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Low-fat Mexican cooking: can we still enjoy it with less fat?

March 20, 2002|BY LYNN F. LITTLE

Hispanics have had a profound and lasting influence on American history, values and culture, and not the least of these influences is the integration of Mexican food into the American diet.

Burritos, enchiladas, tacos, nachos and just about any type of the spicy, chile-laden fare are staples in restaurant, party and home cooking scenes.

Dining on Mexican cuisine and sipping margaritas often is associated with relaxation and that full, sleepy feeling that Mexican food provides. But, as much as we love to eat it, we also know that many dishes can be high in fat and not very healthy.

Today's American-style Mexican foods have resulted from the combined culinary influences of early Spanish settlers and indigenous peoples. Burritos, Chimichangas, tacos and taquitos are considered Mexico's "Northern cuisine." Basic recipes vary from region to region, but foods such as these took their strongest hold in the northern-most region of Mexico, which borders the United States. The food has become a part of the American diet, regardless of our heritage. Many of these recipes, however, are very high in fat.

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Studies show that obesity is on the rise. Approximately one-third of adults in this country are overweight or obese. Being overweight puts us at greater risk for diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer.

One of the culprits in our weight-gain is the "super size" mentality at Mexican and other restaurants. We feel we should eat every bite. We enjoy the value, but the extra fat and calories can put us at risk. Is there another way? Can we still enjoy Mexican food if the fat is reduced?

The answer is yes. It may not be exactly the same as the traditional version, but modifying recipes is one way to bring us closest to the foods we like without giving them up. Mexican food can be full of flavor without heavy doses of fat and calories.

Cooking at home also gives you more control over how foods are prepared. Try the following cooking techniques. Your Mexican food will be lower in fat and healthier - and you will enjoy it.

- Beans

Beans can be purchased in a can or they can be prepared at home. Canned refried beans are available in the fat-free version without giving up the taste. The homemade version can be prepared with less or no fat. Avoid using lard in recipes, as it is a saturated fat that promotes heart disease. If lard or bacon grease is called for in the recipe, try substituting vegetable oil in its place and using one-third to one-fourth of what is called for. To get the desired consistency, use juice from the beans. For added flavor, season with salsa, onions and chile (such as jalapeno or mild green chile).

Another option is to use whole pinto beans without adding fat. They can be seasoned with onions, jalapenos and tomatoes. For a healthier version of frijoles, try this recipe:

Frijoles de Olla

1 (15-ounce) can of beans (black or pinto)

1/2 cup of chopped onion

1/4 cup of chopped jalapeno (from a jar or can) or 1/2 cup of a fresh chopped jalapeno

1 (15-ounce) can of chopped tomatoes

Combine all ingredients and heat until mixture is thoroughly heated.

- Avoid frying

Another way to reduce fat in Mexican food is to avoid frying. Alternative methods of cooking such as those listed below can produce flavorful, good quality foods.

- Using soft flour or corn tortillas is a low-fat alternative to the fried version. If a crunchy tortilla is desired, fold the corn shell over the oven rack and bake until crunchy. Place a cooking sheet beneath to catch the tortillas if they fall.

- As with tacos, instead of frying, bake the shell in the oven until crispy. Place flat on a cookie sheet and brush with a small amount of canola oil to crisp.

- Use soft flour or corn tortillas to make baked tortilla chips. Brush them with a little oil and, for added flavor, sprinkle with salt and spice (such as onion or garlic powder). Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until crisp. Baked tortilla chips also can be purchased in the supermarket.

- Meat

Use lean cuts of meat, such as 90 percent lean ground beef, lean cuts of pork or skinless grilled chicken breast. Grilled shrimp or salmon also tastes great in a taco or on a tostado and can offer a nice change of pace. Cut away the fat and remove skin before cooking. Using less meat also is an option, as meat generally is associated with fat and thus more calories. Add flavor to the meat by marinating before grilling.

- Cheese

Try reduced fat cheese or just use less. Think of it as adding a little bit of color and stay away from large amounts of gooey melted cheese. As much as we love cheese, the extra fat calories can add up fast.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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