I know it can be overwhelming to move from the standard products you’re used to seeing on your supermarket shelves to healthier alternatives that might be new to you and require a bit more research to find. However, it is worth tackling the issue gradually, incorporating maybe one item every month and giving yourself plenty of opportunities to experiment with it until you begin to feel you know how to use a new ingredient and where to find it easily.
For that reason, I’ve put together a list of basic ingredients that you should “play with” and gradually incorporate into your cooking (and therefore have them in your kitchen).
The items I’ve included in this list are my key ingredients for substitutions. Once you learn how to use them, you will gain experience in replacing conventional ingredients with these healthier alternatives and you will start to use them more independently, without the need to follow recipes to the letter. Until then, take a gentle approach and start with what appeals to your taste buds or sounds more interesting.
Don’t take the pleasure out of healthy eating: it’s not good for you if you just don’t feel like eating it!
List of key ingredients to add healthy flavour
|Ingredient||Use||Where to find|
|Almonds||Almonds are a good source of protein and an excellent substitute for flour. Rather than buy almond meal or almond flour ready to use, it works out much cheaper to buy almonds in bulk and grind them at home with a coffee-grinder.||Main supermarkets tend to have big bags of almonds (700g) in aisles named “World Foods”, normally where Indian spices and ethnic foods are found.|
|Coconut milk||Coconut milk is a delight and I favour it over other “milk alternatives” as it has a much richer consistency than rice or even almond milk and it is a more natural product. Besides, it adds luxurious flavour to anything you use in: from cakes to curries, coconut milk is an extremely versatile product that is used in many of my recipes. Check the ingredients to make sure you avoid additives and preservatives. The best ones (with the shortest list of ingredients) tend to be organic.||Most supermarkets stock it. It can be found in tins near other tinned products and sometimes in the “World foods” aisle.
|Coconut oil||Coconut oil is an excellent fat all rounder. It is particularly good to withstand heat and therefore ideal for home-cooking. Most people don’t know that vegetable oils get damaged by heat and therefore should never be used for cooking. Olive oil is slightly more resistant but for baking and frying, only saturated fats can withstand the heat without damage to their molecular structure. Coconut oil has many health promoting properties besides its convenience for cooking. Coconut oil is a saturated fat which contains no cholesterol or trans-fats. It is certainly worth incorporating it in your recipes. It can be expensive but you don’t need to use huge amounts. However, beware of refined coconut oil which does not contain the health giving properties of unadultered coconut oil and can sometimes be even hydrogenated! For that reason, I advise you stick to raw organic unrefined coconut oil.||It is available in some supermarkets, normally near the olive oil section. It is also available from high street health shops and online suppliers of healthier ingredients.|
|Coconut powder||A cheaper version of coconut flour which works just as well. It can be used to replace conventional flour and add flavour to many recipes.||It is normally available from online suppliers of healthier ingredients.|
|Coconut pure (also called Creamed Coconut)||I love this one because it is good value and very versatile. It is basically the whole coconut pureed and boxed. It normally goes hard at room temperature (except in the hot summer days) but you can take it all out of the package and keep it in a tub at home. Use a knife to cut (or ‘chisel out’) pieces and you can mix it with hot water to form coconut milk at home or even use some of the oil (which normally separates) for your cooking. My favourite use of this product is for making coconut milk at an affordable price at home. And coconut milk can be used in many different recipes adding extra flavour and texture. If you like the taste of coconut, try adding a bit of coconut pure to your porridge, for example. Check out the recipes section for some inspiration. I’m sure you’ll start coming up with your own ways to incorporate coconut pure into many dishes of your own. The ingredients list on the packet should be only one: “pure coconut”.||Most supermarkets stock it. It is usually in the “World foods” aisle or near the Indian spices.
A good maker is ‘Dunn’s River’ Creamed Coconut as it is pure and unsulphured. It is available in many supermarkets and online food suppliers, including Caribbean groceries.
|Lemons||I always like to have lemons at home and I do buy organic whenever possible as that means I’ll feel inclined to use their skins as well as the juice. Citrus rind adds bursts of flavour to foods. Try to incorporate the habit of using lemon rind in your dishes and you just won’t forget your lemons sitting in your fruit basket until they go mouldy anymore. P.S. keep lemons in the fridge after you’ve used the rind and try to use them quickly as they spoil quicker without their skins.||Supermarkets and other fruit&vegetable providers|
|Garlic||I use a lot of garlic in my cooking and my favourite method to extract flavour and speed the job is to use a mortar & pestle. You’ll have to have a go at a few different ones until you find your favourite type but my best one is a bamboo mortar & pestle that has just the perfect shape to let me bash the garlic without having bits flying everywhere. Always mash your garlic with some salt and pepper as these will improve the abrasion and make the job much easier. It’s also a good idea to start your cooking from the garlic preparation as many properties of garlic are enhanced after it’s been mashed and exposed to the air. Mash it up first and leave it to stand as you get on with the rest of the preparation. This way you’ll give it enough time to intensify its health promoting properties.||Supermarkets and other fruit&vegetable providers|
|Grated coconut||As I’m sure you’ve noticed, coconut is very dynamic and a favoured ingredient in healthy cooking. There are many uses for all forms of coconut products and the more natural the product the better. Always check the ingredients to make sure you don’t buy sweetened coconut, which is also available.||Most supermarkets stock it. It is usually near the nuts and baking section.|
|Herbs||Another essential habit is to buy your fresh herbs and keep them in the freezer because there simply isn’t time to keep nipping to the shops every time you need to use natural herbs. If you can plant herbs in your garden, that’s much better. But in a country where we have to go through a few months of frosty weather and where so many live in spaces with little or no garden, I say freeze your fresh herbs (whether bought or planted) and keep your stocks up in the freezer. Once you learn to experiment with herbs, you’ll have fun making combinations. One of my favourite things lately is combining more than one type of herb in one dish. Some herbs complement each other wonderfully well but it is for you to discover which ones. Home-cooking is about your personal taste.||Supermarkets and markets.|
|Nut and seed butters||Nut butters are luxuriously tasty and you can choose amongst many varieties but the most common are almond butter and cashew butter. These items are used sparingly to add flavour and a special touch to recipes. They add protein value to foods and are a healthier alternative to the standard peanut butter. Home-cooking for toddlers can be particularly successful with the addition of some of these nut butters. For example, add them to natural yogurt with honey or agave syrup for a treat. Similar products are seed butters such as sesame seed butter (also known as Tahini), sunflower seed butter and pumpkin seed butter. Always use your sense of smell to make sure nut and seed products haven’t gone rancid or old. Use-by dates do not replace our much superior sense of smell!||Most supermarkets stock almond, cashew butter and Tahini. They’re normally near the jams or peanut butter but do ask a member of staff to avoid wasting time looking for them as they normally display only a few on the shelves. High street health food shops always have them.|
|Olives||I always have olives at home and a mixture of them, but I make sure I never run out of black ones as these add intense flavour to many dishes from salads to meats. Black Calamata olives are my favourite in taste and in the form they are processed. Olives require a fair bit of processing before they are suitable for consumption but Calamata olives are processed in a more traditional way that preserves more of their flavour and uses more natural methods.||Supermarkets and other food retailers.|
|Olive paste||This is another item that can be expensive for the amount you get but again, it is something to use sparingly and a little bit goes a long way. If you like the taste of olives, a little bit of this paste mixed in a home-made salad dressing with olive oil and cider vinegar will give an incredible lift to salads.||Normally available in supermarkets near “Italian products” or olive oils. Another one of those which are not stocked in great quantities so you might need to ask for help to avoid wasting time looking for it.|
|Spices||Ground spices are so easy to have at home. They keep well and are easy to store in cupboards. You can forget about them until you need and they will be a precious find when you start your “opening and closing of cupboards” in that search for inspiration that we all have to do every now and again. The most common spices I use are: ground coriander, ground cumin, cumin seeds, paprika, smoked paprika (also known as Pimenton), black pepper (freshly ground is better), garam masala, turmeric, cinnamon (powder and sticks).||Supermarkets normally have some spices but you can also buy online from specific companies that specialize in Indian spices. See the links page for suggestions of online suppliers. Of course, many corner shops sell an array of different spices with the advantage you can normally ask the shop keeper for some advice on how to use them.|
|Honey or Xylitol||I need to say that there is no ideal substitute for sugar because any form of concentrated sweetness, whether natural or not, is never a particularly desirable addition to anyone’s diet. So whatever you chose in terms of sweetening agent, keep in mind the word: moderation.
The fact is sometimes we need to make use of some form of sweetening agent to meet the demands of modern cuisine. So for that reason I’ve included some options here. Honey is also a good natural product that may be used sparingly. Honey should not however be heated as it can be easily damaged by temperature. For heated dishes/baking, try dried fruit (but also always in moderation).
Xylitol is a natural sweetener with no added flavour and the advantage of provoking a much gentler insulin response than sugar does. Sugar upsets blood sugar balance and that is a stressor for the body that we all should avoid in order to maintain our health.
However, there’s another danger about sweeteners, no matter whether they are natural or artificial. Tricking the brain with the misleading message that a highly sweet meal is on its way means your brain will expect the same amount of glucose to live up to the sweet expectations… And that’s a problem because, in some cases, when sweet taste is not matched by the corresponding caloric intake, the brain might do something about that… (which may lead you into further problems, including cravings). So that’s why I say it’s best not to kid yourself about sugar. We have never found a satisfactory way around it and the best approach still is to educate your palate (slowly but surely).
If you suffer from specific conditions or have any form of blood sugar imbalance, you need more specific advice in order to identify what would suit your particular needs.
|Some supermarkets stock both Xylitol but this can be tricky to find as it’s normally hidden in small quantities. Check near the sugar and sweeteners section but if you can’t see it, ask a member of staff. If one supermarket doesn’t have try others. Alternatively, you can buy them from Health Shops or online suppliers of healthier ingredients. Check the links session for some suggestions.|
Try not to print the whole list and buy them all in one go if you are not familiar with most of them. You should perhaps look into the recipes I have made available in this blog and see what takes your fancy. Then select the ingredients from one recipe and see if you can find other recipes using the same ingredients. I’m always saying to people: experiment with different tastes and foods until you familiarize yourself with them. This is a gradual process and for that reason you shouldn’t buy lots of new items that you won’t yet know how to use in your kitchen.