Donna Maurillo, Food for Thought

Donna Maurillo, Food for Thought

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After I discussed the Weight Watchers program in my last column, a few people mentioned that they have a hard time getting “healthful food” to taste good. Even my Italian exchange student, Matteo, complained that when he cooks, his meals don’t taste as good as mine do.

What’s everyone doing wrong? And how can you improve? First of all, it’s not that difficult. I think most of us are afraid to experiment because we might do something wrong. But, what’s the big deal? If you don’t like the way a dish turned out, do it a different way next time. Nobody will call the Food Police on you.

Even store-bought dishes can be enhanced with your own flavor touches. These ribs, potatoes, beans, and slaw all have been doctored up. (Donna Maurillo — Contributed)

Here are a few pointers to help bring your cooking up a level:

Don’t fear the salt. Some people I know are so scared of salt that they don’t add it to anything. But salt brings out flavor. You don’t have to use a lot. In fact, it’s better if you start slow. And add it at the start of your cooking, not at the end.

Same goes for herbs and spices. These are flavorful plant parts that need time to infuse into a dish. Add them at the start and let them bloom. Dried versions have a more concentrated flavor, so you can use less. Just don’t let them get too old because they lose their punch. About a year is a good limit.

However, softer herbs like parsley and basil should be added toward the end so the flavor doesn’t fade away.

Lemon juice can brighten many dishes, including sauces. It adds just the right amount of acid to counterbalance any bitterness. A few drops are about all you’ll need.

Fat is good. Not on your waistline, but certainly in cooking. Fat carries flavor, which is why a bit of butter makes everything taste better. Olive oil is another good one, and so is cheese or sour cream. No need to go overboard. A little goes a long way.

Ever tried cooking with wine? I buy Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck and use the white wine to poach fish or chicken, or to add to a vegetable sauté. Red wine is great in a hearty soup or to deglaze the pan after cooking beef. Try vodka in your next pasta sauce. I’ve even added a bit of bourbon to mashed yams.


Use orange or lemon zest in your cooking. Toss it with roasted vegetables, grate some on top of fish, or add orange zest to a beef dish.

Toast your rice in a frying pan or air fryer until lightly browned. It adds a more complex flavor. Add herbs to the cooking liquid, like turmeric, poultry seasoning, cinnamon, taco seasoning, or other flavor enhancers like chicken bouillon.

Skip the bottled salad dressing. Really. A decent olive oil, a dash of salt, and some fresh-squeezed lemon juice make a much better version. Oh, but you like bleu cheese dressing? Instead, add crumbled cheese to the salad for a real burst of flavor.

Speaking of salad, go beyond lettuce and tomatoes. Into the mix, add chopped apples or pears, sunflower seeds, chopped toasted nuts, chickpeas, shredded or crumbled cheese, raisins or dried cranberries, fresh-cut corn kernels, black beans, olives, Chinese noodles, water chestnuts, or other goodies. You get the idea.

Finally, taste your food as you cook. It’s what real chefs do, helping them adjust seasonings and banish bland flavors. Once your food is on the plate, it’s too late to fix it.

Even with store bought

Even if you buy your meal from the store, you can doctor it up. Ribs, for instance, can be spread with a mixture of minced garlic, a dab of liquid smoke, and a sprinkle of brown sugar to caramelize. Heat in a 350-degree oven for 15-20 minutes.

Cole slaw from the deli can be dressed with a bit of apple cider vinegar, caraway seeds, or even some crushed pineapple. Canned baked beans are pretty insipid, I think. So, drain most of the liquid, and put the beans into a baking pan. Mix with some brown sugar and a squeeze of whole-grain mustard. Bake until the liquid is bubbly and thickened.

Boil some baby red potatoes in heavily salted water until almost done. Drain and arrange on a baking pan. Gently smash each one, and finish cooking in the oven. Top with garlic butter.

See? You can do this!


When you’ve finished the jar of pickles, use the juice to make more. Par-boil carrot slices, cauliflower, green beans, or radishes. Place them into the pickle juice and store in the fridge for a week.


The Food Network featured this flavorful dish that takes only 30 minutes, start to finish. Try it tonight.


Serves 4


Kosher salt

12 ounces linguine

1 1/4 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

5 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/3 cup dry white wine

Juice of 1/2 lemon, plus wedges for serving

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley


1.     Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the linguine and cook as the label directs. Reserve 1 cup cooking water, then drain.

2.     Meanwhile, season the shrimp with salt. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until the garlic is just golden, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until pink and just cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Remove the shrimp to a plate. Add the wine and lemon juice to the skillet and simmer until slightly reduced, 2 minutes.

3.     Return the shrimp and any juices from the plate to the skillet along with the linguine, butter and 1/2 cup of the reserved cooking water. Continue to cook, tossing, until the butter is melted and the shrimp is hot, about 2 minutes, adding more of the reserved cooking water as needed. Season with salt; stir in the parsley. Serve with lemon wedges.

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