November 2017 Issue

Herbs and Spices: Explore the World of Flavor Profiles
By Chef Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 19, No. 11, P. 14

Using a variety of herbs and spices can add pizazz to any dish and meal plan.

Flavor, or lack thereof, is a common contributing factor to the frustration clients can feel when struggling to make changes to their diets. Often this is due to a lack of knowledge or skill in the kitchen. Helping clients navigate the grocery store (and the pantry) can help boost their confidence in home cooking.

A great place to start is with herbs and spices because they can help reduce the need for excess salt, sugar, and fat so often used to create flavorful dishes. The health benefits of herbs and spices are plentiful due to the variety of vitamins and antioxidants they contain that may play a role in preventing inflammation and chronic disease.

Herbs and spices can do amazing things for food, as they're powerful tools that stimulate appetite and satisfy taste buds. A simple baked potato may taste bland on its own, but add some yogurt, dill, cayenne, and a squeeze of lemon juice and you've created an elevated and more enjoyable flavor experience.

Building Flavor
Cooking with herbs and spices, combined with a few basic cooking techniques, can build flavor without any added salt, sugar, or fat and can take a side dish from basic to tasty. Clients can use the following five methods separately or together in a variety of ways to take flavors from bland to bold.

Sauté diced aromatic vegetables. Aromatics, such as onions, garlic, celery, carrots, and mushrooms, help to enhance not only the flavor of food but also the aroma, stimulating the senses before the food even enters the mouth. The basic mirepoix (a culinary term for a mixture of cut vegetables, herbs, and spices used for flavoring) is a classic example of aromatic vegetables used to flavor soups, stews, and other types of dishes.

Add fragrant spices, such as ground cumin, turmeric, and red pepper flakes to a pot or pan, with a small amount of oil (approximately 1 to 2 tsp) before cooking vegetables or grains. Referred to as "blooming" the spices, it provides a deeper and more complex flavor to the final dish. This particular combination of spices adds a warm flavor that can be described as peppery with citrus undertones.

Use low-salt or no-salt stock instead of water. Stocks can provide a range of flavors, from subtle and light with a vegetable stock to hearty and rich with a beef stock.

Mix in fresh chopped herbs once the grain or vegetable is cooked to add color, flavor, and texture. Adding minced parsley, for example, creates a grassy flavor, while mint adds a sweeter peppermint touch.

Add acid. The key to brightening a dish is to add acid; specifically, citric acids such as lemon and lime juice. If a dish tastes flat or too fatty/oily, a small squeeze of lemon juice cuts through and energizes the dish, making the flavor pop.

The following Bean and Barley Chili recipe demonstrates how to use some of the methods to build flavor around a simple dish using a basic Latin flavor profile.

— Chef Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, is a New York-based culinary nutrition expert and recipe/product developer. You can find her recipes, videos, and articles at and


Bean and Barley Chili

This recipe showcases the Latin spice profile to build flavor around a basic vegan entrée.

Serves 5


Half-pound dry beans, any mixture. For this recipe, I like pinto, white, and black beans, but use any type you prefer.

2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 green or red bell pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T tomato paste
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp chili powder
6 oz vegetable stock, low sodium
1/3 cup barley, pearled
3 plum tomatoes, diced
2 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, chopped
1 tsp maple syrup
1/4 cup water
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
Sour cream or yogurt, shredded cheddar cheese, avocado (optional garnish)


1. Soak beans overnight in a bowl with water covering them by a few inches. The next day, drain and rinse beans, then transfer them to a pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to a simmer and leave undisturbed for an hour. If not yet cooked through at one hour, keep at a gentle simmer and begin checking every 20 to 30 minutes, adding water as necessary and tasting for doneness. Once done, drain, add a pinch of salt, and set aside.

* Note: Don't season the beans while cooking; this will toughen them, and they won't cook through.

1. Heat Dutch oven or large pot on medium-high heat, add olive oil, then sauté onion, red bell pepper, and garlic.

2. Add tomato paste, cumin, and chili powder to create a paste and sauté for another minute.

3. Add vegetable stock, beans, and barley. Cook for 15 minutes.

4. Add tomatoes and cook for another 40 minutes until barley is tender. Add more stock or water if barley absorbs all of the liquid too quickly.

5. Add cocoa powder, chipotle pepper, maple syrup, and water (to loosen if necessary). Add salt and pepper.

6. Add garnish (optional) and enjoy.

* Note: You can use two cups of canned beans, rinsed and drained, in place of dry beans if preferred.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 310; Total fat: 4 g; Sat fat: 1 g; Sodium: 150 mg; Total carbohydrate: 58 g; Dietary fiber: 17 g; Sugars: 8 g; Protein: 15 g

— Recipe and photo courtesy of Chef Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, a New York-based culinary nutrition expert and recipe/product developer.

Quinoa Pilaf

The following recipe demonstrates how to use four of the five basic methods to build flavor around a simple grain dish using a basic Mediterranean flavor profile.

Serves 4

1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 T onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2/3 cup quinoa, rinsed
11/2 cups vegetable stock, no salt
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
1/8 cup dried cranberries
1/8 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1/4 cup parsley, minced
Spritz of lemon juice (Optional)

1. Method 1: Sauté aromatic vegetables. Place saucepan over medium heat, add oil, and sauté onion until translucent, approximately 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds until fragrant.

2. Add quinoa and sauté another minute.

3. Method 3: Use stock in place of water. Add stock and bring to a boil. Add salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer approximately 15 minutes until liquid is absorbed.

4. Method 4: Incorporate fresh herbs. Add cranberries, walnuts, and parsley and mix gently.

5. Method 5: Add acid. Spritz with lemon juice if desired.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 150; Total fat: 5 g; Sat fat: 0 g; Sodium: 200 mg; Total carbohydrate: 23 g; Dietary fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 5 g

— Recipe and photo courtesy of Chef Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, a New York-based culinary nutrition expert and recipe/product developer.