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The Power of the Spice Rack: How Simple Spices, Aromatics, and Other Simple Additions Can Transform Bland Staples Into Amazing Foods
I am a huge advocate for making low cost meals at home. It’s been one of our biggest money savers over the past several years, trimming our cost per meal for our family well below $1 per meal, which means we can feed a family of five for about $400-450 per month, and we do it with delicious foods that we all like and still afford to eat out or get takeout every once in a while.
A big part of that savings comes from simply using staple foods as often as possible. We use rice and beans and eggs and peanut butter and pasta and low-cost produce for many meals – you can see a full list of the low cost staples that make up the backbone of our diet. However, on their own, those foods can be pretty bland. Plain rice? Plain beans? Yeah, not exactly the most flavorful or exciting foods in the world.
The trick, of course, is to season them well with herbs and spices when you’re cooking them. Salt can make almost everything that’s not sweet taste better, of course, and black pepper helps with most things, but those two just scratch the surface of what you can do with a good selection of herbs and spices.
The problem, of course, is that it’s often hard for someone new to the kitchen to know what spices to use with what foods. If you season something the wrong way, you end up with something that can be less than appetizing. What can a person do?
Honestly, I started figuring out the mystery of flavoring foods by simply trying lots of simple recipes at home and seeing what I liked. I picked up a bunch of cookbooks full of “simple recipes” that mostly revolved around cooking and spicing one or two key ingredients appropriately and I noticed what was tasty and what wasn’t. Based on that, I have a good idea of how to add herbs and spices to various staple foods to make them quite tasty.
Still, it would have been useful at that earlier point to simply have a thoughtful guide as to how to season many staple foods in a way that I might enjoy rather than having to make lots of recipes and trial by error. What do I add to rice to make it flavorful? Beans? What can I do with peanut butter? What can I do with leafy greens?
It’s easy to find long lists of herbs, spices, and other flavorings, and what you can do with them, but today I’m going to give you the reverse. I’m going to list a bunch of staple foods you can buy really inexpensively at the store and give you several options for adding flavorful items to them. In most cases, all you have to do is cook the item and add the suggested spice when cooking or at the end of the preparation.
Not all of these will click perfectly with your taste buds, of course, but trying them out is so incredibly simple and most of them will result in a pretty tasty experience, giving you another low-cost food you can add to your repertoire.
Beans come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but most maintain a simple earthy flavor that, although I love it on its own, can prove to be a bit on the bland side. I vastly prefer cooking dry beans at home on my own. Here are some herbs, spices, and other seasonings you can add to amp up beans.
Salt Salt can bring beans to life and can help with almost anything else on this list. Add salt to taste by mixing them into the beans if you’re doing it early on in the process if you’re boiling dry beans yourself. Typically, canned beans are already salted, but trust your own taste buds.
Onions and/or peppers, chopped and sautéed Just chop up some white onions and peppers of almost any kind – bell peppers if you don’t want anything too spicy or your hot pepper of choice if you do want some heat – and cook those chopped vegetables in a skillet with a bit of oil until the onions are beginning to turn brown. Then add a bit of water to the hot skillet and dump the whole mix right into the beans. You can do this after the beans are finished cooking to make the liquid between the beans much more flavorful, or you can do it early in the cooking process to put some flavor straight into the beans (though you’ll lose a lot of flavor when you strain the beans). With canned beans, you can just mix this in afterward. I usually use about an eighth of a small white onion and about half again as much diced peppers per cup of beans.
Chopped garlic or garlic powder Heat some chopped garlic in a saucepan or skillet for just a minute or so, or add a spoonful or two of garlic powder. I suggest going light with this at first and then adding it slowly until it tastes right.
Cilantro To some people, cilantro tastes citrus-y. To others, it tastes like soap. If you’re on the citrus side of the equation, half a teaspoon of dried cilantro per can of beans (or a quarter teaspoon per cup of cooked beans) or a tablespoon of fresh cilantro will add a nice citrus-y fresh flavor to the beans.
Cumin Cumin is a wonderful addition to beans if you’re going to use them in a soup or as part of another dish (such as enchiladas). Add half a teaspoon of ground cumin per cup of cooked beans and you’ll have some great earthy flavor that makes the entire dish taste deeper and more full-bodied.
Cayenne or chili powder Both of these are ground peppers that add “heat” to beans. You should add both of these to taste, as different people have different levels of heat and chili flavor that they desire. These are great if you intend to make a spicy dish or you’re making chili.
So, for example, let’s say I’m cooking beans for a black bean “chili” recipe. I’m going to add a bit of salt and ground black pepper, chopped white onions and peppers, some chopped garlic, some cumin, and some chili powder and a bit of cayenne right into the beans along with a bit of liquid and I have the backbone of my soup right there. If I’m making enchiladas, I’ll probably use some cilantro and maybe a bit less cumin. If I’m making a white bean soup, I’ll just use the onions and peppers, the garlic, and the cumin and skip the other stuff.
Rice is something of a blank slate, even more so than beans. You can add almost anything you want to it to make it delicious.
Broth If you’ve cooked anything flavorful recently, save the broth from whatever it is that you cooked and use it to cook up the rice. You can save soup broth or broth from cooking a chicken or you can even make your own broth/stock by boiling vegetable scraps or bones and saving the liquid. Salt and pepper in the broth brings out even more flavor.
Soy sauce Just a bit of soy sauce in cooked rice makes all of it taste amazingly flavorful. It’s much easier to acquire than the ingredients that make it up, too – it’s a great “flavor simplifier.”
Curry powder Curry powder is just a convenient mix of several spices – curry leaf, coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and chili peppers, with some variants having things like ginger, garlic powder, mustard seed, cinnamon, and other things. You can honestly use any of the basic ingredients in curry powder to liven up rice, but the mix that is curry powder really does a good job.
Onions and/or mushrooms and/or peppers, chopped and sautéed The strategy here is much the same as it is above, with adding peppers and onions to rice. Just add a bit of oil in the pan, toss in these ingredients over medium-high heat, and cook them, tossing them around until the onion is just turning a bit brown. Add a bit of liquid to the hot skillet and add it straight to the rice, mixing it around in there. You’re going to make all of the rice have a wonderful flavor that you can happily eat just on its own or you can serve along with almost anything.
Salsa The ingredients in salsa are almost all perfect for rice seasoning, so why not just mix salsa straight in there? Tomatoes, cilantro, onions, peppers, lime juice, cumin, peppers – they’re all good with rice, and salsa is just a mix of those things.
Cinnamon and sugar This one is near and dear to my heart because it was something my mother used to fix as a snack when we had extra rice when I was a kid. She’d simply take a cup or so of rice, mix in half a teaspoon of cinnamon and what seemed like a tablespoon of sugar, and warm it in the microwave for a sweet snack. You could use it as a side dish as well, or just sprinkle the cinnamon and sugar on top of warm rice.
First of all, let me state that you can flavor leafy greens with almost anything you can imagine and it will probably be interesting and tasty. However, there are a few general guidelines that will guide you toward something flavorful for your leafy greens.
Simple dressing Just mix four parts olive oil to one part white vinegar or red wine vinegar. That’s it. Into that, you can add all kinds of things, then toss the mix with the leafy greens to make a tasty salad.
Things you can add to simple dressing include pureed berries, a small amount of sugar, salt, garlic powder, pepper, thyme, basil, oregano, celery powder, and parsley. Be very careful with mixing sweet and savory ingredients together, as you can result in some questionable flavors. I suggest trying just one or two ingredients at a time and seeing what you like.
Heating the dressing is also often very tasty, as it changes the texture of the leafy greens.
Fresh fruits You can toss small fresh fruits with almost any leafy greens to add some sweetness and flavor variety to them. You can mix anything from berries to mandarin orange slices to bits of apple to greens. You can also squeeze citrus fruits and add their juice straight to leafy greens, along with the zest of their skins.
Most people see a jar of peanut butter and think of the traditional standby that is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good PB&J, but there are many other interesting things you can do with peanut butter.
Soy sauce I’ll mix about two teaspoons of soy sauce with a cup of peanut butter and mix it in with some pasta for a very simple and amazingly flavorful meal. You wouldn’t think this would work, but it actually works really well with the slight sweetness of the peanut butter playing off of the strong savory soy sauce and the texture of the pasta. It’s delicious!
Small fruits, nuts, and seeds Just mix a ton of small fruits – preferably dried ones, like raisins or dried cranberries – and nuts and seeds in with a bit of peanut butter until they all just stick together and you have yourself a simple snack bar. You can use almost anything here and it works – I recommend flattening out this mix, cutting it into bar shapes, and storing them in the freezer individually wrapped with cling wrap.
Cocoa powder You can turn peanut butter into a peanut-butter-and-chocolate dream by just adding a bit of cocoa powder to it. You can overdo this really easily, so just use a little bit – like a half a teaspoon of cocoa powder per cup of peanut butter – and then slowly move up from there until you find the right balance of texture and flavor.
Chicken is incredibly inexpensive and reasonably flavorful on its own, but it also meshes so well with so many different flavorings and spices. You can do all kinds of things with chicken! Here are just a few examples.
Garlic You can use garlic powder or minced garlic, but all you have to do is mix it in a bit of olive oil with a bit of salt and pepper and then spread it all over the chicken before you cook it, whether you grill it or bake it or use other methods. It’ll imbue a wonderful garlicky flavor right into the chicken.
Oregano This will add a bit of “Italian” flavor to chicken. You just do the same thing as you would do with the garlic – mix it with a bit of olive oil and coat the chicken. You can even let it rest in the olive oil with oregano for a while to soak in the flavor.
Rosemary Rosemary always adds a bit of lemony flavor to anything, at least to my taste buds, and that flavor also pairs well with chicken. Again, a bit of olive oil, a bit of rosemary, a bit of salt and pepper, all mixed together and coated on the chicken.
Mustard powder (with honey) For a different approach, try mixing a bit of mustard powder in with some honey and very lightly coating chicken pieces with it. In this case, you wind up with a sweet and spicy glaze on the outer surface of the chicken with a bit of the sweet and sour soaking in through the chicken juice. Again, this is recommended if you grill or bake the chicken.
Chili powder A light dusting of chili powder that’s stuck on the natural moisture of the surface of the chicken creates a great flavorful outer layer, and some of that is absorbed into the meat itself by the chicken’s natural liquids. Spread this on and cook as you will.
Eggs are one of my favorite foods of all time. I love poaching them, scrambling them, frying them, hard boiling them, soft boiling them. I love just eating them with just a bit of salt and pepper on them and I’d never get tired of them. However, there are some simple things you can do to add even more flavor variety.
Chili powder Sprinkle some chili powder on an egg as you’re cooking it or on a hard-boiled egg afterwards to add a great kick of spice and flavor to the finished product. Again, amounts vary according to individual taste – try adding a little this time, then gradually kick it up until you find the right level for you that isn’t overpowering.
Tarragon I love adding tarragon – whether fresh or dried – to scrambled eggs, as it adds this tiny subtle bittersweet flavor that just adds something amazing to eggs when used in small amounts. I love putting a few dashes of tarragon into scrambled eggs along with some salt and pepper.
Chives Chives go great in scrambled eggs as well, adding a bit of an oniony flavor to the eggs. We’re lucky enough to have a great patch of chives behind our house which we use heavily throughout the growing season and chives are almost a constant in our scrambled eggs.
Dill and paprika I like using these two together with a light dash of each on a hardboiled egg or mixed together with the yolk to make a simple “deviled egg.” They just add a wonderful zest to the flavor of egg yolk.
Thyme A bit of dried thyme adds a wonderful earthy flavor to eggs, so I like to sprinkle a bit on top of a fried egg as it’s cooking when I know I’m going to pair it with something like toast with butter. Thyme just wonderfully complements a fried egg, in my book.
Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite low cost secrets from the grocery store. I love baking sweet potatoes, mashing them, and cutting them up into strips and coating them with a bit of oil to make “oven fries” by baking them. Of course, a bit of flavor never hurts…
Oregano Whenever I cut sweet potatoes into strips for “oven fries,” I coat them in just a bit of oil, then cover them with salt, pepper, and oregano and then bake them until they pass the “taste test.” I like them when the outside is almost crisp but the inside is soft; baking at 350 F for 45 minutes to an hour i what you’ll want to do. When they come out of the oven, they’re so delicious that almost no one in the family can keep themselves from grabbing one or two.
Cinnamon You can bake a sweet potato just like a normal potato and you can even do it in the oven, but when you get it out, cut it open, put a bit of butter in there, and sprinkle a bit of sugar and cinnamon on top. It complements the sweet potato flavor with some wonderful sweetness that’s just amazing as a slightly sweet side dish or even as a dessert.
Maple syrup You can also make mashed potatoes out of sweet potatoes by boiling them until they’re soft then simply mashing them with a mixer or a ricer. The secret, however, is to mix in just a little maple syrup at the end, adding a wonderful maple flavor to the whole thing. Putting a scoop of that on your plate, with just a bit of butter on top, is just amazing.
It only takes a little bit of flavoring to turn a boring, cheap staple into something delicious from your chicken. Just add a spice, some herbs, a simple sauce, or an aromatic vegetable, and you’ve turned your simple cheap staple into something wonderful.
Better yet, once you have a sense of what many of the basic items do to the flavor of the staples, you can start mixing and matching what you like. It becomes fun and quite easy to make delicious meals at home with just the cheapest staples and a few seasonings.