Spices for the Palate

Culinary experts serve up appetizing ideas for healthier post-holiday entertaining

In the spirit of honoring New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier, Gracia Walker and Vanessa Cantave say it’s not only possible to entertain serving more healthful meals, but presentation and flavor can be greatly enhanced if you’re willing to stretch beyond the comfort of familiarity. The co-founders and managing partners of Yum Yum NYC L.L.C. (www.yumyumchefs.com), a catering company that also specializes in food preparation classes, encourage their clients to rethink traditional dishes as well as broaden their appetites for herbs and spices. “If you like ethnic food, it’s very helpful,” offers Cantave, Yum Yum’s executive chef.

They give several tips to get you started:

Get creative with ingredients: In Thai dishes, consider reducing the heavy sauces, but using more curry, coconut, and cilantro. For Italian meals Cantave recommends using fresh oregano, basil, parsley, and marjoram. “During the winter,” she says, “use canned plum tomatoes that come from Italy.” If there’s a preference for steak, choose a lean cut and grill. “Instead of potatoes, I may do a cauliflower mash.” Legumes often satisfy an appetite for starchy foods. In the mood for Chinese? She suggests a vegetable stir fry, with a skinless rotisserie chicken. Add cashews, snow peas, and a light base of soy and sesame oil. “As for dessert: There’s a lot you can do with berries, yogurt, and cottage cheese in replacement of ice cream,” explains Cantave. “We’ve had events where we served bowls of beautiful berries with balsamic glaze.”

Know your herb and spice combinations: “Herbs are not just decoration or a garnish, they actually lend flavor to a dish—a brightness and freshness,” says Cantave. “Use dry herbs when you are cooking and fresh herbs when you’re finishing a dish.

Fresh herbs tend to break down in the cooking process.” Cilantro enhances Mexican and Thai foods. “Marjoram, a cousin of oregano, and thyme play very well with vegetable dishes. Everyone knows basil, but there are others like dill, great for pickling veggies, and tarragon, which complements poultry and fish dishes. Allspice is a  combination that’s heavy on the clove. It’s used a lot in baking, like in pumpkin pies, but it’s one of the ingredients in jerk seasoning.” Truffle oil, once primarily used in chef kitchens, is becoming a popular flavor in a variety of dishes, and can be now found in most specialty stores.

“You’re not going to be a chef overnight,” Cantave cautions, “but [being open to broader options] helps you get comfortable.”

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