Spice Up Your Life

A hundred years ago we did Whole30, which is an elimination diet meant to purge all the irritants from your system over thirty days and then slowly reintroduce them so you can determine the foods that cause you problems. It’s similar to Paleo but more strict. After a couple months eating in the Paleo style, I ended up in the ER because vegetables, nuts, and seeds are always trying to murder me. In Whole30 terms, the irritants were the foods I was still eating, like huge amounts of vegetables and cauliflower everything. But, during the elimination frenzy, I bought a cookbook called Well Fed, which elaborated on the way I like to cook.

In most places in America, grocery stores don’t carry exotic vegetables and fruits and wild game that rotate month to month. And in most homes in America, you’ve got a set list of items everyone can agree on, and bringing home an exotic vegetable may not be worth the price anyway. The premise of Well Fed is that, using your regular list of approved and readily available ingredients, you can make food from all over the world just by changing up the spices you add.

For example, a stir fry of chicken, zucchini, and green beans seasoned with soy sauce (or coconut aminos) and ginger is decidedly Asian. A stir fry of chicken, zucchini, and green beans with garlic, lemon, and oregano is Greek. Essentially, this is how I cook all the time. I am the only person who likes lamb in this house, and though everyone tolerates a flank steak every few months, I usually don’t bother because it’s a waste of money to buy steak for five when only one person really enjoys it. There are plenty of vegetables that aren’t on our regular rotation because the kids don’t like them, but just as many varieties or preparations that are off limits because of my own intolerance to food that fights back.

So, with our limited list, how do we mix it up? With spices! Whenever I watch a cooking show and the chef uses a spice I haven’t heard of, I look it up and see how to get it. This works best for blends like hawaij from Yemen or Berbere from Ethiopia. I only watched one season of Top Chef because competition shows really stress me out (like is their mother watching? Is she freaking out? Will she be disappointed? Ugh) but the few shows I’ve seen included a chef who liked to use Ras el Hanout, a Moroccan blend that is warming without being spicy, which works for our house full of kids.

Penseys has some nice blends, like Tsardust which makes everything taste like Eastern European sausage, but they don’t carry a lot of the international blends I like, so I have to order those elsewhere, or in the case of Berbere spice, have my family bring it to me when they visit since I can’t find it in El Paso. Their bags are always searched, but it’s worth it. Berbere can be a bit spicy, but it goes really well with anything tomato-based, and makes it taste like you took a lot of time and care in the dish to round out the flavors and cook it slowly when really you just mixed it with your tomato paste.

Roast your carrots with Ras el Hanout until they are lightly charred, and then drizzle with honey before serving and…holy buckets. Chop some pistachios to top them if you can eat nuts, and finish with a squeeze of lemon. This is, in my opinion, the best way to eat carrots. My kids like carrots, so changing up the spices is a decent way to expand their palates with foods they deem “safe.” I recently made fish burgers with tilapia, ginger, soy, and garlic with a splash of sriracha, and since they were in the shape of a burger, all three kids tried them! Two liked the burgers (the third truly doesn’t like fish, but was a good sport and took a bite), and one kid had an allergic reaction despite having had all the ingredients before, but still. I’m calling that a win.

Berbere spice vegetable stew with feta, avocado, and quinoa.

Last week, I made a vegetable stew with tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and lots of Berbere spice. I topped it with feta for something salty and served it was avocado to tame the spice, all on a bed of quinoa. I’m fairly sure quinoa and feta are rare in Ethiopia, but a tomato stew with Berbere is pretty accurate, though I didn’t have any injera bread to soak it up. The kids ate quinoa and one kid ate avocado, and I put some leftover grilled chicken and fruit on the table as a backup, which is something I do when I’ve made something spicy or something that has already been rejected, like salmon. I make sure the dinner for the day before is chicken so the leftovers are available when we feel like cooking something outside the list of approved options.

Last night, I made stuffed poblano peppers. I hesitate to call it chile relleno, because here on the border that dish is a roasted pepper filled with cheese and deep fried in a fluffy egg-white batter, kind of like tempura. It comes out crispy and flat, and you can wrap it in a tortilla and eat it like a burrito. I made a filling of ground turkey, bell pepper, onion, garlic, tomato paste, cumin, and ancho chile, and stuffed the peppers before baking them with a little cheese on top. Certainly not the chile rellenos that are popular here, but frying makes the house stink of oil, so I prefer to bake them.

Stuffed poblano with turkey, cumin, and bell peppers, with pickled radish salsa, avocado, and spaghetti squash

I made a pickled radish salsa with green onion, cilantro, and vinegar and served it with avocado on top and spaghetti squash underneath. Note the liberal use of avocado in both dishes, which means all our avocados ripened at the same time and had to be used, whether they made sense with the dish or not. The kids ate spaghetti squash and black beans, which didn’t make the photo, and I took the leftover ground turkey and made mini meatballs with cumin and garlic. The meatballs were very popular, and we’ll serve the rest tomorrow when my husband and I have fish and ratatouille, two foods that are sure to be met with derision. Two kids have agreed that “eggplanet” parmesan is tasty, but I’m not frying the eggplant tomorrow, so my expectations are low.

If you need inspiration, I would recommend the Well Fed cookbooks for anyone, even if you aren’t living that fibrous Paleo life. The author clearly loves food from all over the world, and uses readily available ingredients and a handful of exciting spices to essentially travel the world from her kitchen. You can always add a little cheese or a loaf of crusty bread to her meals if you’re into dairy and gluten (like I am).

PS Can you tell we got a new grocery store?? Radishes! Eggplant for ratatouille! Fresh poblanos! Quinoa! It’s a brave new world, friends.

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