5 Hidden Gems at The Supermarket

I would sum up my cooking philosophy this way: minimal effort for maximum taste. I like my recipes to be simple, natural, tasty, and preferably made in one pot. So when I go to the grocery store, I am always on the lookout for ingredients that can help me in this endeavor. But I’ve learned to stay away from the quick convenience foods in the frozen and prepared foods section – they usually overpromise on convenience and underdeliver on taste. Instead, I head to the nether regions of the grocery store, where the humble warriors of dinner preside. While they don’t have the fancy claims or flashy packaging of the newest convenience products, they are often just as easy to use and much better for you. Here are 5 of my favourites:

1.   Black beans

Oh, the lowly black bean. It’s not going to win any popularity contests, being small, mild flavoured and kind of boring, really. But it’s the Clark Kent of beans – boring on the outside, but Superbean on the inside! It’s full of fibre and protein (15g of each per cup!), which means it will keep you full for a long time, reduce blood cholesterol, keep your blood sugar stable and your digestive system humming along. Not to mention, it’s chock full of the minerals magnesium, phosphorus and manganese, and the B vitamins.

 And because it’s tiny and mild flavoured, it can be added to almost anything. I buy the canned kind, rinse them, and then keep them in my fridge. I thrown them into salads and soups, mix them with brown rice and put a poached egg on top for a quick lunch, or just mash them with an avocado, some salt and a lime for a quick snack. Or I mash them into Baby M’s food for some protein. And on top of being nutritious and convenient, they are cheap! They should have some sort of superhero crest on the label.

2.   Canned Pumpkin

Canned pumpkin shouldn’t be the uncle you only see at Thanksgiving – it should drop in for tea on a weekly basis. Pumpkin is a crazy superfood – it provides more than 200% of your Vitamin A needs per cup, is a source of fibre, contains antioxidants and has more potassium than a banana. Buy pure canned pumpkin (make sure there is no sugar or additives) and you can use it for a quick nutrient boost at breakfast, snacktime or even dessert. Throw a little in your smoothie  (I love it with yogurt, pears and cinnamon.) Mix some into your oatmeal in the morning along with some pumpkin pie spice. You can even add it to brown rice and make your own Pumpkin Rice pudding. And the best part? No peeling or chopping needed!

I freeze portions in ice cube trays and just nuke what I need. Again – great instant baby food.

3.   Grainy mustard

My condiment of choice used to be ketchup. I’d pull up in front of the TV, plate of chicken fingers and fries in hand, and put the bottle of ketchup right beside me. Then I’d squeeze a nice, generous dollop of the stuff onto my plate, and refill it least three times.

Then I turned the bottle around and realized that the first ingredient was sugar, not tomatoes. Oops.

I still like ketchup with my chicken fingers occasionally, but I turn to grainy mustard for most other things. It’s much lower in calories and tastes delicious. It’s great with a turkey burger, in a vinaigrette, or on top of fish or chicken. It also tastes great in tuna salad (and as a bonus, it replaces the mayo!)

4.   Low fat ricotta cheese

When I was a kid, my mom’s diet food of choice was cottage cheese. We had countless tubs of it in our fridge, and let me tell you, it was revolting. Yes, it was high in protein and calcium, but it was salty and lumpy and clammy – definitely not up to my hedonistic standards. Then one day in the grocery store, I decided to take a chance on low-fat ricotta – and my life has never been the same. People, the stuff is delicious. It’s got a creamy texture and doesn’t have the tartness of yogurt, so it’s a great replacement for ice cream or whipped cream in desserts. And it’s just as high in protein and calcium, with lots more Vitamin A. Jackpot!

I often put it on top of roasted pears and drizzled with maple syrup. Or I take it as a mid-afternoon snack to the office, mixed with pink grapefruit and blueberries.  Or even mix it with tomato sauce to make a rosé sauce for my pasta.

Now, the only cottage cheese around me is on my thighs.

5.   Cocoa powder

I’m the kind of person who needs something sweet at the end of a meal, or I don’t feel satiated. While A. can have a couple of bites of pineapple or a clementine and be perfectly fine, my stomach is saying ‘TEA AND COOKIES TEA AND COOKIES TEA AND COOKIES’ in its most insistent voice. In my quest to find something sweet that wasn’t over the top for everyday, I stumbled on cocoa powder. Mixed with milk, a little sugar, some cinnamon and a dash of cayenne pepper, it makes the best hot chocolate around. Plus, it’s natural, which is hard to find in the hot-chocolate section (have you ever looked at the ingredients on packaged hot chocolate mixes? They are mostly sugar and oil, with very little chocolate.) It’s also great mixed in with yogurt or in baked goods. While I am a firm believer in indulging in dark chocolate, a nice cocoa powder saves me from going overboard sometimes.

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