook, instead of waiting until the end. I also tend to use far less salt than a recipe calls for; if the food needs more, I’ll get plenty of impact from adding a little on top of the finished dish. What I do use pretty liberally are citrus juices and fresh herbs. A shower of lemon juice, parsley, basil, cilantro, chervil, tarragon, or chives/scallions (not herbs, but often used that way) at the end of cooking can spark the flavor of a recipe in ways that salt absolutely cannot.  Too much salt is just salty.

Next time you taste a finished dish and think, “This needs something…,” don’t reach for the salt. Grab complimentary herbs or an acid like citrus juice or vinegars and watch your dish sing.

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There’s a pork chop there, but the most interesting thing on the plate is the Fruited Wild Rice with Carnival Squash, Kale, and, you guessed it, parsley. Scallions are used as an herb in this dish.

Fruited Wild Rice with Carnival Squash and Kale (serves 4-6)

1 carnival squash, cut in half, seeds and stringy pulp scooped out
1 cup wild rice
2 cups chopped kale
2 cups water
1/2-3/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup chopped dried cranberries
1/4 cup chopped dried cherries
2 tbsp crumbled fresh goat cheese
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 scallions, sliced
black pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 375. Line a small baking tray with parchment and place the squash cut-side down on the tray. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Let cool and then peel the skin away from the flesh and chop the flesh into 1/2″ pieces. Set aside.
  2. Bring wild rice, kale, 1/2 tsp salt, and water to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Add the cranberries and cherries to the wild rice mixture, stir, and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes more, or until the wild rice still has some bite but is tender. (I usually err on the side of underdone, because I like chewy wild rice.)
  4. When wild rice is cooked, drain off any remaining water, if necessary, and add to a large bowl. Stir in the squash, goat cheese, 1 1/2 tablespoons each of the scallions and parsley, and black pepper. Taste, and add up to 1/4 tsp more salt if desired. Top with the remaining scallions and parsley and serve.

2 thoughts on “Tip #17: (Do not) just add salt (or Herbs and spices are your friends)

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