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The lighter side of Mexican cooking

Karen Hursh Graber

Suffering from post-holiday belly bulge? Thinking about trading in the guacamole and chips for cottage cheese and celery sticks? Before you do, consider the many healthy, diet-friendly ways of preparing Mexican dishes.

Many people, especially those associating Mexican with Tex-Mex, think of it as heavy fare, laden with cream and cheese, consisting of fried food and dishes cooked with lard. But the abundance of fresh produce in Mexico's markets lends itself to the creation of healthy, delicious meals that will not clog arteries or add pounds.

Three of the signature flavors of Mexican cooking -- chile, lime, and fresh herbs --contain no fat and practically no calories. Chiles add a distinctive taste to sauces, soups, stews, meat and poultry dishes. And lime boosts flavor without the need for a lot of salt. Both chiles and lime are high in vitamin C, especially important during the winter months.

Herbs also play a significant part in Mexican cuisine, with pungent cilantro and fresh tasting parsley probably being the most commonly used. In Central Mexico, mint, called hierba buena, is frequently added to meat and poultry dishes. And all over the country, epazote is favored for flavoring beans. Growing herbs, even in pots on an apartment windowsill, is a great way to have fresh flavor right on hand. If buying fresh herbs in the supermarket is the only option, protect your investment by using "green bags," sold in many supermarkets, kitchen supply stores and online.

Another important element of Mexican cooking is the humble bean, loaded with protein and containing a significant amount of the fiber necessary for a healthy digestive system. A hefty one-cup serving of cooked beans contains only 200 calories, a great dietary bargain for a filling, nutritious and economical food. Beans are fairly mild in flavor and take on the tastes of nearly any seasoning agent. Onions, garlic, cilantro, chile and lime add flavor to beans without fat.

And for an easy, delicious way to avoid super-sizing meals, look to the Mexican custom of having a serving of soup as a starter course. Several studies have shown that a one-cup serving of soup eaten before a meal cuts down on the number of total calories consumed. A simple chicken consommé takes on a taste of the Yucatán with a squeeze of fresh lime, and zesty Central Mexican flavor is achieved by simply spooning in a little of the adobo sauce from chipotles en adobo or by adding a few sprigs of fresh mint.

When making soups and stocks, refrigerate them to bring any fat to the top and it will be easy to remove before heating and serving. And cremas, or cream soups, need not be thickened by cream, cornstarch or flour. Using more steamed vegetables in proportion to the broth before blending produces a thick, rich soup with more flavor and far less fat and calories.

Cream can also be eliminated as a topping for tostadas, taquitos and enchiladas by replacing it with guacamole. Avocados are one of the "good" fats, containing oleic and linoleic acids, which help lower cholesterol. Take a page from the book You on a Diet by Drs. Mehmet Oz and Michael Roizen, and make "salsamole" combining fresh salsa ingredients half and half with mashed avocado to make a dip or topping.

For dipping, or for nachos, use baked, rather than fried, chips. Baked corn chips and pita chips are available in supermarkets here in Mexico and north of the border, as are baked corn tostadas, which contain no saturated fats and have a good amount of fiber per serving.

Instead of the "melting" cheeses, which melt so easily because of their high fat content, use fresh white cheeses like queso fresco, requesón and panela. These are good crumbled on everything from nachos and tostadas to soups and salads.

And speaking of salads, salpicón combines lean protein foods like chicken, shrimp or crab with vegetables, shredded lettuce and tomatoes to make delicious dinner salads or buffet items. There are many Mexican favorites that can be adapted to chicken and fish rather than the fattier beef and pork.

After all the healthy soups, salads and entrees, do you still crave dessert? Mexico has a wonderful array of fresh fruits available all year round, and these are the best dessert choices. But even those without access to Mexico's markets can use frozen fruit and yogurt to make easy, delicious sorbets.

And finally, although lard lends a rich flavor to many Mexican dishes, it should go without saying that anyone trying to stick to those dietary New Year's resolutions should be using olive or vegetable oil instead. Canola and olive oils both contain high ratios of the healthy omega 3 acids that help your body fight the clogs and clumps caused by trans fats and saturated fats.

Once you get used to using healthier alternatives to replace heavy, fatty ingredients, creativity may just take over. To get you started, here are some tasty, filling and healthy regional Mexican dishes to cook at home. Remember, it is what you eat, not what you don't eat, that influences how you look and feel.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2009 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2009
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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