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It happens to all of us.  We get into a rut with our cooking and wind up eating the same dishes over and over again.  Boredom is the enemy of a healthy diet.  When we get bored, we’re more tempted to go out to eat and let someone else do the cooking.

Restaurant food is designed to keep patrons coming back, not to keep patrons healthy.  It’s higher in salt and fat and calories than what most of us would make at home.  (I know I wouldn’t put a stick of butter into most of my dishes.)

A great way to get out of the rut is to try food from different cultures.  Other culinary traditions include ingredients that may be unfamiliar to us.  For example I didn’t grow up using chipotle chilis or ginger garlic paste or lemon grass but I love these ingredients now.  Spices add excitement and flavor to cooking without adding excess calories.  In addition many spices contain phytonutrients that scientists are finding can help prevent disease..

Many of these ingredients are surprisingly easy to use.  A tablespoon of Thai green curry paste and a can of coconut milk transform a simple vegetable stir fry from ordinary to spectacular. A couple of teaspoons each of curry powder and garam masala makes ordinary squash taste extraordinary. (And those of you who grow squash know how important it is to have many, many squash recipes during the summer squash season.)

How do you learn about these ingredients?  Easy ways include buying a cookbook and experimenting with some of the recipes.  One of my favorite cookbooks is Indian Cooking by Khalid Aziz. I bought this book in 1986 when I first moved to Los Angeles. An Indian friend marked some recipes for me to try and told me where to shop for the ingredients. Going to the Indian market to buy the unfamiliar spices was a great adventure that left me with a lifelong love for curries.

You can get a terrific education on the Internet. There are many food sites full of  great recipes, cooking tips and even how-to videos.  If you live in a large city, visit an international market such as Super H Mart or 99 Ranch Market.  Ask other shoppers how they prepare unfamiliar produce or use exotic ingredients. Some markets even offer cooking classes.

Today even small towns are likely to have a carniceria, a Hispanic butcher shop.  There is a small one a couple of miles from my house, in the same strip mall as one of my favorite Mexican restaurants.  I am embarrassed to say I never went into the carniceria until a friend started raving about their chicken wings.

When I ventured into the store a few months ago, I was struck by the variety of fresh produce.  I recognized many of the staples such as cilantro and poblano peppers but they also had cactus, epazote and purslane. In the back was a well stocked meat counter with fresh chorizo and multiple kinds of marinated meat.  The prices were reasonable and the quality was great.  Now I go into that market all the time.  It was an overlooked gem I had never noticed because it did not fit into my preconception of a grocery store.

Stepping out into a different cuisine gives us a sense of adventure. Opening an unfamiliar door gets us out of a rut and banishes boredom. Humans need variety. Without it, life seems bland and we lose some of our zest. Too often we do the same things over and over again in both our work and personal lives. While it’s nice to do something enough times to develop skills, we need the challenge of the new to help us grow. Without challenges, something in us atrophies.

When we get bored, we develop pathologies. Some of us overeat, others gamble and others get depressed. Spicing up our food is just one way to add something new and different and exciting to our lives.

What great resources do you have in your town?  What new flavors can you add to your next dish to take it from ordinary to extraordinary?

Al pastor stew

Al pastor is thinly sliced pork marinated in chili and pineapple juice then cooked slowly in an oven or on a grill. You can get it in a carniceria.

Al pastor stew

Al pastor stew

1 pound Al pastor

2 poblano peppers,, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped*

4 tomatoes, peeled and diced (or 1 28 oz can tomatoes)*

1 small onion, diced

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 cups chicken broth (or 1 can)

Brown the meat in a large pot.  Add remaining ingredients.  Simmer 15 minutes.

*How to roast a pepper: Wash peppers and remove the stem and seeds. Place on a cookie sheet and put under the broiler. Roast until the skin is brown and blistered. Turn and continue roasting until all sides are done. Place in a paper bag or covered pot for 15 minutes and let them “sweat”. Peel. (After the peppers have sweated and cooled, you can place them in a freezer bag and freeze them. When you defrost them, the skin will easily come off.)

*Peeing tomatoes: Wash tomatoes and put in pan filled with boiling water. Simmer 3 minutes. Remove and immerse in cold water. Peel.