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Best Cook: Adding Flavor with Spices

Best Cook: Adding Flavor with Spices
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When Ron Morin wakes up in the morning, he often has the menu for that night’s dinner already set. He dreams his recipes and then sets out to create the evening’s meal–maybe shiitake mushrooms and eggplant in Chinese brown sauce, or haddock poached in curried almond milk. Ron and his wife, Lisa Kaplan, live in a spacious condo in West Newbury, Massachusetts, with a big garden out behind the complex, where they grow some amount of everything. Ron is the cook in this household; Lisa claims that in their 29 years of marriage, she has never cooked a meal. “If Lisa’s in the kitchen, she’s either lost or looking for me,” he quips.

Today, Ron is browning Israeli couscous and chopping chestnuts–the result of last night’s dream–as he talks about his cooking. “I’m not a natural cook,” he claims. “My parents were terrible cooks. Growing up, I couldn’t open a can of tuna.” But then in the 1970s he joined a commune where he had to learn to cook, as everyone took turns in the kitchen. In 1977, he went to Paris, where he lived for three years. “I never had a bad meal in Paris,” he says. By then he knew a good meal when he ate one; meats, pastas, and cream sauces were his favorite dishes.

Back in the States, Ron was diagnosed with diabetes, a devastating blow, in 1986. Suddenly the wide palette of food colors he’d always taken for granted changed to black-and-white. “At first I was depressed,” he recalls. “Then I read several books on diabetes and changed my diet. I lost 25 pounds, which was imperative. It was a long struggle with many failures along the way. But about 15 years ago, I found my groove. I realized that I had a repertoire of foods that tasted good, weren’t too hard to make, and allowed me to create variations, which was important because boredom can make cooking a burden.

“As my confidence grew, I took more chances and got more interested in what food tasted like, and that became my passion: creating tastes my wife and I like. And that’s where you find me now.” Since that time, his blood-sugar level has remained steady.

“Once you establish the boundaries of your eating,” Ron advises, “it’s easy to be creative. There are so many wonderful fruits and vegetables and so many ways to prepare them.” For instance, he loves using figs and chestnuts, both of which have only moderate glycemic indexes, in his recipes. “A little goes a long way,” he notes. A broad range of spices provide those layers of flavors he so loves. To olive oil, for instance, he adds red and black peppers, garlic powder, crushed sunflower seeds, and paprika.

“I think about taste a lot,” he says. “I think [not experimenting with taste] is what prevents people from varying the recipe, which is what takes you to the next level of cooking.” Ron reads cookbooks for inspiration and varies the recipes he finds there with inventions of his own, cutting sugar content, heightening flavor: “Cooking is creative. There’s no one way. You adapt.”

In Ron’s kitchen, you’ll find no sugar, no butter or margarine, no potatoes, no flour, no artificial sweeteners, and very little meat, cream, eggs, or cheese. “I don’t even keep milk in the house,” he says; he finds almond milk a great substitute. And if he needs to sweeten a recipe, he uses fruit. Despite his spartan pantry, Ron loves to entertain and often invites friends over. The menu is always different from gathering to gathering, laid out like the offerings of a gourmet restaurant. “I don’t like making the same meal twice,” he says. Sometimes he creates a menu so outstanding that Lisa will write down the recipes in a big book she keeps–the cookbook Ron says he’ll never write. He never goes back–only forward to the next delicious dream.

Updated Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

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