In the previous post, we explored three things that professional chefs use prodigiously, but which are woefully underutilized in the home kitchen: salt, heat, and acid. I alluded to a fourth thing, but said we would explore it in a separate post. Well, this is that post. In case you missed the previous posts, we’ve covered why I’m writing this series, how to stock your freezer, fridge, and pantry with low carb staples to make cooking a breeze, and tips for using some of those staples for cooking in advance or in bulk. Like I covered in the intro post, my goal is to show newbies out there (and old hands who need a reminder) just how easy it is to stay on a low carb plan. No detailed meal plans needed, and no shopping lists that rival blueprints for the International Space Station. When you keep certain items on hand, and you know what to do with them, you don’t need to plan what you’re having for lunch three weeks from now.
Today’s lesson: herbs & spices -- and a tasty one-pan meal that couldn't be easier.
To those of you who’ve been cooking for years—or, that is, cooking well for years—this is a no-brainer. We’re up to our eyeballs in obvious here. A kitchen devoid of herbs and spices is a kitchen that serves up bland, boring food, and runs the risk of making people think low carb food is insipid and unpalatable.
But remember, this series is intended for the fine folks out there who find themselves semi-paralyzed at mealtime, because they either “don’t know what to cook,” or they know what to cook, but they don’t know how to make it taste good.
To be completely honest with you, if you start with good ingredients, you really don’t need to do much to them. For most things, all you really need is a little olive oil or melted butter, some salt & pepper, and you’re good to go. (I do recommend, however, using a “good” olive oil. For finishing, I definitely recommend extra virgin, as opposed to “light” or some other variety where the peppery bite and zing of the oil has been processed out. Stick to what you prefer, though. Personally, I like very strong EVOOs—the ones that almost burn the back of the throat. To really up your game, you might consider going with some of the flavored or infused EVOOs available these days. These boutique oil & vinegar shops are popping up all over the place now, which is great because you can sample everything before you buy so you don’t end up with a large bottle of something you don’t like. I would almost be embarrassed to tell you how much of my hard-earned dollars these stores have gotten in the past couple years, hehheh. I have become a bit of an olive oil and vinegar junkie.)
Honestly, you would be amazed what a sprinkle of salt and nothing else can do for grassfed ground beef. Ground beef and salt is dinner, as far as I’m concerned.
BUT: for good reason, many people prefer to doctor up their cooking with a wide variety of seasonings. This helps make low carb food delicious for the people in the household who “need to” stick to low carb, while at the same time making things exquisitely appetizing for the non-low carbers in the house.
I opened this series with a Tweet that said I didn’t understand people who “don’t know what to cook.” When you learn to use herbs & spices—and be fairly generous with them—you can use very, very simple raw materials and end up with a dish that wows the tastebuds.
A one-pan meal I make frequently is some kind of ground meat with chopped vegetables and lots of spices. Could be ground beef, pork, turkey, bison, or lamb, but the technique is the same: heat a little fat in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet (preferably one with high-ish walls) – could be tallow, lard, olive oil, bacon fat, ghee – whatever you like. Add the chopped vegetables and let them cook for a few minutes. Move the veg to the sides of the skillet, just sort of pushing them away from the middle. Add the ground meat to the center of the pan, and use a spatula to spread it around and flatten it a little – the more surface area of the meat is in contact with the pan, the faster it will cook. You can cover the pan or leave it uncovered; it might cook a tiny bit faster if covered, but it’s pretty negligible. As the meat starts to brown, mix the veg back in until it’s all one big mish-mash and let it continue cooking until the meat is done to your liking. Add your spices throughout the cooking—don’t wait until the end. Things will be more flavorful if you let it all cook together. (Pictures below.)
What kinds of vegetables work well for this? Onions are pretty much always a part of this for me. I also like zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers, and even radishes (yes, you can cook radishes!). Greens also work (kale, dandelion, mustard, spinach), but you might want to add spinach only during the last few minutes of cooking, since it’s so tender; something hardier like kale needs longer to cook. You could also use broccoli or cauliflower, but I would recommend cutting them into very small pieces, not just florets. The whole point is for this to be quick & easy, and the smaller the pieces are, the faster they’ll cook. I personally
dislike raw broccoli and cauliflower, so I would want mine cooked until pretty
soft, but if you like getting a
workout via chewing, then no worries. Mushrooms are pretty good to toss in for
the last few minutes of cooking, and asparagus and green beans would work in this, too.
And what kind of spices? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.
The beauty of this ground meat & veg “thing” is that you can use the exact same meat and vegetables night after night after night, but by varying the seasonings you use, you can make it taste completely different. Or change up the ingredients slightly: ground beef one night, ground pork the next; one night peppers & onions, another night yellow squash & broccoli. It doesn’t matter which raw materials you start with; the strategy is the same, and by using different seasonings, you can create endless flavor and texture permutations such that the people you’re feeding will hardly even notice it’s the same foundational stuff over and over. (Keep in mind, though, be generous with the seasoning. You might overdo things if you're too heavy-handed, but I think most people probably err on the side of under-seasoning.)
(Pro tip: This is a great way to use up odds & ends of whatever vegetables are on their last legs. If something’s gone a little soft and is not as firm & crisp as it was when you brought it home from the store, this is the perfect final destination for it.)
Here are some ideas for using herbs & spices (plus some of those kitchen staples) to create different flavors using the same meats and vegetables:
Italian: basil, oregano, garlic, canned tomatoes
Mexican: cumin, fresh cilantro, chopped fresh or roasted jalapeños or poblanos, cheddar or pepper jack cheese, red & green peppers. (If American TV commercials and food packaging are to be believed, food is automatically Mexican if you add cheese and bell peppers to it, haha!)
Asian: fresh garlic, fresh ginger, soy sauce, toasted sesame oil. (Sprinkle the finished dish with toasted sesame seeds if you’re feeling extra fancy.)
Greek: oregano, chopped Kalamata olives, cubed or crumbled feta cheese, salt. (One of my all-time favorite one-pan dishes is ground lamb or turkey with these seasonings—its killer!!)
You can get all the seasonings you need at most supermarkets these days. If you want some especially interesting blends, and maybe some specific spices you might not find at the local store, there are great online merchants where you can find just about everything. I like Penzeys and the Spice & Tea Exchange. (You can order online, or click the links to see if there’s a location near you.) What I like best about these two stores is that if you go to one in person, you can smell and taste everything, so you don’t end up with a bag of something you don’t like. My new favorite source for Indian spices is Pure Indian Foods. I met the owner in person at the Ancestral Health Symposium this year. The turmeric ghee is insanely good, as is the cultured ghee. (All certified grass-fed, organic, etc., etc., etc. They even certify that they only produce ghee during the warmer months, when the cows are eating the rapidly growing spring and summer grass, which leads the ghee to be higher in conjugated linoleic acid [CLA] and probably other nutrients as well, like Vitamin K2.)
And now, here are some pictures of this strategy in action. I am not a food photographer, so please excuse the crudeness of the images. You can get a head start by using meat that’s already seasoned (such as loose sausage, either mild or hot Italian, or some other flavor you like). Add additional herbs and spices to make it even more flavorful.
Raw materials: onion, zucchini, yellow squash, ground beef, rogan josh, turmeric, and tikka masala powders. (Not pictured: salt and beef tallow.)
Onions, zucchini, and yellow squash doing their thing in the fat.
Vegetables moved to the side to make room for the beef.
Beef pressed down a bit to get cooking—more contact with the pan.
Beef starting to brown, now broken up and mixed in with the vegetables.
Spices added about halfway through.
Lookin’ good! (Well, okay, maybe it doesn’t look so good, but I assure you, it tastes great.)
This could not be simpler. I’ve done the same thing with loose sausage, a pepper, and some more summer squash:
And the best part about this kind of cooking? Only one pan to clean! (Maybe a knife and a cutting board, too, but only one pan!)
Cooking for a crowd? Use a large soup pot or dutch oven and make two or three pounds of meat at one time, with a lot more vegetables. (Or do this even if you’re cooking for one, and guess what? Lunches are ready for the week. And maybe even some dinners, too.)
To be honest, I own a bunch of low carb and keto cookbooks, but I rarely use them. I like flipping through them (mostly for the food porn...not gonna lie), but for my everyday go-to cooking, this is the kind of thing I make. I don’t have more photos because I rarely had a reason take pictures of my food. (Until now. Also, I'm a terrible photographer, as you can see.) But I assure you, I make stuff like this all the time. I’m telling you, that Greek version is dynamite with ground lamb or turkey. (I get the feeling it wouldn’t work well with beef, but it would probably be okay with pork.) Try it sometime and tell me if you liked it!
Since the meat and vegetables are all together here, this is a meal in and of itself. If, however, you or your family feel like you need a separate side dish—something to put the meat and vegetables on top of or alongside, consider cauliflower rice or mashed cauliflower (a.k.a. mashed “fauxtatoes”). (This low carb-friendly caulifried rice is insanely delicious. If you’ve found yourself missing fried rice from your favorite Chinese takeout place, this is for you! [Use toasted sesame oil for an even deeper flavor.])
Next time: another ridiculously simple way to put meat, vegetables, and seasonings together to make delicious, one-dish low carb meals with nearly zero effort.
Disclaimer: Amy Berger, MS, CNS, NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician. Links in this post and all others may direct you to amazon.com, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.