Stocking the cupboards with the right ingredients means you're always prepared to transform chicken, fish, tofu, or beef into a healthy dinner.
We asked four renowned chefs -- Jody Adams, Mary Nearn, Michel Nischan, and Nora Pouillon -- plus famed nutritionist Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., to tell us what they keep on hand in their kitchens. In addition to wholesome staples such as walnuts, blueberries, and frozen spinach, they also stock seasonings -- citrus, mustards, and organic oils -- to pack in flavor without too much fat.
Our experts' favorite ingredients will ensure that you never have to sacrifice nutrition or convenience. Once you've made it through their list of suggestions, take this printable checklist to the grocery store -- and get shopping!
High in iron, vitamin A, and soluble fiber, leafy green vegetables never fail to increase the nutritional quotient of a meal. Although they're not technically a pantry staple (as they need to be fresh and refrigerated), our experts recommend always picking up whatever greens are in season from your local farmer's market. Saute autumn greens like kale with garlic and pine nuts or mix together summer's lettuces (mizuna, arugula) for a flavorful salad. Plus, always have frozen spinach on hand.
This superfood inhibits 72 known infectious agents, including those that cause the common cold. Garlic also protects against ulcers and may help eliminate metals, such as lead, from the body. A cornerstone of many cuisines, it's also great on its own, roasted and spread on warm bread.
Another "staple" that must be bought fresh, citrus should be a mainstay in your fruit bowl and a frequent ingredient in your cooking. The juice and zest from lemons, limes, and oranges bring zip to marinades, dressings, and simple pastas. Zest has the added benefit of enhancing digestive energy, relieving intestinal gas and swelling, and decongesting the lungs.
In most cases, the fresher the vegetable, the healthier it is. Tomatoes are the exception. Your body can absorb more lycopene from the canned kind than from fresh uncooked ones; lycopene reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
If you still prefer fresh, Nischan suggests freezing them to make them last. Blanch in hot water to remove the skins and store in freezer-safe plastic containers, leaving an inch of room at the top.
Skip the white buttons and portabellos and opt for immune-building shiitakes, maitakes (also known as hen-of-the-woods), and porcinis. Shiitakes and porcinis are known for their cancer-fighting power, while maitakes help lower blood pressure and blood sugar (great for those with diabetes).
Adams uses these mushrooms for their low-calorie, intense flavor. Rehydrate them in water and then add (with their strained, flavored liquid) to risottos, stir-fries, sautes, and tomato sauces.
While fresh clearly has the advantage when it comes to taste, fruits like blueberries, strawberries, and mangoes remain antioxidant powerhouses even when frozen. In winter, frozen fruit is often a better choice than imported fresh, says Nestle, since it's picked at the peak of ripeness, rather than early and shipped halfway round the world. Use berries in smoothies, pancakes, and muffins; add mangoes to a spicy beef curry.
While chile peppers might not replace your morning OJ anytime soon, they have up to six times as much vitamin C as oranges, plus plenty of vitamins A and B. Capsaicin, the compound that makes chiles taste hot, reduces pain and stimulates circulation.
Nearn loves stuffing local Southwest Anaheim chiles with rice, and she adds a pinch of dried chiles to a cup of hot chocolate.
For those times when you can't get fresh herbs, keep dried thyme, sage, and oregano on hand to boost the flavor of nearly any dish. Nischan also loves lavender for its stress-busting benefits. He stirs dried lavender into sauces for lamb or chicken and sprinkles it into the cavity of a chicken before roasting. To maximize dried herbs' potential, don't skimp on price, and replace every four to six months.
During the spring and summer, markets overflow with aromatic bouquets of basil, mint, rosemary, parsley, and cilantro. When the harvest is over, try growing your own indoors.
Parsley dresses up plain potatoes and brown rice -- and it tempers bad breath when chewed after a garlicky meal. Add mint to balance spicy sauces and stir-fries. Pouillon stirs cilantro into freshly made guacamole and also adds a bunch to salad greens. When combined with ginger, chiles, and shallots, cilantro makes a delicate sauce for broiled salmon.
Spices such as ginger (great for digestion and the immune system), saffron (a heart-healthy antioxidant), and paprika (an anti-inflammatory) can transform a bland meal into something extraordinary. Adams adds a touch of ginger to tomato sauce, while Pouillon steeps slices in hot water for a refreshing tea.
To increase your spice intake, try a curry blend (typically a combination of turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, and paprika, among others), which promotes perspiration and increases metabolism. Stocking curry pastes makes using this spice blend even easier. Adams slathers masala curry paste over chicken thighs for a spicy braise.
When it comes to nutrition, nuts like almonds (high in calcium, magnesium, and fiber), walnuts (packed with omega-3 fatty acids), pecans (full of vitamins B6 and E), and pine nuts (one of the best sources of protein in the nut family) rank at the top of the list.
Nestle adds nuts to salads and sauces or just munches on them at her desk. Use almonds, walnuts, or pine nuts to make a nutrient-supercharged pesto, saute pine nuts with hearty autumn greens, or mix crushed walnuts or pecans with breadcrumbs to create a tasty crust for baked chicken.
All olive oils contain monounsaturated fats that when used in place of saturated fats benefit the heart and help the body break down fats. Pouillon opts for organic olive oils, because she thinks they possess a superior taste. "Anything that detracts from the natural way of growing takes away from flavor," she says.
In addition to olive oil, Nischan sometimes uses the less expensive, more versatile grapeseed oil for cooking and sauteing fish, chicken, and vegetables. "It has a higher flash point and doesn't create free radicals in the cooking process," he says. "Cook in grapeseed and finish with olive oil to get 100 percent flavor impact."
Amp up the omega-3 content of any meal with a drizzle of walnut, flaxseed, or pumpkin seed oil over chicken, fish, roasted meat, or vegetables before serving.
Nischan prizes flaxseed oil for its subtle, nutty flavor (not to mention the fact that it helps protect cell membranes), while Pouillon likes to top her butternut squash soup with toasted pumpkin seed oil, which nourishes the digestive tract and boosts circulation.
Nearn serves quinoa to guests who can't tolerate gluten but who want high-protein, high-energy foods. It also contains calcium. She uses it to make a cereal: Toast 1/4 cup quinoa in a dry pan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes until it "pops"; add 1/4 cup apple juice, 1/4 cup water, and dried fruit and cook for about 20 minutes.
One of the most ancient cultivated grains, spelt has a high water solubility that helps your body easily absorb its protein, vitamins, and minerals. It's also tolerated by some people with celiac disease. Nischan cooks spelt like risotto, toasting the grain, adding stock, and simmering until completely cooked.
Pouillon uses mustards, especially the flavorful lemon, English, and Dijon varieties, primarily for what they don't have: a lot of fat or salt. She brushes them over chicken and salmon before grilling and uses them as the base for an assortment of vinaigrettes and marinades. Her favorite blend includes Dijon, tamari, ginger, and rosemary.
Essentially concentrated pomegranate juice, this syrup is loaded with antioxidants that reduce "bad" cholesterol and may help prevent prostate cancer. Adams adores this Middle Eastern condiment, using it in salad dressings (it pairs well with bright herbs like basil, mint, and cilantro) or with ground cumin, coriander, and orange zest for a chicken or pork marinade.
One note: Because of its high sugar content, this marinade can burn easily. If you're grilling meats or vegetables, brush it on after cooking.
They make a great low-fat coating for chicken or fish. Ask for whole-wheat breadcrumbs in the supermarket or make your own flavored kind by blending a couple of slices of dried bread with dried herbs, some salt, and chopped nuts in a food processor until you reach the desired crumb size.
Parmesan, Grana Padano, and pecorino Romano make excellent, calcium-rich accents for everything from omelets and soups to pastas and salads. Wrapped tightly in wax paper and then a layer of foil, these cheeses will keep in the refrigerator for as long as four to six weeks.
Note: Change the wrapping if the cheese appears to be getting damp in spots to maximize its longevity.
While its calcium makes for stronger bones, yogurt's active cultures can help with your immune response. Adams mixes it with garlic and a little lemon juice for an accompaniment to chicken or lamb kebabs. For dessert, try using full-fat yogurt instead of sour cream when baking a cake.
Low in fat, broths (not bouillon cubes or powdered bouillon, which are often high in sodium) are a must-have. Look for boxed or canned broths that are low in sodium and additives. Or better yet, make your own stock by cooking meats (if desired), vegetables, a little salt, and aromatic herbs and spices with water.
When cooking chicken or fish, add broth to the pan you're already using and let it reduce. Or, after roasting squash or potatoes, add stock and puree all the ingredients for an easy healthy soup.
A little bit of wine can add complexity -- not to mention antioxidants -- to sauce or desserts. Fruity reds (Pinot Noir and Zinfandel) are natural partners for duck and beef, while fragrant whites (Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling) work with lighter, herby fish and chicken dishes.
Quality is key: Nischan notes that using cheap wine is akin to using underripe tomatoes. The better the ingredient, the better the outcome.