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I’m Addicted To Traditional Mexican Meals And Learned That Cutting Out Certain Items Made For A Healthier Lifestyle

Traditional Mexican food is rich with a variety of vegetables and lean proteins, all boasting big flavors! In many ways, it was the Americanization of Mexican food that has made it less healthy. Switching to lean ground poultry, adding beans to ground meat dishes, using less sour cream, or switching to low-fat cheese have all added up to me making healthier lifestyle choices and having better meals.  Here’s a look beyond the tacos and burritos and into the kitchens across the country where it can be easy to find delicious, healthy versions of Mexican favorites…in fact, I bet you won’t have to look too far.

Corn Tortilla

A simple swap, choose the corn tortilla next time you order a taco. This staple food is a whole grain, which packs more fiber and nutrients than its flour counterpart.  At least half our daily grains should be whole grains. This is a tasty way to meet that goal!

Carne Asada

Get your protein grilled, not fried. Grilled steak packs a protein punch with little to no added fat, since it’s cooked on a grill and not sautéed in oil or butter.

Credit: Carne Asada. Pixabay.   9/14/13.

Huitlacoche or Corn Smut

Corn what? This corn fungus, which is very similar to mushroom in flavor,  is considered black gold in some areas of Mexico. When rain droplets fall into the corn husk, the kernels of corn begin to rot and develop a fungus that turns the golden kernels into grey, stone-like blobs. The fungus adds proteins that aren’t found naturally in regular corn kernels. This makes it a great choice in tacos or quesadillas for vegans or vegetarians.

Credit: Quesadilla. Pixabay. 10/23/18.

Fruta

Seemingly so simple but let’s not forget this healthy version of a sweet treat, after all, fruit is twice as sweet in Mexico! Fruit is always a good choice because it is packed with antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Credit: Melon. Pixabay. 6/15/2016.

Arroz rojo

This tasty staple, is simple to make and has all the elements of a comfort food; warm and flavorful. You can make a healthier version by swapping in brown rice for white rice.

Credit: Rice. Pixabay.  10/27/2016.

Mole de olla

This hearty soup is a steaming bowl of comfort (and nutrients!) on a gray day. This soup consists of broth with potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, corn, and other vegetables that suit your taste. Preparing your soup with beef or pork? Trim the visible fat off the meat to reduce the amount of saturated fat in the recipe.

Credit: Chicken stew. Pixabay.  05/16/2016.

Tortilla soup

So much soup! Another bowl of steaming comfort, the chicken is baked, grilled, roasted, or poached making it a lean, low fat choice with a ton of protein! Instead of topping your soup with crumbled fried tortillas try baking your tortillas in the oven until crisp and then crumbling them.

Credit: Chicken soup. Pixabay.  11/27/2013.

Pescado

Another healthy Mexican dish, a whole grilled fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, the kind you get in fish oil supplements ,which are so good for your heart! Grilling the fish means little to no added fat. Using fresh herbs, such as cilantro, and citrus juice, such as lime, make the fish flavorful without any added salt!

Credit: Fish. Pixabay.  11/5/2016.

Pico de gallo

This fresh salsa is a great way to add a healthy boost to any dish. Fresh tomatoes, cilantro, lime, and onions provide flavor, fiber, and antioxidants.  It’s a juicy flavor boost in each bite!

Credit: Pico de gallo. Pixabay. 04/30/2017.

Tomatillo salsa

This vibrant green salsa is rich in vitamin C and vitamin K. It packs a flavorful punch on any fish or taco.

Credit: Salsa. Pixabay. 01/09/2015.

Goat Birria

A tomatillo broth with rich meatiness is another healthy Mexican dish, that will have you asking for seconds. When using goat (or pork) trim the visible fat and use a low sodium broth to make your soup.

Credit: Soup. Pixabay. 04/11/2018.

Carne adobada

Another alternative taco filling, pork or beef is roasted in chilies, garlic, onion, vinegar, and plenty of herbs and spices.  Though packed with flavor, making it at home means it is not packed with sodium.

Credit: Carne. Pixabay. 03/27/2018.

Guacamole

What’s a list without guacamole? This creamy fruit (yes, a fruit!) is a great option when topping a baked chip or taco. Just be mindful – 1/3 of an avocado is the recommended portion.

Credit: Guacamole. Pixabay.  07/08/2014.

Guisada al pollo

Chipotles in adobo are responsible for the flavor punch in this dish. Along with flavor from protein, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, and bell peppers it’s super nutritious without being super salty.

Credit: Chicken stew. Pixabay. 07/10/2012.

Ceviche

Fish is almost always a healthy choice and this is no exception. “Cooked” in citrus fruits and juice, this seafood dish is cured without adding the fat found in fried fish.

Credit: Ceviche. Pixabay. 12/31/2014.

Agua fresca

Homemade agua fresca is going to be a healthier version than store-bought, most of the time. You can add fresh or frozen fruit to your water to add subtle flavor. Try using less  sugar or simple syrup. You can also use agave, Splenda, or another calorie free sweetener to cut down on the amount of added sugars you consume from drinks.

Credit: Agua Fresca. Pixabay. 11/09/2018.

Empanadas

These pocket pies are filled with deliciousness, and when that crust breaks open to reveal a savory sauce or sweet fruit filling, it’s like heaven in your mouth! Baking your empanadas, instead of frying them, will make them a bit more heavenly with a lot less added fat.

Credit: Empanadas. Pixabay.  6/22/2014.

Sopa de poro y papa

This potato leek soup is another delicious dish. When adding the cream or sour cream, try a low fat version or try using plain Greek yogurt. By using plain yogurt, you‘ll be adding protein, calcium, probiotics, and cutting way back on saturated fat!

Credit: Potatoes. Pixabay. 05/26/2018.

Guiso de flor calabaza

This quick stew uses fresh squash blossoms from a summer squash plant.  It’s easy to prepare and quick to devour. Packed with cancer fighting antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber this stew is bright, beautiful, and as healthy as it comes.

Credit: Zucchini blossom. Pixabay. 07/25/2014.

Churros

A sweet treat! Traditionally fried then rolled in cinnamon and sugar, this tasty treat has soared in popularity – and for good reason, it’s delicious! It’s also loaded with added sugars and added fat. To make this treat a bit healthier, try piping your dough on a cookie sheet and baking it, to reduce the added fat.

Credit: Churros. Pixabay. 02/22/2015.

Salsa

Salsas are always a healthy topping for any dish or a great dip choice for baked chips. Salsas usually contain fruit and vegetables, such as tomatoes, tomatillos, mangoes, and even grapes! Some may even occasionally contain avocado, a source of healthy fats!

Credit: Salsa. Pixabay. 08/05/2016.


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When My Father Started To Die, Teaching His Hermanas and Me How To Make Tamales Was His Way Of Saying Goodbye

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When My Father Started To Die, Teaching His Hermanas and Me How To Make Tamales Was His Way Of Saying Goodbye

Food has always had a significant place in my family’s traditions. It was the center of every gathering and what connected us despite whatever differences we had. Whether it was a BBQ celebrating a birthday or trays of Mexican food at a quiñceanera, food was the common denominator. No event combined food, family, and tradition better than our tamaladas.

My dad was the host of our tamaladas.

Photo provided by Samantha Chavarria

Truthfully, he was the orchestrator of most of our family meals. Someone who had already been cooking for other people all his life, my father put himself through culinary school while my sister and I were small. Working two to three jobs while going to school, he was a man fully committed to making a better life for us. Ever the doting Latino son, family was everything to my dad. As such, he also helped provide for his parents and younger siblings on top of caring for his young family.

His investment paid off and he was eventually able to become an executive chef. However, food wasn’t just my dad’s profession. It was his passion. Even when he retired, he was still the head chef of every holiday meal and family gathering. He even cooked at my wedding; baking and decorating my cake as well as preparing an asado to feed our guests. Food was his gift. His recipes were forged by his senses.

His dishes were the highlight of these life moments. They had the power to bring his family together and that was a responsibility he held in the highest regard.

Then he received his cancer diagnosis.

My dad had been sick for a while but the cause was a mystery. Still, even before doctors could pinpoint the cause for his waning health, my dad was certain it was cancer. My family didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. My dad was clearly just thinking negatively. A man as strong as my dad— a man whose personality was always larger than life— couldn’t be that sick. Doctors hadn’t found anything for a reason. We couldn’t allow it to be a possibility.

Soon we learned it wasn’t just a possibility, it was our reality. My dad was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; a cancer with an only a 7% survival rate past 5 years.

It didn’t seem real. Personally, I rotated through a phase of straight out denial and painful grief. There was no reconciling it in my mind. My dad handled it much better. Even knowing the survival rates, he wasn’t willing to give up without a fight. He wanted to live and, more than anything, he knew his family needed him.

Still, he knew he was on borrowed time. His diagnosis came right before the holidays so he was deep into his first round of chemotherapy by the time Thanksgiving arrived. My dad still made all of his signature dishes, though the occasion felt strained. There was a certain realization that we were trying desperately to ignore. These holiday meals were my dad’s domain and the thought of this holiday season possibly being his final one was overwhelming.

Halfway through December, my dad decided to have a tamalada.

Photo provided by Samantha Chavarria

Some of my aunts and cousins had wanted to learn his recipe for tamales but this could only be learned by making them alongside him. There was no recipe. The consistency of the masa was the guide. It was measured by the scorched fragrance of the ancho chilis. There were no written directions that could properly explain how to spread and roll the cornhusk hojas.

So, in the house owned by my family since my grandfather’s father first purchased it, we held our tamalada.

I knew what my dad was doing. Watching him instruct his sisters in mixing masa and setting my younger cousin to single-handedly prepare multitudes of pan de polvo, I understood his intent. He was passing the knowledge on to those who would be around to use it the following years.

Anger was added to my mixture of grief and denial. I didn’t want this. These secrets were his and, as long as they stayed his, he’d have to stay here to pass them on another day. Sharing them with others felt like he was acknowledging that he wouldn’t be around; that there was a time limit that he was tied to. I didn’t want to admit that.

I had long ago learned these techniques from him. Years of making tamales alongside my dad as we talked and laughed had taught me.

Still, I wish I had paid more attention to his fast folding fingers. I wish I had been more present on the day of the tamalada instead of trying to swallow the bitter combination of my feelings.

My dad died in August of 2018. It devastated my family. I’m honestly surprised to be as functional as I am so soon after his death but I’m still utterly wounded by the loss. My dad was my best friend. He was my teacher. He was the keeper of my secrets, our family history and the recipes that filled our bellies during times both tragic and triumphant.

It hurts, but I finally see that last tamalada for what it was. Yes, it was an attempt to pass those techniques down to their new keepers, but it was something even more significant. It was my father’s attempt to give us final, beautiful memories that would keep us warmly wrapped in his love throughout the coming years. When we wouldn’t have him any longer, we’d have his memories.

When I look back at that last tamalada— past my anger, grief and denial— what I see is truly priceless.

Photo provided by Samantha Chavarria

I see my dad, watching his family create something that would live beyond him. I see him sitting, arms crossed with a tired yet satisfied smile on his face. In my memory, he’s smiling at me; his grin silently telling me, “Mija, it’s going to be okay.”

This year, we will gather in that same house that my great-grandfather bought. In the house my father spent his first and final days in, we will cook the chilis and mix the masa. We’ll shimmer the pork and roll the hojas. My family and I will tell stories about my dad as the tamales cook. We’ll laugh and cry and drink too much café con leche in my dad’s honor.

It’s never going to be the same, but it’ll be okay. My dad taught me that, too.


Read: My Abuela’s Distaste For Cooking Taught Me To Appreciate The History And Taste Of A Good Mole

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