After talking with some friends about The Savvy Sweet Potato, it suddenly dawned on me that not everyone is a crazy health nut junky with a kitchen stocked full of ingredients that sound like they come from Jupiter. Big surprise there.
Ground flax meal?
Uh. What. How about a beer and a burger, you stinky hippie.
Anyway, I decided to post on the top ten ingredients that I cannot live without, that I use all the time, and that you probably have never heard of/used in a recipe. Once you become familiar with these ingredients, they won’t seem so scary. And once the FOHE (fear of healthy eating) subsides, you can try some of these recipes on for size and change the way you eat. Feel free to peruse through this laundry list at yo leisure 🙂
- Chia Seeds: Chia seeds actually do come from that chia pet plant you used to grow as a kid. They’re not just for green grassy-styled hair, though, they also happen to be extremely rich in fiber, omega-3’s, and even protein. They absorb 9-10 times their weight when put in fluid, so when you add 3 tablespoons of water for every one tablespoon of chia seeds, they form a gel that works as an excellent binder in recipes like burger patties, cookies, muffins, and cakes. They are great stand ins when you don’t want to use eggs as they pull all ingredients together and make them stick. I put chia seeds in my smoothies and bake with them all the time. You can get these at most grocery stores and Trader Joe’s offers a great deal on a bag of ’em.
- Coconut Oil: Not all fats are created equal! I won’t give a lengthy extravagant spiel (this could serve as a great bed time story, PS) but although its a saturated fat, coconut oil contains high numbers of medium-chain triglycerides that are metabolized much differently…deeming it a “healthy fat”. It’s the best butter/margarine replacer in any baked good (and when it’s baked you can’t taste the coconut if you’re not a coconut fan), wonderful on popcorn, and so tasty drizzled over a sweet potato with cinnamon. We all need fats in our diet, and coconut oil is a great option. It’s also so good for your skin and hair; I brush a few teaspoons onto the ends of my hair and leave it in overnight for a deep conditioning. I just have to remember to wash it out the next day or I arrive at school/work lookin’ a hot mess. You can find coconut oil in most grocery stores and definitely at any health food store.
- Nutritional Yeast: This one sounded particularly foreign to me when I first changed my diet. What the f@!* is nutritional yeast?! Well, young grasshopper, let me break it down for you. It’s basically yeast that is grown, dried and then deactivated. It comes in a yellow powder form and happens to be full of vitamin B12, protein, and iron. It delivers a very rich flavor that vegans go bonkers for…commonly described as “cheesy, nutty, and savory.” Yep, that’s right, cheesy without the cheese. Who knew such a beautiful thing could be so wonderfully replicated. You can make a cheesy sauce using this stuff, sprinkle it over popcorn with salt (so good), or put it in soups to thicken them and add flavor, or even spoon some over sauteed kale. I use this stuff so much, I keep a canister of it by my stove and throw it into pretty much anything I make, usually quinoa, soups, and sauces. I love this stuff. Serrrrriously. Find it in the bulk bin section of your grocery store.
- Cacao Nibs: Why not just use chocolate, ya freak? I’ll tell you why! My dear beloved chocolate actually comes from cacao. Or did you just assume Hershey’s chocolate chips sprouted from the earth and were harvested like so? Ps, if you ever hear of such a thing, notify me IMMEDIATELY. Anyways. Cacao is basically pre-ground raw chocolate without all the other additives like sugar and butter and milk. They are a little on the bitter side, but provide a wonderful nutty roasted coffee-like flavor and a nice crunch. Most importantly, a lot of antioxidants that chocolate tries to claim are lost during its processing but trusty cacao nibs have maintained all of the health benefits that real chocolate provides. I commonly substitute cacao nibs for chocolate chips or add them to trail mix, granola bar recipes, and cookies. You might not find them in your regular ole grocery store, but they are most definitely sold at health food stores.
- Quinoa: I am quite the quinoa addict (pronounced KEEN-wah)…I eat quinoa on my salad every. single. day. How boring, you may think. Quite the contrary, I make it with plenty of spice and lot’s of cheesy nutritional yeast. It’s my all time favorite, and the amazing thing about quinoa is its high protein content for being a seed! It’s also got all the essential amino acids that most plant-based proteins are lacking, and it’s high in fiber as well as antioxidants. You can cook it up like rice, but it takes way less time and effort! It’s so easy, I make up a big batch and eat it for lunch all week. You can find it in any grocery store! I highly recommend eating quinoa if you’re looking for healthy quick vegetarian meal ideas.
- Flax Seeds: Flax seeds can be purchased whole or as ground flax meal, which just means they’ve been ground into a fine powder-like consistency. I can’t stress enough how good for you flax seeds really are, they have been scientifically proven to lower blood pressure! Just ask my 84 year old grandma; she adds them to her cereal every morning and she’s a total baller. They are high in omega 3’s, fiber, anti-cancer and antioxidant-rich lignans. You can sprinkle flax over oatmeal, cereal, and salads but I use them in baking when I don’t have chia seeds on hand. When you combine 1 tablespoon of water and 3 tablespoons of ground flax meal, it gels up and works as a great egg substitute in cookies, muffins, etc. You can buy flax seeds or flax meal in pretty much any grocery store.
- Tofu: I realize most of you know what tofu is, but have you ever actually made it yourself? It’s purdy easy once you get the process down. Tofu is made from soymilk that has been curdled and coagulated into a sliceable block. Now before you grab a napkin to wipe the drool from your lips, let me explain! Tofu is actually really rich in protein and offers a wide variety of antioxidant and anticancer nutrients. It contains large doses of calcium, manganese, and additionally has been proven to lower LDL levels, the “bad” kind of cholesterol…or lipoproteins if you may. Oh I’m starting to get excited over here. You can buy different types of tofu, too. It comes in a range from silken (very soft, best for soups) to extra firm (great for stir frys) and really has no flavor to begin with so it has the unique ability to take in ANY flavor you cook it with. It’s best to press the tofu first…I put the block on a plate, put another plate on top, and stack some heavy cans (or bottles of beer/wine….whatever’s clever) on top of the second plate to let excess moisture out. Then I marinate the tofu for a few hours in something like soy sauce and sriracha, and bake away. Tofu is readily available in most grocery stores.
- Tempeh: Pronounced temp-AYE…tempeh is an amazing meat substitute that is so easy to make. It comes from soy, much like tofu, but the difference is that it has been fermented and thus it’s easier on the digestive system than tofu. It has high levels of vitamin K, protein, fiber, manganese, and antioxidants. It comes in a block that you can slice or crumble easily. Some people steam their tempeh before cooking it because they say it makes it less bitter, but I never taste bitterness (plus I be lazyyy) so I skip this and marinate the poop out of it instead. You can bake it or saute it, even grill it. You go, George Foreman. Get it. It doesn’t require any pressing (like tofu) and has a texture more similar to meat so it’s a great option if you’re just starting to explore meatless proteins or you’re cleverly trying to trick your boyfriend into enjoying spaghetti sans beef. Tempeh is usually available in most grocery stores, but sometimes you have to try a little harder to track it down. Trader Joe’s has a great tempeh selection, even offering different types like flax-seed tempeh.
- Tahini: If you’ve never eaten a spoonful of tahini straight from the jar, we can’t be friends. Jay kay. Only….weirdos..do that. I used to make a lot of hummus when I worked at the wine bar and it happened more frequently than I care to admit (sorry to my old boss). Tahini is technically a seed butter made from sesame seeds but it’s really similar to nut butters like peanut or almond. It’s nutty, creamy, and is the most delicious ingredient in hummus or salad dressings. If I make a salad dressing at home, 99.9% of the time it has a tahini base. I haven’t put up any recipes for homemade tahini salad dressing yet…but I will soon. Scout’s honor. It’s supah high in calcium, iron, protein, magnesium, and healthy fats. You can toss it with veggies and saute them for a heart-healthy stir fry, drizzle it over avocado for a decadent treat, or mix it with nuts and dates for something sweet. Look for a jar of tahini in the ethnic food section of your grocery store.
- Dates: Not the awkward kind where you meet for drinks and proceed to make a fool of yourself by either a) getting mint from your mojito strategically lodged in between your front teeth or b) consuming too many of aforementioned drinks and admitting you cuddle with a teddy bear you’ve had for 18 years instead of a real boyfriend. I’m not admitting anything personally here, mkay. Maybe. Moving on, these kinds of dates will never do you wrong; they’re packed with fiber, vitamins B/K/A, iron, and natural sugars which make them excellent sugar-replacers when baking or cooking. Although not really lookers themselves, they are so tasty when whipped up with cinnamon and spices. I typically soak them in warm water for 30 seconds, then take out the pits and throw them in the food processor to make a date paste that works well in cookies, cakes, or anything you want to be naturally sweetened. Be sure to adjust the recipe if you’re swapping dates for sugar because the consistency is vastly dissimilar. Dates are sold in nearly all grocery stores in the produce section. Buy them in bulk- they last forever in the fridge. I could sneak in one more date pun about lasting forever but I’ll stop.