We don't have to give up our favorite foods or cultural dishes in order to eat healthier. If we learn to modify the recipe and use better quality ingredients, we can have our cake and eat it too.
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and grew up eating delicious foods like arroz con pollo, habichuelas, amarillos, mofongo and pasteles (just to name a few because honestly the list is extensive). In theory, the food itself (rice, beans, plantains, chicken) isn't the problem. Those are all components of a healthy diet. Unhealthy-ness creeps in when we use certain cooking techniques, low quality ingredients, do not eat in moderation and do not incorporate enough plants.
Rice is a staple in many cuisines including my own. A whole rice grain consists of three layers - the bran, the endosperm and the germ. You can find a majority of the nutrients including protein, fiber and iron in the bran and the germ.
Unfortunately, during processing, white rice is stripped of its bran and germ, leaving the starchy carbohydrate-rich middle layer - the endosperm. Once stripped of the bran and the germ, white rice becomes mostly empty carbohydrates because of the lack of other vitamins and minerals. This is why, for the most part, white rice is typically not considered the healthiest choice.
So what can we do when a dish calls for a nice, warm side of white rice? A few things actually.
The best option is to use brown rice instead. Brown rice is the entire whole rice grain with all three layers intact. Cooking brown rice can be intimidating. I like to use Brown Basmati or Brown Jasmine and I cook it in the Instant Pot.
Another option to consider is using white Basmati rice. Indian and South Asian rice varieties like Basmati, Jasmine or Sona Masoori tend to have slightly higher nutritional profiles than other long-grain varieties.
Because of the lack of fiber, white rice has a high glycemic index which means it can cause your blood sugar to spike. However, if white rice is paired with a protein, healthy fat and/or fiber, it reduces the glucose spike. In this case, for this recipe, I've used an avocado as a healthy fat and good source of fiber, chickpeas for protein and fiber, grass-fed butter for healthy fat, and chicken for protein.
A mistake that a lot of us make when eating rice (and many other foods) is the serving size. We tend to serve ourselves a heaping portion of white rice. Try starting with half a cup to a full cup of cooked rice instead.
Oil, Butter & Fat
When cooking, most recipes call for some kind of oil or butter. In Latin kitchens, I most often see vegetable or canola oil. These have been heavily marketed as healthy, but the truth is they are not.
Canola and other vegetable oils are highly refined. They are heated to high temperatures and exposed to a number of different chemicals. They go through bleaching and deodorizing treatments. The refining process that they go through decreases the nutrients found in the oils, such as essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins.
These oils are also high in omega-6 fatty acids. Eating too much omega-6 fat can contribute to chronic inflammation, cause blood clots than can lead to cardiovascular disease, raise your blood pressure and cause your body to retain water. In developed countries, the rate that we eat omega-6 fats is already too high so actively choosing foods lower in omega-6 is a good idea.
In addition, these oils are almost always made with mostly GMO ingredients. Many concerns currently surround GMOs regarding their potential impact on the environment, public health, crop contamination, and food safety.
The best kinds of oil to use when cooking is extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil. If you're needing to fry, I would go with grapeseed oil.
There has been a long crusade against butter. Again, similar to canola and vegetable oil, the food industry has led us to believe that margarine and butter-replacements are healthier than real butter. They are worse.
Butter is made from churning cream. It is a concentrated form of milk fat and mostly saturated fat.
Margarine rose in popularity due to the belief that it is a healthier option for our heart. Margarine is a highly processed food product made from vegetable oils. Because margarine is made from vegetable oils it is also be high in omega-6 fats.
A processed called hydrogenation is used to harden the vegetable oils and increase shelf life. When food is chemically altered, it can have negative impact on our health. Hydrogenation not only increases saturated fats but also forms unhealthy trans-fat.
Lastly, margarine also typically contains food additives such as fillers, emulsifiers, colorings and artificial flavors. If you've been following us for a while, you know we are NOT a fan of those.
Almost always real food will beat out the fake stuff. Do not be afraid to use real, organic, unsalted butter from grass-fed cows or ghee (clarified butter) in small amounts. Key words: Small Amounts. Like rice, if we smother our food with tons of butter it will quickly become unhealthy.
The health effects and quality of butter largely depend on the diet of the cows it came from. Butter from grass-fed cows is a better source of nutrients than butter from cows fed grains. Happy, well-cared for cows equal better quality food products for us.
For this recipe, I chose grass-fed butter rather than ghee because ghee does have a slightly different flavor than butter. You can also use a drizzle of avocado or olive oil instead of the butter for the rice. I just prefer the buttery taste for this specific recipe.
Another kitchen tip when it comes to oils and fats is that reserving your own cooking fat can be healthier and tastier than using refined vegetable oils, flavorings or store-bought lard.
For example, some cooks use a highly processed and artificial ham bouillon for bean recipes in Latin cooking. I skip that (see Seasonings to understand why) and I use a bit of reserved bacon fat. It's going to give me a more authentic flavor without the use of fake foods.
When used in small amounts, reserved fat from organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed animals can be beneficial. They also make a good option for cooking with high temperatures.
Another ingredient that can make or break the nutritional functionality of our food is the seasoning we use. Seasonings can be loaded with toxic additives like colorings, MSG, artificial flavors, fillers, etc. Food additives are known to wreck your gut health and even cause hyperactivity in children. The list of health risks associated specifically with the consumption of MSG is extensive.
Traditional Latin-cooking seasonings like adobo and sazon from popular brands are loaded with unhealthy, highly processed ingredients. Choose clean brands like Loisa and Healthy Rican. These brands use no artificial colors or ingredients and no MSG. They also tend to be lower in sodium which is healthier for our heart.
When you pick up a seasoning bottle or packet and read the nutrition label, you should be able to recognize all the ingredients as whole foods (IE. garlic, turmeric, annatto, coriander).
Organic, Grass Fed, Pasture Raised
We briefly dove into why butter from grass-fed cows is healthier. The same goes for all of our animal products - eggs, meats, cheese, etc. Aside from striving to purchase organic, grass-fed and pasture-raised at the store, I also encourage you whenever possible to venture out to your local farmer's market and support your local family farms.
Animals that are well-cared for, treated with respect and given real space and sunlight do not only make healthier, better-quality products but it is the humane way to farm animals and much better for the environment.
Factory-farmed animals and cheap meat tend to be overloaded with antibiotics and hormones harmful to our health. They also tend to have higher concentrations of saturated fat. I will be covering the animal welfare, environmental and human-health issues surrounding factory-farmed meat more in depth in a future blog post.
“When you choose grass-fed and organic animal fats, you get a lot more of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and antioxidants that these meats and fats contain,” - Dr. Mark Hyman, international leader in the field of functional medicine.
Eat More Plants
Lastly, we can make our cultural dishes healthier by incorporating more fruits and vegetables in them. Most of us were raised thinking and believing that meat was the most important aspect of a meal. When it comes to meal planning, a lot of people start by focusing on a large piece of meat and then think of plant-foods as secondary.
Plants should come first. Different colored plants should be the most abundant food group in our diet. Always strive to make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
Plants have important vitamins and minerals vital to our cell function. The nutrients found in plants play a critical role in both disease prevention and healing.
"More than 75% of the American population has lived almost exclusively, for a greater part of their lives, on a poor-quality meats, eggs and dairy products; oxidized, refined, and/or hydrogenated oils and fats; and completely denatured, "white" wheat-flour products," - Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods
In contrast, we eat far too little of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Currently, the CDC reports that 6 in 10 adults in the US are living with a chronic disease. Unfortunately, it is not a coincidence and a diet low in plants is directly correlated with negative health outcomes.
You can see for this recipe, I used fresh veggies like tomato, onion and sweet potatoes. I added avocado and served myself more chickpeas than chicken.
Let me know in the comments what favorite culture dish of yours you would like to see me recreate with better ingredients!
Garbanzos con Pollo
1 lbs chicken breast, diced
2 cups Basmati Rice
15oz can chickpeas
8oz can tomato sauce
1 tomato, diced
1 small sweet onion, chopped
1 large sweet potato, peeled & chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 tsp adobo
1.5 tsp sazon
3 tbsp sofrito
2 tbsp grassfed butter
1 hass avocado
2 tbsp reserved bacon fat or 2 strips of bacon, diced*
If you're using bacon, sauté in Instant Pot until lightly browned. Scrape up any bits that have become stuck to the pot.
Season chicken with salt, pepper & cumin and place in Instant Pot
Add potato, tomato, onion, sofrito, sazon, adobo, tomato sauce & garlic into Instant Pot.
If you're not using bacon, but have the reserved fat, just add it in to the Instant Pot along with the other ingredients.
Set the Instant Pot valve to "Sealing" and Pressure Cook on High for 5 Minutes. Let most of the pressure release naturally.
In a medium pot, combine rice with 3 cups of water and butter.
Let rice boil until you see little holes in the rice bubbling up. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover for 15 minutes. Fluff after 15 minutes.
Cut your avocado into cubes.
Taste garbanzos, add salt if desired
Serve as shown in the picture.
Tip: After we ate all the chickpeas and chicken, we still had a tomato-ey chicken broth leftover. We used it a few days later to make rice. If you don't think you'll use it in a few days, freeze it for whenever a recipe calls for broth!
*Note: If you use bacon plus its fat, you will have a stronger bacon taste. If you prefer something more subtle, but don't have bacon fat laying around - cook some bacon, save it for tomorrow's breakfast & just use the fat.