Adding Flavor to Soups, Stews & Sauces
By Carol Witte, RDN, Director of Nutrition Services and Senior Centers
Soups, stews and delicious sauces are dishes that I enjoy cooking at home. A mixture of aromatic vegetables sautéed together form a strong foundation and a starting point for many of these recipes.
Maybe you have heard of the “trinity”—celery, onion and carrots. In France it is called a “mirepoix”—two parts onion to one part celery and carrots and in Brazil it is called “refogado”—garlic, onion, paprika and tomatoes in olive oil. These aromatic vegetables serve as a flavorful base to soups, stews, and sauces worldwide. Aromatics are vegetables that deliver not only aroma when heated or crushed and cooked but also amazing flavor. From garlic and onions to chilies and ginger, each vegetable boasts different health benefits and cooking qualities that make it unique.
To create delicious meals by adding flavor instead of fat, sugar or salt, here are some tips for using aromatics.
- Fresh is best! Aromatics contain too much water when frozen, but still can flavor soups if that is all you have. Chop and store aromatics in advance to make meal prep quick and easy during the week. Try using a food processor to dice or chop these vegetables.
- Chop veggies for even cooking. Root vegetables such as carrots may require a smaller chop to soften at the same rate as onions, but larger cubes may be appropriate for a soup or stew that will cook longer.
- Handle hot peppers and onions carefully. Oils from these vegetables can irritate your eyes and nose. Wear gloves and don’t touch your face. If you forget to wear gloves, wash your hands with dish soap immediately when you are done chopping.
- Limit fats and oils. Sauté or sweat vegetables in small amounts of oil, juice, broth or water. To sweat vegetables, cook them in a tightly covered pot. Vegetables will soften without browning.
Carrots Carrots are tops for beta carotene which helps regulate the immune system and may reduce risk for certain diseases of aging. Carrots are a good source of fiber, vitamins C and B6 and potassium. Cooking carrots unleashes beta carotene for better absorption. Carrots are good to add when you are cooking with tomatoes to help naturally sweeten the pot.
Celery Celery has 15 calories per cup and is a source of vitamins A, C and K and potassium. Celery also provides quercetin, a flavanoid with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and heart-protecting properties. Cook celery to release its deep, savory flavor or enjoy it raw as a crunchy snack.
Chili Peppers Chili peppers range from mild to fiery hot. Heat intensity is courtesy of the chemical compound capsaicin, which may improve digestion. Smaller peppers are generally hotter. Add peppers to salsas, sauces and entrees for a spicy kick and a boost of vitamins A and C.
Garlic Eating garlic regularly may reduce atherosclerosis and the risk of stomach and colorectal cancers. Garlic’s phytochemical content delivers its potential cholesterol-lowering and cancer-fighting characteristics. Garlic has also been known to help the common cold because of some of these properties.
Ginger With a signature spicy fragrance, ginger shines in sweet and savory dishes. It’s rich in antioxidants such as 6-gingerol, believed to be responsible for reducing nausea and symptoms of vertigo. Ginger provides vitamin C, magnesium and potassium.
Leeks With a mild onion flavor, leeks are best cooked. Enjoy leeks grilled, in pasta dishes or as the key ingredient in vichyssoise — a French-style potato soup. Leeks are a natural source of inulin, which supports good gut bacteria. Leeks provide vitamins A and C, folate and manganese.
Onions Onions are a staple in most kitchens and are aromatics superstars. High concentrations of allyl sulfides in onions do double duty fighting heart disease and cancer. Onions are a good source of inulin (for a healthy gut), vitamin C, fiber, folate and manganese. Enjoy sweet onions raw in salads and the pungent ones in stews, sauces or roasted.
Parsnips Roast and caramelize parsnips to bring out their natural sweetness. Smaller roots are most flavorful and tender. They are a good source of vitamin C, folate and fiber.
Peppers Native to Central and South America, bell peppers come in a range of colors. Green peppers ripen to red and become sweeter. At 30 calories, one red pepper delivers a day’s worth of vitamins A and C — a great choice for healthy skin and immune function. Roast, stir-fry or enjoy peppers raw by themselves or in salads.
Shallots Traditionally used to flavor French sauces, shallots boast a flavor that’s between onion and garlic. Shallots may be cooked whole, oven roasted or finely chopped to season salad dressings. They are a good source of vitamin C, vitamin B6 and manganese.
Scallions Also called spring or green onions, scallions have a sweet, delicate onion flavor. Enjoy thin scallions raw in grain or potato salads and salsas. Use thicker, more pungent scallions in pasta dishes, omelets and stir-fries. This low-calorie vegetable provides fiber, potassium and vitamin A.