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culinating :: the healthy trap

i'm enamoured of dishes that contain everything you need in one nice little package. the advantages are obvious. you get to cook one thing. you get to dirty one pot. you only have to put it in one container afterwards. everybody wins, especially you.

there's a lot of debate over what comprises a healthy meal, because every time you get a chart to tell you what percentage of your plate should be taken up by what ingredients [there are dozens], you find out that the choice was influenced by one or many interest groups who want to promote their particular products. the meat and dairy industry are well-known for having voices to which governments will listen, but don't think it stops there. grain and wheat have their advocates. so do fruits and vegetables. in fact, there are groups lobbying for their place on the government's healthy plate diagram all the time. that's not to say that the information isn't correct, but if it is, that might be a happy accident.

furthermore, our knowledge of what foods are good is in a constant state of flux. in my lifetime, eggs have gone from being a healthy staple to a cholesterol-laden enemy to a relatively benign source of protein when taken in moderation. complicating things still further is the fact that ingredients aren't in themselves good or bad, but frequently both. we can all benefit from adding omega-3 fatty acids to our diet and the best-known source of those is dark-fleshed fish. however, those fish also contain contaminants from the water they live in, like mercury, which is extremely unhealthy. and if they're processed to remove them, it diminishes their effectiveness. oh, and it takes hundreds of kilograms of fish to make a single litre of omega-3 rich oil.

food is hard.

which is why i like to have a few standby dishes that hit all the main buttons and are flexible enough to allow for personal tastes. which is what i made the other night.

it's a sort of a tex-mex inspired dish, adapted from the best 125 meatless main dishes, also known as my favourite cookbook ever. of course, in this case, i added fish, which kind of goes against the principle, but sometimes you just have to break the rules. i'm such a rebel.

the basis of the dish is black beans. goddam i love black beans. they're rich in flavour, but also rich in lots of good stuff that you need. they're a dual powerhouse of fibre and protein, meaning they work as both a carbohydrate and a meat-substitute in a meal. they help your metabolism, fill you up without fattening you up, they fight free radicals, which makes them like you're own little army of good and they even bind to bile molecules to flush them from your system [in the correct way- your body needs bile] and stop them from becoming cholesterol.

black beans are so incredibly awesome that brazil has given them their own damned tier on the national food pyramid. also, brazil has a remarkably active black bean farmers' lobby.

i'm lazy, so i personally opt for canned black beans, but if you have the time, feel free to start with the dried ones and soak them overnight. use a bit of the soaking water in the dish and save the rest for later. it makes an awesome soup base.

GET THE REST OF THE STORY AFTER THE BREAK...

as i said, i added fish, specifically sole in this dish. it's by no means necessary and the fish is delicate enough that it just became desiccated during the cooking process, so it contributed more of a fish flavour. that said, the fish flavour does add a really nice element [provided you like fish] and sole contributes a lot of important ingredients: white fish [of which sole is probably the most delicate] is rich in iron, selenium, vitamins b3 and b6 and iodine [which you need to help your thyroid function]. it's also lower in heavy metals than other fish, which is something you might want to consider.

for vegetables, i went a little wimpy with this version. i added corn. corn gets a bit of a bad wrap, because it's been overused. in fact, corn has a number of health benefits that aren't particularly well-publicized. [the corn lobbyists need to get on that.] while it doesn't contain the long list of vitamins and minerals that a lot of vegetables do, it does provide an excellent ratio of insoluble to soluble fibre, which means that it helps clean you out [which you may well have observed in the past]. yellow corn is an excellent source of both beta-carotene and lutein [great for vision]. what's interesting is that those things often inhibit each other, but in corn, they don't. finally, corn helps to maintain a healthy balance in your intestinal flora. that may sound complicated, but trust me: you want that. proper digestive flora affects absolutely everything in your body.

at other times, i've included tomatoes, carrots, green beans and okra in this recipe. basically, you can add what you want, although i think that turnips or beets would be out of place personally.

to help make up for the vegetable deficit, i added a whole bunch [literally] of cilantro. cilantro is a truly amazing plant. its seeds give us coriander, which, in combination with other spices, yields tasty curries and helps digestion and the above-ground portions of the plant are a delicious component of many cuisines, notably asian and central american. don't be shy with this stuff. it's pretty hard to o.d. and it brings a lot to the table.

cilantro is an excellent source of iron and magnesium, which means that vegetarians everywhere should be eating it, as it helps to offset the absence of protein caused by subtracting meat from the diet. it's also anti-inflammatory, which means that, taken regularly, it'll be helpful with conditions like arthritis and premenstrual syndrome. what's most cool about cilantro, though, is that it binds to heavy metals in the system and helps to eliminate them. and cilantro tastes amazing with fish, which is just way too perfect. this is the sort of combination that makes me think there might be a god.

the magic of this dish is in the sauce, which is a clever combination of citrus juices [juice 'em fresh if ya got 'em] and tequila. there is seriously no way that i can adequately describe the magic that tequila brings to a dish. i use about a quarter cup to make this, which is not much, but it makes the whole thing. it's like the rug in the big lebowski, it just brings everything together.

you prepare all this in one pot- i use a wok or deep frying pan, because you want something with a fairly wide base. the only trick is getting everything in the proper order, because different elements have different cooking times. here's what i did:

step one ::
olive oil
garlic
onions [i used shallots, but any kind of onion will do fine, other than green. chop them up fine.]

you should cook this until the onions are translucent but not brown. nothing should be brown. don't burn the garlic. for god's sake don't burn the oil [it becomes unhealthy.] if you're in any way concerned you might be unable to avoid burning the oil [i don't know what you get up to], substitute canola or corn oil, which have higher smoke points than olive oil.

step two ::
beans [with a little bit of bean liquid
[carrots, okra and other harder vegetables go in here too]
chilies [green ones are best, but this time i used sriracha sauce this time and it was fine]
orange juice
fish [if desired]
cilantro [chop it up fine or else it's going to look all limp. limp sucks.]

it's a little difficult to say exactly how long you should cook for. the beans should be soft, but not mushy. personally, i used frozen fish and let it cook until the fish broke apart, which was a good guide [although when sole comes apart, it really comes apart]. the best way is to wait until the beans have a nice texture.

step three ::

corn [if you're using tomatoes, this is also the place to add them]
tequila

this is also the point where you adjust the flavouring to taste. i used two cans of beans and a couple of cups of corn and between a quarter and third cup of tequila was sufficient to flavour the dish without overwhelming it. i recommend starting with a quarter cup and adding more if you need to, because removing ingredients from a dish is a lot harder than adding them. trust me on that one. i've tried.

we had it served on basmati rice, but you don't need that [takes up another pot]. or you could use brown rice, which really combines well with the tequila.

of course, i also prepared a quick guacamole to go with this. no need for tortilla chips, just take a small spoonful in between bites of the bean dish. it'll help tame the spice, if you made it hot.

it's ridiculous what restaurants charge for guacamole given how easy it is to make. this particular version had avocados, a little lime and orange juice and salt. you can add green onions. you can add tomatoes. you can add cilantro. it's all good. when i was in mexico, the guacamole i had there consisted of very little besides mashed avocados and a hint of salt and i assume that they know a little something about making guacamole. the one thing i'd say is to make it up in advance, because that way, the flavours have time to combine better.

so that's it. that's what we had for dinner and, if i hadn't idiotically forgot to put the leftovers in the fridge, what we would have had for lunch the next day. it's super-simple and super-healthy and, best of all, super-tasty.

of course, it is a meal that involves black beans, corn, hot chilies and tequila, so you might want to make sure that your plumbing is in good working order, but that aside, it's the sort of thing that's easy for anyone and hard to mess up. which is always a blessing.

enjoy!

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