During the reign of the Roman Empire, pepper and other popular spices were status symbols for leaders and wealthy families. And at the birth of Jesus Christ, the three Magi from the Orient brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the latter two being exotic, expensive spices equivalent in value to gold. Fifteen centuries later, Columbus discovered the New World while looking for gold and—you guessed it—a route to the spices in the Orient.
In the 21st century, however, you don't have to be a student of history, a wealthy individual or a gourmet chef to incorporate spices into your cooking. At a modest price, you can easily purchase ordinary spices—like onion, oregano, paprika, pepper and garlic—at your grocery store.
Or you can experiment with more exotic spices, such as Aleppo pepper, a Turkish crushed chili spice that can be sprinkled on deviled eggs, pizza, salads or grilled meat. Going one step further, you can create your own exotic mix of spices, such as Bavarian style seasoning, which is made of crushed brown mustard, rosemary, garlic, thyme, bay leaf and sage.
Why should you expand your cooking repertoire with spices?
Because most of us are trying either to lose weight or avoid gaining weight, and spices can be helpful in reaching our goal.
John Peters, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of Colorado and chief of strategy and innovation at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, conducted an experiment to see if spices could overcome the loss in dietary satisfaction of foods when the level of fat is reduced. The goal was "to see if using herbs and spices could help people meet the recommended Dietary Guidelines that advocate a moderate total fat and reduced saturated fat intake." If so, the use of spices could be a practical strategy for weight loss or weight maintenance.
In Dr. Peters's experiment, a test group of 150 subjects ate a meal (meat loaf, vegetables and creamy pasta) that was either full fat, reduced fat or reduced fat with spices. The meals were randomized so that the subjects did not know which meal they were eating, and the subjects assigned a score to the meal based on dietary satisfaction.
Dr. Peters found that the overall liking of the full-fat meal and the reduced-fat meal with spices received the same score in satisfaction. Indeed, participants liked the reduced fat spice vegetables better than full fat vegetables. The creamy pasta didn't fare as well, probably because the spices cannot deliver the unique mouthfeel of creamy pasta.
Bottom line, Dr. Peters concluded that except for foods that are heavily dependent on a creamy mouth feel, "spices will likely have great utility in many foods as a way to reduce fat and saturated fat." In other words, through the creative use of spices, we can enjoy reduced-fat food as much as, if not more than, a full-fat food.
If you need ideas on how to incorporate spices into your cooking, check out the recipes on the McCormick for Chefs website. You can choose recipes by kind of food (e.g., poultry, appetizers or salads), style of food (e.g., vegetarian, ethnic or health and wellness) or brand of spice (e.g., Lawry's, McCormick Culinary or Thai Kitchen). You'll also find dozens of recipes with a unique combination of flavors, such as one of my favorites, Crunchy Asian Slaw with Roasted Ginger.
Nearly 60 years ago, syndicated columnist Harriet Van Horne, wrote, "Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all." Harriet was ahead of her time in promoting real food for real people. As evidenced by her comments in an early Vogue magazine article, Harriet was not a fan of "premixed, prewhipped, pre-stewed foods that crowd the grocer’s shelf."
So in the spirit of uninhibited learning, go ahead and express your creativity in the kitchen by experimenting with new and exotic spices—and as an added benefit, watch the numbers on the scale retreat.