Name a cuisine that is intrinsically high in fiber, potassium, vitamins A, B, C and K, boasts anti-inflammatory and pain-relief qualities, cardiovascular benefits A and C? Ooh, this sounds bad, you say, its probably some restricted vegan dietary trend that is hard to follow and practically flavorless. Not at all, its Mexican Cuisine!
Note: the following is an excerpt of the book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this columnist co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl
No doubt, the Aztecs were on to something. Just look at the parallels between their dietary staples and the health-conscious movements of our times. First, pre-Columbian (and much of modern Mexican) cuisine is naturally gluten free, with corn, rather than wheat as the pre-dominant grain. More than a dietary fad, there is evidence supporting the fact that our intestines do not completely break down gluten, triggering inflammation and blocking nutrient absorption,12 making a gluten-free diet a good option for more than just those with celiac disease, [especially given the alarming information of processed wheat, even in products that are labelled "whole wheat"].
Then there are beans, one of the big three of the Mesoamerican diet, and a component of the slow-carb diet, a popular weight-control method based around eating foods that are naturally nutrient dense, low in calories while high in protein and fiber. And many of the grains eaten by the Aztecs, including amaranth and chia seeds are on the list of what are being called “super foods,” rich in vital amino acids, omega-3s and other nutrients. Contrary to the bad reputation that Mexican fast food, sadly, has garnered for the real thing, Mexican cuisine is based around many whole foods that are rooted in what can only be seen as a health-wise pre-Columbian dietary tradition.
You could say that the Aztecs were the original vegans, almost (among other ancient cultures). At the very least, they ate as healthy a diet as anything that one might aspire to today: no dairy, although this is very much a part of Mexican cooking today (dairy was introduced to Mexican cuisine by the invading Spaniards) and no meat, just wild turkey (cows, sheep and goat also introduced by Europeans). The original Mexican cuisine was that of the Aztecs and Mayans, replete with recipes using corn (maiz), beans, chocolate and just a little later, tomatoes, chiles, mushrooms,vanilla, avocado, papaya, pineapple, squash, sweet potato, peanuts, fish and turkey and herbs. These ingredients are still the foundation of so much that is Mexican cooking.
By preparing foods that are traditionally served today in many Mexican homes, you'll be treating yourself to a taste adventure while following a very healthy diet. In Mexico, ingredients are almost always local and many times, were picked the day they appear at the local puestos or market stands where they are purchased. So, you could say that keeping it local (and chemical-free... most small local growers, and we are talking small, often not so much a family farm but more like a family garden... don't use pesticides) is also very Mexican. Under each food or food group listed below, you'll find a link to recipes incorporating these ingredients (from Tres Señoritas Gourmet)
- Tortillas are inherently lower carb/calorie than bread and consumption, as well as innovation, is on the uprise. In fact, half of American adults say they have eaten flour tortillas during the past month, while 39 percent have eaten corn tortillas, according to a February 2011 custom Mintel consumer survey. For more on How to heat tortillas (never in the microwave) and What to do with leftover tortillas (they do come in huge bags!), follow links.
- Avocados are rich in oleic acid, which has been shown to lower "bad" cholesterol. They are also full of vitamin K and a good source of potassium. (Note- this is true of real guacamole, not of the processed guacamole found in many American-style Mexican restaurants and ready-made in the supermarket's refrigerator section). Here's a link for making great guacamole.
- Beans are a great source of protein and fiber, and certain types provide antioxidant benefits. (Again- not the greasy type served at Taco Bell). To make frijoles de olla, (clay-pot beans), you first need an olla, a handmade Mexican clay pot which imparts a perceptible but subtle flavor. You can purchase your olla at La Palma on 24th Street at Florida in San Francisco's Mission district.
Frijoles de Olla (recipe from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes)
2 lbs black beans (or substitute pinto or any beans you like)
5 cups water
½ Spanish white onion
3 garlic cloves
1 serrano chile, small chopped (optional)
1 bay leaf
1–2 sprigs of epazote, if available
Salt to taste
Clean beans, removing debris, rocks, or broken beans. Once cleaned, add beans
to a clay pot full of water and let them sit for 2 hours. (Note: You may, of course,
make your beans in a traditional stainless steel pot. The flavor will be subtly but
perceptibly different, though.) Be sure your pot is large enough to accommodate the
beans as they expand. Your dry beans should not rise to past the 1/3 mark of your
pot. Rinse beans and add 5 cups of water plus onion, garlic, chile, bay leaf, and epazote;
cook covered for 2 hours on medium-low heat or until tender. For larger quantities
of beans, this may take significantly longer. Make sure beans are constantly
covered with water. No need to stir, but it is important that the beans never lack
water or are allowed to become dry. If needed, add hot, not cold, water to bean pot.
As you add more water, you may need to add more salt. It is important not to undersalt
the beans. Once beans are cooked and tender, add salt and let them season for 15
more minutes. Remove onion, garlic cloves, epazote, and bay leaf before serving.
And for ideas on what to do with the leftover beans, click here.
- Chiles contain an ingredient called capsaicin, which boasts anti-inflammatory and pain-relief qualities. Chiles also have cardiovascular benefits (they aid in lowering bad cholesterol), and they are high in vitamins A and C. Here are some tips on working with chipotles which are great in salsas and aolis; and recipes using poblanos, a mild chile which can be used in side dishes or the basis if your plato fuerte (main course or entree), plus there are several more in my book.
- Corn is a staple in traditional Mexican cooking and it has amazing health qualities. Corn is high in folate and vitamins B and C, and is a good source of dietary fiber. It is a heart-healthy food that aids in digestion and can help stabilize blood sugar levels. Try corn tortillas with dinner in place of bread rolls.
- Tomatoes- Mexican food is famous for salsa, and , no matter which recipe you are using, fortunately, tomatoes are frequently the main ingredient. Tomatoes are rich in potassium and vitamins C and A, and they include lycopene, which is an antioxidant that has cancer-fighting properties.
Be aware that what we are talking about is not American-style Mexican food, which is usually high in fat, sodium and calories, and uses less of the fresh, nutrient-packed ingredients that traditional Mexican food includes. According to website AskMen, "Americans have super-sized and super-fattened nearly every dish that we consider Mexican today -- in fact, many Mexican dishes were created in the U.S., so they don't even exist south of the border". Their research includes the following rather discouraging information: Chipotle's: Beef Burrito --1,026 calories and 46 grams of fat. Baja Fresh: Steak quesadilla --1,450 and 86 grams of fat. Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill: Carne Asada Taco with rice and beans -- 710 calories and 22 grams of fat.