Chef Judson Allen: Adding flavorful spices to your life really is good for you

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Chicago chef Judson Todd Allen, photographed at his home on Friday, February 2, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

There’s something to be said for good taste.

And when it comes to good food — food that’s good for you and tastes even better — Chef Judson Todd Allen may have the recipes that meet that very criteria. The Chicago native and Food Network alum, and executive chef of Taste 222 restaurant in the West Loop, has spent his adult life learning about and crafting great-tasting food that can transform your life. It transformed his.

In his new cook book, “The Spice Diet: Use Powerhouse Flavor to Fight Cravings and Win the Weight-Loss Battle,” the Chicago native reveals his lifelong struggle with weight (he’s lost 160 pounds and kept it off for 14 years) and discovering that adding some spice to your culinary universe can be key to eating better and losing weight along the way. Even more importantly, in the book Allen takes the reader on a step-by-step journey to lifestyle change, the only way to lose weight (and keep it off.)

The book, which includes exercises and recipes, is divided into two phases. The first involves casting off those bad eating habits and re-imagining home cooking, portion control, understanding your relationship with food. Phase two is all about maintenance, keeping the weight off (or losing more if you want to) and establishing a healthy lifestyle. The key ingredient for Allen is spice, more specifically, spices — and lots of them.

“Spices are all about flavor, about transforming your palate, so you eat really good food that tastes really good,” Allen said. “Junk food tastes great, that’s why we love it. But it’s junk. You can get great flavor out of healthy foods if you know what spices to use and why they are good for you. You don’t have to compromise flavor to eat well and healthy.”

The world is filled with spices and Allen, who’s been nicknamed “the architect of flavor,” hopes his book will provide a better understanding of the benefits of familiar and exotic spices, and how they play a key role in how we approach food and cooking. Here’s what Allen had to say about “The Spice Diet” in a recent chat.

Q. Where did your culinary journey begin?

A. I went to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, Chicago’s only urban agricultural high school. It’s all about agricultural sciences. That’s when I first learned about the science of food and I knew I wanted t pursue a career in that field. I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana and got a bachelor’s in food science and nutrition. Combining those two fields gave me a unique perspective on food. The science part introduced me to the sensory part of food. One of my favorite courses was all about food and flavor chemistry. Later I studied abroad, at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and had the opportunity to work at the Ritz there. I traveled Europe discovering all kinds of food from different cultures, different techniques and approaches to flavors.

Q. In your book you write about your struggle with weight and food addiction, at one point saying it eventually became a “do or die” situation for you, in terms of taking charge of your life. What was it like for you as a child to deal with these very difficult issues?

A. I have struggled with weight my entire life. I was addicted to food. My addiction started when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old. As a child I used to dream about food. I just thought it was a love for food, but it was an addiction. Growing up I would get up in the middle of the night and ransack the fridge. Not because I was hungry, but I had this insatiable desire for food — all the BAD food, the chips, the candy. At my heaviest I was close to 400 pounds, Today I’m at 210. I finally reached the point as as adult where I decided to take a new lifestyle journey.

Q. Talk about your love affair with spices and how that transformed your view of food.

A. I enjoyed learning about spices from the food science perspective. Before that I thought flavor lived in grease, fats, sugar and salt. That’s what I thought flavor was. I had to uncover what flavor really is, which is good, healthy ingredients and different spices. In order for me to lose the weight I had to transform how I thought of healthy food. I had to transform my palate. That’s when I began to fall in love with real flavor, flavor that came from spices and good ingredients.

Q. Americans are very addicted to salt, and it’s prevalent in so many foods we consume, especially fast food and prepackaged foods. How do you train someone’s palate to not miss the salt?

Chicago chef Judson Todd Allen’s new book, “The Spice Diet: Use Powehouse Flavor to Fight Cravings and Win the Weight-Loss Battle.” | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Chicago chef Judson Todd Allen’s new book, “The Spice Diet: Use Powehouse Flavor to Fight Cravings and Win the Weight-Loss Battle.” | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

A. Instead of salt, I found that citrus, such as lime and lemon or lemon zest would give me the similar taste effect of salt. Orange and grapefruit have huge flavor profiles that your taste buds react to, much like salt. The same thing with vinegars. I learned to balance vinegar’s acidity with sweetness. So I’d bring in things like honey and agave. It balances your food so you get the sweet and the sour. It all brings in a level of flavor that doesn’t have me craving salt. Then I bring in the savory, such as rosemary, thyme or garlic. It’s all about layering and building those flavor profiles when you’re cooking.

Q. We’ve got summer barbecue season ahead of us, and for many that means steaks, steaks and more steaks. How do you “salt” your steak and not over do it?

A. Look for recipes that feature a little bit of sea salt. You don’t want to completely take salt out of your diet. So when you’re cooking steak look for recipes for rubs that bring in things like coffee or cayenne or chocolate cocoa power to elevate different flavor profiles in the meat. Do a coffee rub with chiles on your steak. It’s heavenly. ALso, you can cook with a little bit of wine, cook it off and it’s almost like adding some salt to your dish.

Q. So this brings us to that other “S” word — sugar. What can people do to reduce their sugar cravings and intake?

A. It’s all about balance and using different ingredients instead of sugar. There are spices that accentuate or balance sweetness, such as cinnamon or nutmeg. It won’t make your food sweet, but it will add to the flavor profile. Also, you can use natural sweeteners such as honey, agave or pure maple syrup. And avoid white or brown sugar as much as you can. I like to use a lot of fruits and berries for sweetness, too.

Q. There’s a whole lot of hype these days about mustard and its benefits. What’s your take on mustard?

A. I love mustards, especially grainy mustard and wine-based mustard. I don’t use yellow mustard as a rule. Mustard is a condiment and an ingredient. Most Americans use it as a condiment and that’s great. Skip the mayo and go for the mustard on your sandwiches. Mustard is very low in calories and adds so much flavor.

Chicago chef Judson Todd Allen prepared his New Orleans pecan-crusted salmon at his home kitchen. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Chicago chef Judson Todd Allen prepared his New Orleans pecan-crusted salmon at his home kitchen. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Q. What are five key spices every kitchen should stock?

A. Garlic powder, cinnamon, turmeric because it’s one of the “power spices” — it adds such a beautiful color, and it’s great for eliminating inflammation throughout your body — smoked or sweet paprika and oregano. Oregano is one of the most versatile spices. It can go from Mediterranean to Latin cuisines in a snap.

Q. What are some key veggies/fruits you keep stocked in your kitchen or fridge?

A. Brussels sprouts. They’re actually cool now! I love them because they’re so versatile and they hold flavor well. Also, fresh garlic and lemons and limes.

Q. You also write about the importance of working out. What are your workouts like?

A. I work out, at my best, at least three days a week. I’m going to the gym. I try to get some kind of cardio every day, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or walking longer distances, or when I’m watching TV I do push-ups or lift weights during every commercial.

Q. What makes your spice diet different from the hundreds of diets out there, and why do you think it can work for so many people?

A. It’s a diet but I try to dismantle what the word diet means. I don’t look at it as a multibillion-dollar industry. This is about lifestyle change, a change we each have to make for ourselves. The whole spice diet is not just about flavors, it’s about an inner and outer approach to lifestyle change. Spices are so dynamic and so powerful. … And try to have a goal in mind with your lifestyle change. Have a vision of who you want to become. Don’t be overly concerned about the 30 pounds you want to lose. That’s a shortlived goal that never becomes a lifestyle change. Yes, losing weight is part of the process, but don’t allow the goals to overtake the journey.

RECIPE

NEW ORLEANS PECAN-CRUSTED CATFISH (Courtesy of Chef Judson Todd Allen)

Serves: 6

Serving size: 1 fillet

Calories per serving: 292

My grandfather is from New Orleans, and one of his favorite dishes is fried fish and grits. It is only fitting that I re-create the delectable taste of his favorite dish in a healthier version, because he is my inspiration for being a chef. Early on in my attempts to change my eating habits, I figured out the best way to achieve the “fried fish” effect without the deep-frying and calories. By incorporating healthy nuts with the perfect spice blend and other flavor enhancements, I cracked the code with this recipe. Get ready for some true Southern hospitality.

Chicago chef Judson Todd Allen’s New Orleans Pecan Crusted Salmon. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Chicago chef Judson Todd Allen’s New Orleans Pecan Crusted Salmon. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

This recipe works with just about any type of fish. If catfish is not your cup of tea, then swap it out for halibut, cod, red snapper, sword fish or salmon.

3/4 cup finely chopped pecans

1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

4 tablespoons Bayou Cajun Spice Blend, divided (page 235; you can reduce this amount if you have sensitivity to heat)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided

6 (5-ounce) catfish fillets, deboned Lemon wedges, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400oF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine the pecans, cheese, 3 tablespoons Bayou Cajun Spice Blend, parsley, lemon zest, and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

Place catfish fillets on the lined baking sheet. Brush the fillets with the remaining teaspoon of olive oil and rub in 1 tablespoon of the Bayou Cajun Spice Blend. Massage the oil and spice on both sides of the fish.

Spread the pecan crust liberally over the top of each piece of fish.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crust is dark golden and the fish is flaky and moist. Serve with lemon wedges.

Recipe excerpted from “THE SPICE DIET: Use Powerhouse Flavor to Fight Cravings and Win the Weight-Loss Battle.” Copyright © 2018 by Judson Todd Allen. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.

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