Bonnie Lee Black’s ABC’s of healthy cooking

Photo: Tina Larkin

Originally published in Taos News

A healthy approach to healthy cooking boils down to three basic points—attitude, balance and creativity. This is the philosophy of Bonnie Lee Black, former New York chef and caterer, who teaches Healthy Cooking and Bread Baking in UNM-Taos’ Culinary Arts Program.

Black, who also teaches English and Creative Nonfiction Writing at UNM-Taos, is the author of two memoirs –Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981) and How to Cook a Crocodile, a Memoir with Recipes (Peace Corps Writers, 2010). The latter book is slated to receive an award from Gourmand International at the Paris Cookbook Fair in March in the category of Charity and Community (North America).

Black’s Healthy Cooking class, which is taught atTaosHigh Schoolon Friday evenings, is full. No wonder, considering the interest that the subject matter raises. We all want to be healthy. And most of us love to eat. Preparing nutritious and healthy meals does the trick, and Black’s students are all eager to learn.

The lessons include stocks and soups, vegetables and salads, grains and beans, lean proteins, fruit desserts, as well as healthy ethnic meals. They also cover mis-en-place (preparation), timing and presentation.

Black’s students are taking the class for a variety of reasons. One just had gastric bypass surgery and wants to continue losing weight; another, who has a hectic schedule, wants to learn easy-to-prepare, hearty dishes that she can take to work. One young man simply wanted to learn how to navigate his way around the kitchen.

“We all have different kinds of hunger,” said Black. “We are hungry for knowledge, recognition, love and beauty, among other things… not just food. But when people use food to satisfy all these hungers, they’re likely to become obese.” Therefore, she urges her students to cook meals that are not only healthy but also beautiful, to satisfy that craving for beauty that exists in all of us.

Black’s suggestions to create beautiful and healthy dishes:

Use lots of lettuce and greens in the salad. You can eat as much lettuce as you want without worrying about calories. Besides, greens make the dish look “happy.”

Eat with your eyes first. The French are very good at that. For them, food is practically a religion and they take great care in presenting it in an enticing manner.   Make your plate a work of art, full of colors.

Focus on increasing your daily intake of whole grains, lean proteins, colorful vegetables and fruit, and healthy dairy products — following the government’s new dietary guidelines found at the website <>

To lessen your dependence on pre-packaged and “fast” foods, do more cooking “from scratch” at home. The more confident you are in the kitchen, the less need you’ll have for pre-packaged meals.

Use healthy cooking techniques, such as steaming, grilling, stir-frying, poaching, and microwaving.

Learn to choose the healthier carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits, vegetables, whole wheat and whole grain products.

“A balanced, healthy diet can be both enjoyable and nutritious,” Black says. “Bountiful, flavorful and healthful are all adjectives that could be used to describe it.”

Every chef has a favorite kitchen appliance. At the moment, Black’s is a small, white, Hamilton Beach immersion blender. “I like it because it makes blending vegetable soups easier, quicker, and safer,” she said.

As for favorite foods, she leans toward homemade healthy breads and soups, especially in the winter months. (See her recipe below for a yummy soup that calls for blending). “Breads and soups are comforting, healthy, and delicious!” Black said.

She also loves teaching bread-baking. “The process of bread baking teaches patience, attentiveness, and respect (especially for other, smaller, life forms) like nothing else you might make in the kitchen,” she said.

Chicken Stock  – “Liquid Gold”

2 pounds chicken bones (with some meat on them) raw, and/or left over from a roasted chicken

4 medium carrots, scrubbed and chopped into 1-inch pieces

4 medium onions, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces

4 stalks celery, chopped into 1-inch pieces

3 medium cloves of garlic, unpeeled and left whole

10 whole, black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 small bunch of fresh parsley stems

Cold water

Place all ingredients in a tall stockpot large enough to hold everything comfortably.  Cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to a simmer, and skim off any foam or fat that rises to the surface.  Cook at a simmer for several hours, uncovered.  Strain and cool quickly.  Refrigerate or pour into plastic containers and freeze.

Sweet Potato and Chipotle Soup

(Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Everyday Light cookbook [Clarkson Potter, 2011])

Serves 8

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

Coarse salt and ground pepper

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

4 medium sweet potatoes (2 pounds total), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

½ to 1 canned chipotle chile in adobo, chopped

7 cups chicken stock (follow recipe above, or use low-sodium store-bought)

Reduced-fat sour cream, for serving

Toasted flour tortilla wedges for serving (optional)

In a large, heavy pot, heat oil over medium-high. Add onion and season with salt and pepper; cook until softened, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Add cumin and garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in sweet potatoes, chipotle chile to taste, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil; reduce to a rapid summer, partially cover, and cook until sweet potatoes can be mashed easily with a spoon, about 25 minutes. Let soup cool slightly, then blend with immersion blender (in the pot) or, using a stand-up blender, in batches (being careful not to fill blender bowl more than halfway, to avoid spillage). Divide soup among eight bowls and top with sour cream. (156 calories per serving)

Bonnie Black’s Honey Whole Wheat Bread

Step One: Make the “sponge.” In a medium-size bowl, combine 1 package active dry yeast, 1 cup lukewarm (not hot, or you’ll kill the yeast) water, and 1 cup bread flour. Stir well, cover loosely (so the mixture can breathe), and allow to sit on your kitchen counter overnight (during which it will bubble up and then calm down). [Note: Making this “sponge” ahead of time will give your bread extra flavor and extend its shelf life.]

Step Two: Make the dough. In a large bowl, combine 1 teaspoon salt with 1 cup warmish (not hot) milk, ¼ cup honey, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (such as canola), 1 cup whole wheat flour, 2 cups bread flour, and the above “sponge” mixture. Stir well with a wooden spoon.

Step Three: Knead the dough. On a clean, flat counter or table, spread 1 cup of bread flour in a dinner-plate-size circle. Scrape the contents of your big bowl onto the floured surface and knead rhythmically and steadily with both hands (being “both strong and gentle – at the same time,” I tell my students) for 10 whole minutes. (Don’t skimp on the time.) If your dough is sticky, add more bread flour in small increments.

Step Four: First Rise. Form the dough into a smooth ball and place in a large, buttered bowl, turning to butter all sides. Cover loosely and allow to double in bulk at room temperature. This will take a shorter time (under an hour) in a warm room and a longer time (up to about two hours) in a cool room.

Step Five: Punch and Form. Place the doubled-in-bulk dough on a floured surface, and knead it again, briefly, to eliminate its puffiness. Form into the size and shape you wish – small dinner rolls, larger hamburger buns, freeform round or oval bread loaves, or traditional loaves made in bread pans.

Step Six: Second Rise. Cover your bread(s) loosely and allow to double in bulk again at room temperature (which, again, will take longer in a cooler kitchen than a warmer kitchen).

Step Seven: Bake, Cool, Serve. Bake your bread in a preheated 375-400-degree oven for about 30-35 minutes, until “GB & D” – golden brown and delicious! Remove from pans (if using) and let bread cool on a wire rack before eating.

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