Eating healthy is not easy.
Temptations lurk around every corner, especially when you want New Mexican comfort food.
Many traditional New Mexican dishes have raised serious concerns among health experts concerned about obesity, diabetes and hypertension. Aware of the prevalence of these health problems in the state’s population, New Mexico State University Extension home economists are teaching alternative versions of many familiar dishes that are both tasty and healthier.
Laura Bittner, Valencia County Extension home economist, is presenting a class titled, “Healthy New Mexico Cuisine,” 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 28, at the Peralta Memorial United Methodist Church.
There will be a $5 participation fee. Space is limited, so it is vital for people to RSVP by Friday, March 23.
“This is the second time we are offering this program,” Bittner said. “The class was well received. I have had three organizations ask for the class specifically for their group because a member took the first class and recommended it to their friends.”
During the class, participants will receive general information on how to make our favorite New Mexican foods healthier. They will also prepare several dishes.
“With a little tweaking, our traditional dishes can be prepared healthier,” Bittner said. “Many recipes that we will prepare are good for people with health issues that can be improved by diet.”
The recipes incorporate many of the 10 nutritional tips issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
“Our program helps show New Mexicans how they can have their favorite foods and still add more vegetables to their daily diet, focus on fruits, make half of their grains intact whole grains, and reduce salt and sodium in their diet,” Bittner said.
Instead of salt, Bittner encourages people to use herbs, such as basil, oregano, garlic, onion and the many varieties of green chile.
“I like to teach people to eat the colors of the rainbow, because so many fruits and vegetables that are the dark rich colors are the ones that are the most nutritional,” she said.
Of the many traditional dishes of the Southwest, salsa is one of the healthiest. Making salsa is a very easy process, especially in the summer when different kinds of peppers, tomatoes and onion are fresh from the gardens.
“The only thing I would suggest to make salsa healthier is to reduce the salt when you are making it,” she said. “The thing to do when eating salsa is to use fresh veggies as dippers, instead of corn chips, which we love, but they are typically deep fat fried and that increases their fat level.”
Jicama, celery and bell peppers are some of the veggies that help accent the flavor of the salsa.
“I find that people are surprised at how much they like using veggies,” she said. “They actually get to taste the salsa more than when they use a corn chip.”
People are also learning that with the Healthy New Mexican Cuisine recipes, the flavors they love have remained while the food is better for them.
Lard or shortening and cheese are health culprits in most of the traditional cuisine. By changing from lard to a healthful oil, such as olive oil or canola oil, and using less cheese, the fat level in the dish can be reduced.
One of the popular recipes is for a whole wheat tortilla where the white flour is reduced by using half whole wheat flour and half white flour. And instead of using lard or shortening, canola oil is substituted.
A secret ingredient in the tortilla is dried milk.
“It softens the batter up, so the tortillas are fluffier and lighter,” Bittner said. “This recipe is a nice substitute for the typically high-in-fat and white flour tortilla. People are very surprised at how much they enjoy it.
“Many people who have used this recipe say this is the one they always go to now, because it tastes so good and because it is a healthy option for them.”
Another dish laden with fat from cheese is the chile relleno, but this too can be healthier by making a relleno casserole using egg whites instead of a whole egg batter.
“We have taken away the frying of the traditionally heavily battered relleno,” Bittner said. “We whip up egg whites to a soft peak and then put the chile on top of the egg whites in a casserole dish. After making two layers of sliced chiles, we sprinkle just enough cheese to cover the surface and then bake the dish.”
By using egg whites instead of the whole egg, the amount of cholesterol in this favorite food also is reduced.
“When I serve this dish to people who are fans of chile rellenos, all have told me that they were surprised at how much they liked it,” Bittner said.
Two traditional New Mexican dishes – the squash and corn dish calabacitas and the spinach dish quelites – are ideal to increase vegetables in a meal as recommended by the USDA’s new “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
“This is a traditional, old-school recipe that we are bringing back and cooking it in a healthier way. Quelites is a northern New Mexico dish traditionally made with purslane, a wild spinach,” Bittner said. “Since purslane is hard to find if you don’t grow it on your own property, we just use frozen or fresh spinach.”
Typically, this dish would be made with a spoonful of lard to sauté the onions, but “we are leaving fat out all together,” Bittner said. “We sauté onions and garlic then add the spinach.”
To make the dish a complete nutritional meal, or a nice vegetarian recipe, add pinto beans. If used as a main dish, add a little cheese to top it off.
One goal for healthier diets is to eat what is grown within the state or region.
“We are lucky because of the vast variety of produce that is grown here,” Bittner said. “Besides chile, we grow lots of wonderful squash and corn. So calabacitas is a real traditional New Mexico dish that is very healthy.”
Calabacitas is a favorite vegetable dish at New Mexican restaurants. But typically it will have a lot of cheese added to it. Bittner suggests trying the dish without cheese or to add a little, very sharp cheese for the flavor without adding additional calories, fat and salt.
One way to enjoy a healthier lifestyle is to explore how favorite recipes can be tweaked to reduce the fats, salt, sugar and white flour. With simple changes, New Mexicans can enjoy their traditional flavors while reducing their health risks.
(Jane Moorman is a senior communication specialist at New Mexico State University. She is also a former News-Bulletin reporter.)