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How Condiments Can Make Or Break A Healthy Diet

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They're quick. They're easy. They deliver big flavor in small doses and add the richness we crave to our favorite foods. What's not to love about condiments?

A large salad of crisp greens with fresh tomatoes and bell peppers sounds healthy, doesn't it? Or what about a chilled platter of crudités for an afternoon snack -- fresh cucumber wedges, crunchy carrots and crisp jicama slices? How could you go wrong with a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with sprouts, lettuce and red onion slices? On their own, they're flavorful and healthy choices, but the addictive flavor and creamy texture of our favorite condiments can quickly turn our well-intended healthy meals and snacks into a disastrous heap of excess (and poor quality) calories.

Consider the bowl of French onion dip that we enjoy with our crudités, the tangy Ranch dressing that we pour on our salads or the creamy mayo that we slather on our "diet" sandwich. Who knew that a cup of ranch dressing has 1,200 calories? That's an entire daily calorie budget for many of us. Many people mindlessly polish off a cup or more when dipping veggies (or maybe even, gulp, dipping their French fries. And that cup of ranch dressing has even more calories than a cup of mayonnaise (900 calories) and nearly four times as many as a cup of avocado puree (360 calories) -- which is a much higher-quality fat, by the way.

Defined as a relish, sauce, dressing or other food accompaniment, condiments can be used in a variety of ways to add zip and zest to any meal. You can use condiments in pre-cooking marinades and rubs, incorporate them into dishes as you cook, or offer them on the side at the table.

Types of condiments include:

  • Relishes, salsas and chutneys. Incorporating chopped vegetables and fruits along with herbs and acidic liquids like vinegar or lemon juice, these accompaniments can be chunky or smooth. Although generally considered condiments for savory dishes, they can have sweetish overtones, or range from mildly spicy to flaming hot.
  • Fruit butters, jellies, jams and preserves. Fruit or fruit juice, sugar, water and sometimes pectin are the traditional ingredients in these spreads; to make them more nutritious, reduce the amount of sweetener to bring out intense fruit flavors, and use a healthy alternative to white sugar, such as honey or agave nectar.
  • Dressings. A sauce used to top salads and other dishes served cold or at room temperature, dressings can range far beyond the standard oil and vinegar combination. Using aromatic combinations of herbs, flavorful vinegars or citrus juice, and minimal fat can make dressings healthy as well as delicious.
  • Sauces. Any thickened, flavored liquid that accompanies food qualifies as a sauce -- from tomato sauce for pasta to crème anglaise sauce for dessert. Swap rich staples like Hollandaise sauce for healthier alternatives that use fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices to deliver flavor and texture. To achieve richness, use avocado instead of mayo -- or combine healthier options for classic favorites that satisfy without unhealthy fats or excess calories, as in the recipes below.
  • Glazes. A thin coating of intense sweet or savory flavor can add another layer of zest to a dish, without adding fat. Reductions of meat stocks or broths, melted dark chocolate or fruit spread can all be used in sparing amounts to boost flavor without sacrificing health.
  • Marinades -- a flavored liquid used to bathe meat, fish and vegetables prior to cooking. The bath of aromatic liquid typically consists of an acidic substance like lemon juice or red wine, plus spices and herbs.
  • Rubs. Another pre-cooking flavor booster, rubs are a blend of herbs, spices and salt that coat the surface of food -- adding a flavor kick with few calories and no fat.

The great news is that most condiments are a snap to make -- and you can whip up large batches so you have plenty on hand to add to meals on the go.

To maximize a condiment's flavor boost, consider how the taste and texture interacts with the dish it accompanies. Often, contrasting sensations enhance the dish overall. For example, a smooth fruit butter can add richness to the crunch of whole grain toast; a spicy salsa adds zest to the rich buttery texture of a plump, juicy halibut fillet.

Sauces, spreads and other condiments to keep on hand

Always look for lower-salt options for these zesty additions to your pantry. And if you buy condiments rather than make them, choose no-sugar-added varieties.

  • Capers
  • Barbecue sauce and ketchup, no sugar added, no-carb
  • Fresh salsa
  • Fruit spreads, no sugar added
  • Guacamole -- fresh, no sour cream added
  • Horseradish
  • Dijon and brown mustard
  • Pico de gallo
  • Soy sauce
  • Tabasco sauce
  • Worcestershire sauce

Sauces, spreads and condiments to make

I have an entire chapter of condiment recipes in my book, Flavor First. Today I'd like to share one of them, Asian Salad Dressing.

And while writing this article over the weekend, I was invited to a mustard class (Yes -- you can make your own!) by Living Social, an international event-planning firm offering daily specials on unique adventures. Yesterday I enjoyed a wine tasting at Mario Andretti's Napa-based winery followed by a lecture and hands-on cooking class with mustard maestro Chef Richard Haake of Winery Chefs. He should know. Richard won top honors at the 2010 Napa Valley Mustard Festival. I'm also sharing his scrumptious (and easy!) recipe for Beer Mustard.


Beer Mustard *
Dry ground mustard seed is also called mustard flour. Makes about 3/4 cup, or about 12 1-tablespoon servings

Ingredients:
1/3 cup pale ale beer -- flat (see note)
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
2 tablespoons brown mustard seeds
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons dry ground mustard (aka mustard flour)
2 teaspoons fresh minced onion
2 teaspoons fresh chopped thyme (or 3/4 teaspoon dried)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Instructions:
Soak the mustard seeds in the beer overnight. About 20 minutes before you are ready to make the mustard, stir the mustard flour, minced onion and thyme into the soaked seed mixture and allow to sit a few minutes. Place the mustard mixture in a blend with remaining ingredients. Pulse or blend until it is the consistency of a paste, with some whole seeds remaining. Transfer to a glass jar and store in refrigerator.

Note: be sure the beer is flat or it may cause the mixture to ferment.

Nutrition Facts:
Calories 20
Total Fat g 1
Sat Fat g 0
Cholesterol mg 0
Sodium mg 15
Total Carb g 2
Dietary Fiber g 0
Sugar g 1
Protein g 1

*Adapted from recipe by Chef Richard Haake of www.winerychefs.com

Asian Salad Dressing **
Delicious on sliced tomatoes or cabbage salad, this tangy dressing takes minutes to make. Yields 1 cup, or 16 1-tablespoon servings

Ingredients:
1/4 cup yellow or white miso
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1 T low sodium soy sauce
1 T Dijon mustard
1 T sushi ginger
1 T untoasted sesame oil
1 T chopped shallots
1 T water

Instructions:
Combine all ingredients in bowl of a food processor or jar of a blender. Process or blend until smooth. Transfer to jar and refrigerate

Nutrition Facts:
Calories 15
Total Fat g 1
Sat Fat g 0
Cholesterol mg 0
Sodium mg 150
Total Carb g 2
Dietary Fiber g 0
Sugar g 1
Protein g 0

**With permission from Flavor First by Cheryl Forberg RD (Rodale)

For more by Cheryl Forberg, RD, click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

Cheryl Forberg, RD is a James Beard award-winning chef, former nutritionist for NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and NYT bestselling author. Her latest book is "Flavor First" (Rodale). She lives on a farm in Napa, California. For plenty of scrumptious recipes, check out her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Flickr photo by Thomas Lillis IV

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