Eating only whole, unprocessed foods really highlights the importance of imparting flavor to your food. Without recourse to limitless cheese and butter, creamy sauces, all forms of added sugar, and delicious additives like soy lecithin and MSG, you have to put in some old-fashioned work to embolden the flavors on your plate. I find myself cooking with fresh and dried herbs, spices, chiles, aromatics and other Whole30-approved condiments more than ever, and the results are incredibly delicious and bursting with flavor.
Here is Part I of my Top 10 Whole30 flavor bombs that will liven up your clean eats. Ditch with your bland chicken breast and steamed vegetables and say hello to a whole new way of eating.
1) Aleppo Pepper
Aleppo Pepper is a variety of Capsicum annuum originally from southern Turkey near the Syrian town of Aleppo that is used frequently in Middle Eastern cuisine. Bright burgundy in color, it adds a bit of heat but not too much, and boasts complex flavors ranging from salty to acidic, from fruity to tart.
I use Aleppo Pepper as an all-purpose spice, sometimes substituting it for fresh cracked black pepper. It makes a beautiful garnish and makes everything on your plate pop with a beautiful hue of red.
2) Fresh and Dried Chiles
Growing up, I was ostracized from my family because I did not eat spicy food. For Indian parents, this is a cardinal and unforgivable sin. Especially for my dad, who prides himself on being able to snack on habanero peppers like candy. Somewhere at a Mexican restaurant in the Bay Area, his face is framed on the wall for having achieved the rare feat of eating not just one meal made at Maximum Spicy Level 10, but two meals made at Maximum Spicy Level 10.
As a kid, I was called “gora,” a term Indians use for white people. I was made fun of at the communal dinner tables. I was asked why I was an Oreo, i.e., brown on the outside but white on the inside. It was all very traumatic, thank you for asking.
Sometime in the last two years, however, I came around to spicy food in a big way. Now, I pride myself on eating spicier food than my mother. I’m probably somewhere at Spicy Level 8.
Cooking with fresh and dried chiles has dramatically enhanced the flavors in my cooking in indescribable ways. For beginners, start with the most widely available chile, the jalapeño. You can find this pepper in any grocery store.
First things first, buy yourself some disposable medical gloves, the ones that make you look like a methodical serial killer and make you smell like a skunk. I made the mistake of chopping some beautiful red jalapeño peppers sans glove. Later in the day, I carelessly rubbed my eye. For the next hour, it felt like a circus clown was juggling fire torches inside of my eyeballs. And this was after I had washed my hands with soap at least 10 times.
If you like your food very spicy, keep the membrane and seeds of the pepper and include along with the body of the pepper. Otherwise, omit the membrane and seeds, or at least most of them, for a milder heat. Add to all kinds of food, from sauteed meats and fresh salsa, to stews and soups, to eggs and potato hash.
Once you’ve become comfortable cooking with jalapeños, start branching out to Thai chiles, poblano peppers, serrano peppers, and habanero peppers if you like things really spicy.
3) Red Boat Fish Sauce
Have you been to Southeast Asia? Did you fall in love with all of the food? Fish sauce is the secret ingredient. Its depth and complexity of flavor imparts sweet, savory, and umami flavors to dishes in a way that no spice or other sauce can.
But not all fish sauce is created equally. Trust me, I’ve tried. Red Boat Fish Sauce is definitely the best of the best, and while it’s a bit pricey, it’s an irreplaceable asset in the kitchen and a little goes a long way.
Fish sauce is used most commonly in Asian cooking but it shines in all kinds of cuisine. I’ve even added a splash to my eggs to amp up the umami flavor. For beginners, start slowly, as fish sauce is very salty and pungent. Add a splash or three to a dish, give it a taste, and add more as necessary.
Below I’ve included one of my favorite chicken recipes that uses fish sauce in the marinade.
Everyone loves a good pesto. Unfortunately, most commercially prepared pestos are made with ingredients that aren’t Whole30 approved. Luckily, however, it takes 10 minutes to whip up a delicious batch of homemade pesto. Traditional pesto is made with pine nuts, but I typically use cashews because they are cheaper and I always have them on hand. Plus, Whole30 rules limit pine nuts. Basil is the traditional choice of herb for Italian pesto, but get creative and experiment with cilantro and parsley or add spinach, arugula or kale for a nutrition boost. Top on meats or even use as a marinade, toss with vegetable noodles, or use as a condiment on eggs. You can find my Mediterranean Pesto recipe on the Side Dishes/Snacks recipe page.
5) Nom Nom Paleo Magic Mushroom Powder
Michelle Tam of Nom Nom Paleo is a genius and has found a way to make salt even better. Her salt spice blend made of ground dried mushrooms, kosher salt, red pepper flakes, dried thyme, and black pepper is easy and quick to make, and a small serving of ingredients will leave you with a salt replacement for months (maybe years, depending on how salty you like your food).
Here’s a link to her recipe, though I made a few substitutions. My local specialty market was sold out of porcini mushrooms, so I used a combination of oyster mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms, and it came out great. I also added dried oregano in the same proportions as the dried thyme. I finished it with a healthy dose of some glorious Aleppo pepper.
Her recipe makes an enormous amount of this spice blend, so I used only 1/3 of the ingredients the recipe calls for. I was left with enough spice blend to fill a 11 oz. jar.
Use this blend as a substitute for salt in virtually any dish you cook. I particularly like it in meat and egg dishes, and when I’m roasting vegetables in the oven.
Savory Citrus-Herb Chicken
Uses Red Boat Fish Sauce
Makes enough marinade for 2-2.5 pounds of chicken breasts or thighs.
- 7-8 scallions, thinly sliced
- 3-4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 1 cup cilantro (leaves and thin stems only
- 10-15 basil leaves
- 1 full teaspoon each of orange zest
- 1/4 cup fresh orange juice (approx. 1 orange)
- 1 full teaspoon each of lime zest
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice (approx. 3 limes)
- 2 TBSP Red Boat fish sauce
- kosher salt to taste*
- 1 TBSP maple syrup (omit or use naturally sweetened fruit juice for Whole30)
- 1 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
- freshly cracked black pepper
- 2- 2.5 pounds chicken breasts or thighs
*Since this is a marinade, I used more salt than usual. Taste the marinade when it’s done. It should taste very salty due to the fish sauce and salt. Don’t worry, though, your finished chicken won’t taste that salty.
- Place all ingredients in food processor and pulse until a puree forms.
- Place chicken in a large Ziploc bag. Dump in marinade and mix around to evenly coat chicken. Marinate in fridge for 1 hour. Don’t marinate too long, as the citrus can start to toughen the chicken, especially for thin cuts of meats like breast tenders.
- Cook marinated chicken on grill. If you don’t have a grill, you can pan fry in a large skillet coated with desired cooking oil on medium-high heat until cooked through or bake in a preheated oven.
What are some of your favorite ways to add flavor to your cooking?