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Home Plate: You don’t have to sacrifice flavor for health benefits to eat well

  • Socca and Harissa<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

    Socca and Harissa

    Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

  • Bean and beef stew and spoicy squash with plantains.<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

    Bean and beef stew and spoicy squash with plantains.

    Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

  • Socca and Harissa<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor
  • Bean and beef stew and spoicy squash with plantains.<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

I’ve spent the past week reading Dr. Robert Lustig’s Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease, and I just may never drink another can of soda.

I’ve always been skeptical about the latest diet fads. But Lustig is no crank – he’s a pediatric endocrinologist and professor at the University of California – and his book is a product of scientific research (his own and that of others) and his years of experience treating obese children.

According to Lustig, a person can be fat and healthy or thin and decidedly unhealthy. But for some people, obesity is one symptom of “metabolic syndrome,” a deadly group of maladies that includes high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL (good cholesterol) and high fasting glucose. A patient diagnosed with three of these issues stands a good chance of developing heart disease and diabetes.

Lustig believes that one reason for the growing number of people afflicted with metabolic disease is the prevalence of fructose – the molecule that makes sugar sweet – in the modern diet. Fructose, he says, causes our hormonal systems, particularly the insulin regulators in the pancreas and liver, to go haywire. And (controversially) he believes not only is fructose a toxin, but, like alcohol, it’s an addictive toxin.

Controversy or no, it is a fact that metabolic disease is a growing problem, not just in the United States, but worldwide. According to Dr. Lustig, as the global diet becomes more reliant on processed foods (such as white flour and granulated sugar) rather than the straight-from-the-land kinds of food our great-grandparents ate, even traditionally svelte nations, like Japan, have developed problems with obesity and its companion illnesses.

Combine bad food with environmental contaminants (especially those that mimic sex hormones) and epigenetic factors (such as under or over nourishment in pregnant women) and, says Dr. Lustig, metabolic syndrome becomes an entrenched, multi-generational plague. Beyond the personal misery of such a plague, this trend could, in the not too distant future, so completely overwhelm the American health care system that our economy would tank – again.

What to do? Start by checking Fat Chance out of the library. You may just never drink another can of soda. Or try making this filling, nutrient-rich dinner this weekend when you have a little extra time. It’s full of all the things Dr. Lustig says are good for you, and delicious proof that eating healthfully doesn’t mean eating badly.

Black Bean and Beef Stew

1½ cups dried black beans, rinsed and picked through, then soaked overnight in cold water or boil-soaked (see below)

6 cloves garlic, peeled

1 onion, peeled and cut into quarters

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound beef for stewing, cut into 1-inch-by-1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon cumin seed, whole or ground

1 teaspoon coriander seed, whole or ground

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste

1 small dried hot red pepper or 1∕2 teaspoon ground hot red pepper (or to taste)

If you haven’t soaked the beans overnight, you can instead pick through them for stones, rinse them, cover them with enough cold water to rise 2 inches above the beans and bring them to a boil. Shut the heat off, cover the beans with a lid, let them soak for an hour, then proceed with the recipe below.

Add water to the pot if necessary so that it rises about 2 inches above the soaked beans. Add the garlic cloves and the onion quarters and bring the beans to a simmer. Lower the heat so the beans are just bubbling. Cover the pot and allow the beans to cook until they are much more tender, but not completely cooked and soft. This may take 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the age of the beans.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet and brown the beef in batches, not crowding the pan, but leaving room between pieces of meat. Set the browned meat aside on a plate until the beans are ready.

If the cumin and coriander seeds are whole, heat a small skillet, add the seeds and cook, tossing so they don’t burn, until they are lightly browned and fragrant. Remove from heat and grind the seeds with a mortar and pestle or in a small electric spice grinder.

When the beans are ready, add the browned beef, the salt, the cumin and coriander and the hot red pepper to them. Simmer the mixture slowly for about an hour, until the beef is very tender. If the liquid is cooking away too quickly, add a little water to the pot. When both the beans and beef are tender, taste the stew and adjust the seasonings. Serve immediately or cool, refrigerate and serve the next day.

Serves 8.

Spicy Winter Squash and Plantains

4 tablespoons oil, such as sunflower

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced or grated

2 teaspoons cumin seeds or ground cumin

1 teaspoon coriander seed or ground coriander

2 tablespoons hot red pepper paste, or 2 hot red peppers, seeded and minced

2 medium-large ripe

1 pound butternut squash, seeded, peeled and cut into 1-inch-by-1-inch pieces (about 2 cups)

1 tablespoon cider vinegar, or to taste

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, (more to taste, if desired)

1 cup water, or as needed

1 small bunch cilantro, chopped (some for garnish)

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. While the oil is heating, peel the plantains and cut them into rounds about 1∕2 inch thick. If you have trouble removing the skin, cut off the ends of the plantain then use a small paring knife to get under the skin and peel it off.

Plantains will turn brown if left in the open air, so as a plantain is cut up, add it to the heated pan immediately. Cook all the plantain rounds on both sides until golden brown, then set them on paper towel to drain.

Add the squash pieces to the same skillet, browning them lightly on all sides. Remove them from the pan and set aside.

Add the onion and cook for a few minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and continue cooking until the onion and garlic are getting a little brown, but not black.

Meanwhile, If the cumin and coriander seeds are whole, heat a small skillet, add the seeds and cook, tossing so they don’t burn, until they are lightly browned and fragrant. Remove from heat and grind with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. Add the spices, the hot red peppers and the vinegar to the onion and garlic and stir well.

Add the plantains and squash and stir. Add about half the water to moisten the vegetables.

Add more water as needed until the mixture is quite moist; stir in the cilantro.

Cover the skillet with a lid, reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally and adding a little more water if needed until the squash and plantains are quite tender.

Remove from heat and taste for seasoning, adding more vinegar, hot red pepper paste or salt if desired. Serve hot or warm, garnished with more cilantro if desired.

Serves 8.

Socca (Chickpea Flatbread)
with Harissa Sauce

For the flatbread:

1½ cups chickpea flour (labeled “besan” in Indian markets), sifted

1½ cups water

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus a little more for cooking

1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt, plus a little more for the sauce

1∕2 teaspoon ground cumin, plus more for sprinkling

For the harissa sauce:

3 tablespoons hot pepper paste

1 clove garlic, peeled and minced or grated

1∕2 teaspoon cumin

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon good vinegar, such as cider or sherry

3 tablespoons water

salt to taste

Combine the chickpea flour with about half the water and the olive oil, stirring until smooth. Stir in the rest of the water, the salt and the cumin. Pour the mixture through a sieve pushing the lumps (if any) through the mesh to achieve a super-smooth batter. Cover the mixture and set aside to rest for at least half an hour.

Meanwhile make the harissa by combining the hot red pepper paste, garlic, cumin, olive oil, vinegar and water, stirring well. Add salt to taste and set aside.

About half an hour before making the breads, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, place it on the top rack while the oven is heating.

About 15 minutes before making the breads, place a 10-inch cast iron griddle or other high heat-safe skillet in the oven to heat.

Put the batter into a large measuring cup or other container with a pour-spout. When ready to cook, turn the oven to broil. Remove the pan from the oven and swirl a little olive oil over the bottom of it.

Give the batter a good stir, then pour about 1∕2 cup of it into the pan, tipping the pan and swirling the batter to cover the bottom of the skillet evenly.

Place the pan under the broiler.

Cook for a few minutes, until the edges and top of the socca have a few black and brown spots. Remove from the oven and use a spatula to lift the socca from the pan onto a cutting board.

Cut into squares and serve immediately with harissa if desired.

Makes 4 to 5 10-inch flatbreads.

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