Latin American food gets a bad rap from people who think it’s unhealthy. But nothing could be farther from the truth! Our traditional dishes are full of healthy ingredients prepared with love. Let’s start with two of the biggest: beans and cilantro. For Hispanic Heritage month, I want to encourage us all to get back to these basic ingredients that so many Latino cultures share, and to prepare them fresh and from scratch.
Why does it matter if it’s fresh and from scratch? Why not just eat burritos out of the freezer? Because true Latin American food isn’t just a set of flavors, or a list of dishes, it’s an experience. When I think about growing up in Peru, we never opened a box of cereal for breakfast. No one did! Everything we ate was fresh and homemade. We shopped at open-air markets, not supermarkets. We washed and chopped and cooked the food ourselves. We knew what we were eating and what it meant. A lot of that food involved beans and cilantro, but it was also about how we made it.
So first I want to tell you about these incredible traditional ingredients – beans and cilantro – and all of their benefits. And then I’ll share a recipe from my own heritage that combines the ingredients in a delicious, fresh dish. Most Latinos eat beans and cilantro, and have for generations. I hope you can use these ingredients to feel a connection to your culture as well.
The Many Benefits of the Humble Bean
Beans come in an incredible variety, and they are primarily a New World food – Europeans didn’t taste beans until after Columbus. We should be proud of giving the world this delicious food! In Peru we mostly eat black, canary, fava and lima beans; your traditional dishes may use different varieties, but if you are of Latin American origin it is certain that you have a lot of experience with dishes involving beans. If you are Brazilian, for example, you probably grew up on a steady diet of rice and brown, red or black beans.
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Beans are full of fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium, protein and thiamine. The fiber is great for anyone who is diabetic or insulin-sensitive, because it improves blood sugar levels. A fiber-rich diet is also beneficial for risk of heart disease, hypertension, obesity and stroke. Beans generally can help lower blood pressure and serum cholesterol. Iron is important to prevent anemia. If you eat relatively little iron-rich meat, beans can make up the difference.
People are often nervous about eating beans because they can cause gas. And that is embarrassing (not to mention smelly!). But first of all, the gas is caused by a sugar in the beans that our bodies cannot process but we can eliminate. Just soak your beans in water for a few hours or even overnight. Pour out that water and boil the beans for a minute in fresh water. Pour out that water as well, and now cook the beans in fresh liquid. No more gas! In fact, the fiber in the beans will help prevent a host of other intestinal problems, like acid reflux, constipation, duodenal ulcers, and diverticulitis.
Cook up a big batch of beans on Sunday and you can make them the basic ingredient for all kinds of traditional dishes for the rest of the week, from soup to stew to tacos to salads.
Other cultures often call it Coriander, but we call it cilantro – the bright, leafy green herb that pops up in all manner of Latin American dishes, from sauces to salads to stews. In Peruvian cooking we often use cilantro as the entire basis of a dish; other Latin American cuisines stir it in with a variety of combinations. No matter how you use it, you get the benefits of its antioxidant, antifungal and antibacterial properties. Like beans, cilantro is beneficial for diabetics, and also supports heart health.
Cilantro is rich in beta-carotene in addition to beneficial vitamins (A and C); it is also packed with minerals like potassium and calcium. Blood pressure and intestinal health both benefit from cilantro, and the potassium helps stabilize the body’s fluid levels and therefore the heart rate. Like beans, cilantro is rich in anemia-preventing iron while the leaves and tips are loaded with antioxidants that help prevent heart disease. It has also been shown beneficial for diabetics. And it can even fight harmful bacteria – no wonder it is so often used in hot countries, where food so easily spoils!
Either cilantro or beans will bring a Latin flavor to many dishes – and both are so easy to use! For me, the most authentic flavor can come from combining them together. This also packs an incredible health punch. Here is my recipe for Peruvian Beans and Cilantro The recipe is fast and easy, but it’s whole food made from scratch with fresh ingredients that almost all Latin American cultures use. Try it with your family this month and get in touch with your Hispanic heritage!
Recipe: Peruvian Beans à la Cilantro
The cilantro sauce for this dish is used in many of the classical Peruvian cuisines such as arroz con pollo and beef seco. Inspired by the sauce, we fused these traditional flavors with a vegan version of pure satisfaction.
1 pound canary beans
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ají amarillo paste (or mild chili paste)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bunch cilantro
4 cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
1. Put the beans in a stockpot and cover with 3 inches of water. Let them soak for 4 hours. Drain the beans in a colander, discarding the water.
2. Transfer the beans back into the stockpot and cover with 3 inches of water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Drain the beans in a colander, discarding the water (this process helps remove the oxalates in beans, which are responsible for gastrointestinal discomfort).
3. Transfer the beans back into the stockpot and set aside.
4. Put the oil in a medium-size sauté pan over medium heat. When hot, prepare the aderezo (seasoning) by adding the onion, garlic, ají, and cumin to the pot. Sauté the mixture until soft and fragrant. Add the aderezo to the pot with the beans.
5. Put the cilantro and stock in a blender. Puree until smooth and transfer to the pot of beans.
6. Bring the beans, aderezo, and cilantro mixture to a boil over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover, reduce the heat, and cook the beans at a simmer for about 1 hour or until the beans are soft. Serve warm.
Note: Beans will keep in the refrigerator for three to five days and can be reheated as needed.
Recipe from: Whole Body Reboot by Manuel Villacorta
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning nutrition and weight loss center in San Francisco. He is the founder and creator of Eating Free, an international weight management and wellness program and author of three books, Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-Aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes and his newest book, Whole Body Reboot: The Peruvian Superfoods Diet to Detoxify, Energize, and Supercharge Fat Loss.