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Tuesday, March 07, 2006 

It's time for the high flavor diet

Bill Daley wants to kick off National Nutrition Month by trying to change the mindset of those who associate the word diet with tasteless, non-fat, low calorie, no-carb cardboard. He suggests rethinking your food to be more wholesome, home cooked, and seasoned with ingredients that pack a punch flavor-wise, but go light on their impact on your body.

He lists out seven ingredients for making your food more flavorful...but taking it easy on your waistline:
Balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar, made mainly from trebbiano grape juice, gets its intense flavor and silky texture from aging in wooden barrels. The better the vinegar, the longer it has been aged and, typically, the higher the price--but also the higher the calorie content. For everyday use, lower-priced brands will do fine; they generally have 5 to 15 calories per tablespoon.

"Vinegars in general are a great pantry item to add big flavor without adding lots of fat and calories," said Jim Romanoff, author of "The Eating Well Healthy in a Hurry Cookbook." "Most supermarkets have phenomenal selections of vinegars." He suggests having sherry vinegar, red wine and white wine vinegar and cider vinegar on hand. "It's something that keeps forever," Romanoff added.

IDEAS: Instead of oil-and-vinegar dressing and its typically 5-to-1 ratio of oil (at 120 calories per tablespoon) to vinegar, opt for a vinaigrette instead, which lowers the proportions as low as 3-to-1 oil to vinegar. Add herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Romanoff also suggests adding a splash of red wine vinegar to a finished pasta dish.


Mustard's zingy intensity comes with zero to 5 calories per teaspoon. Think of it as free flavor, whether it's yellow, Dijon or brown. Markets are stocking a greater variety of flavored mustards, too, that will bring additional nuance to recipes. Some may be a bit higher in calories, but not much.

IDEAS: Replace 1 teaspoon mustard for 1 tablespoon mayonnaise in a sandwich and you've saved yourself as many as 100 calories. (Not enough punch? Add another teaspoon.) When you're ready to slather butter on cooked vegetables, use a third as much and replace with mustard to taste. You also can make your own flavored mustard: Kathleen Daelemans, author of "Chef Kathleen's Cooking Thin Daybook: A 52-Week Plan to Lose Weight, Get Fit and Eat Right," adds fresh chopped dill or tarragon to honey Dijon mustard, then "paints" it on salmon, which she then bakes at 425 degrees.

Ginger root

The gnarly and intimidating look of ginger root belies its marvelous flavor, with its unique blend of citrus-meets-pepper. "It adds so much flavor to recipes," Daelemans said, adding that pickled ginger (sold in jars) brings the same flavor but with added convenience.

IDEA: "Pickled ginger is fun to just add to salads--it's a surprising little bite and it's an easy thing to do," Daelemans said.

Garlic-chili sauce

You can find this low-calorie, high-powered Asian condiment, a combination of hot ground chilies, garlic and vinegar, in the ethnic aisles of most supermarkets and in Asian stores, Romanoff said. "You're going to use it for something you want to add heat to, and it has complexity because of all the chopped garlic in it," he explained. "It keeps for at least a year in the refrigerator and it's inexpensive. You get a lot of bang for your buck."

IDEA: Add it--sparingly!--to soups, stir-fries, base sauces and marinades, Romanoff said. "You're going to get heat from it, the tanginess of vinegar from it, and obviously the savoriness of garlic," he said.

Red pepper spread

The zesty flavor of roasted red peppers forms the basis of these creamy spreads that are showing up in more markets. Typically, they have 15 calories per tablespoon--half the calories of onion dip. They're low in fat and healthful too. Italian and Middle Eastern markets typically sell many brands; Trader Joe's sells a dynamic roasted red pepper-and-eggplant spread and an Indian pinjur spread; we found a version by Bella Cucina at Treasure Island.

IDEAS: Use red pepper spread instead of fatty dips; it's great with raw vegetables. Romanoff also uses it in lieu of pizza sauce, and tops it with "small amounts of an assertive cheese" such as feta, and caramelized onions.

Fresh herbs

Fresh herbs can be pricey, but a little goes a long way. They add brightness and punch to absolutely any dish they join. Each herb provides a different flavor, and it can be fun to buy a different fresh herb each time you go shopping and play with it throughout the week. It will enhance your cooking acumen too.

IDEAS: Add a few leaves of basil to a sandwich or sprinkle chopped mint or tarragon into your salad--you won't need nearly as much mayonnaise or salad dressing. Fresh herbs should be added to the end of cooking, but there are exceptions: Sturdy rosemary can be added to a pot of stew or soup.


Lemons bring a sunny splash of color and flavor; 1 tablespoon of the juice has about 5 calories. Its potent taste can be obtained from the zest (the colored, outer layer of the fruit) or the juice within. "Lemon adds brightness to any dish--and it has the kinds of flavor properties that spread throughout something," Romanoff said. "It gives [a dish] a whole overtone of citrus and acidity . . . rather than getting lost in a group of complex flavors."

IDEA: "I love to slice them paper, paper thin and toss them into a salad just like a lettuce leaf," Daelemans said. She uses a V-slicer but a mandoline also can produce superthin slices. "Shave some Parmesan and dress the leaves with a drizzle of good-quality extra-virgin olive oil and cracked pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice."