It seems that, somewhere on a path made of jumbo burritos and nacho “cheese,” Mexican food earned a poor reputation. Restaurants serving the cuisine were castigated by weight loss programs everywhere, and were labeled as a one-way street to high cholesterol. Now, the fare is making a major turnaround, with the help of Mary Sue Milliken, the celebrity chef stepping up as Mexican food’s healthy ambassador.
The truth is, traditional Mexican cuisine is far from the perception it has earned. Chef Milliken, for her part, looks to bust that myth with bold flavor and simple, yet explosively delicious dishes: On the menus at her restaurant chain, Border Grill (operating alongside fellow celebrity chef Susan Feniger), and most recently, on Ora.Tv’s “America Cooks with Chefs.”
On her episode of the show, in which six home cooks are each paired with a James Beard Award-winning chef mentor, Chef Milliken teams up with Vinita Lark Williams, an L.A. resident with a recent 60-pound weight loss success story. Through the experience, Chef Milliken works with Vinita to teach her that healthy eating can be fun, delicious and, yes, carry flavors from south of the border.
We caught up with Chef Milliken to discuss her work and Mexican food.
Organic Authority: What interested you about “America Cooks with Chefs” and why did you join?
Mary Sue Milliken: I love sharing my passion for food with others, and I’m very interested in how diet can contribute to a healthier body and planet. “America Cooks with Chefs” was such a great opportunity to share good tips and pointers on what I’ve learned over the years with home cooks around the country.
I was surprised to find that Vinita, my mentee, was putting herself in a food prison because she couldn’t find another way to manage her weight other than eating the same bland food all the time. I was shocked to learn that this was an issue for many people, and I enjoyed the challenge to help her broaden her view on delicious, healthy food.
OA: What is it about Mexican Cuisine that made you want to pursue it as a specialty?
MSM: I fell in love with Mexican culture working in kitchens, as many of the cooks surrounding me would often cook the most amazing Mexican foods for family meals. The flavors and textures are so satisfying compared to the basic Midwestern foods I grew up eating.
OA: There tends to be some confusion between plant-based foods that are associated with Mexican cuisine, versus those that are actually native to Mexico. Can you clear that up?
MSM: During my first trip to Mexico City, I was astounded by the incredible variety of fruits and vegetables found in their enormous markets. I found mountains of watercress, many different types of corn and chilies, chick peas still in their pods, fava beans, verdolaga (purslane), and a wide selection of fruit. I was very surprised at how Mexican Cuisine used ingredients that were so heavily plant based, as the common Mexican American restaurants at the time didn’t serve much that wasn’t covered in cheese and cream.
OA: How does organic and local food play into your work as a chef and in the Border Grill restaurants?
MSM: I am always a fan of supporting local vendors. I try to support growers and farmers who I can have a conversation with, look in their eyes, and know that they are taking care of both the environment and their families. Many farmers, even if they aren’t certified organic, are putting the same kind of care into raising their plants and animals as we do it our kitchens at Border Grill. We are lucky to have restaurants in the Southwest part of the country, where so much fresh food is grown, giving us the opportunity to buy many local products.
OA: Have any best tips to live a healthier lifestyle?
MSM: Foods that are high in fiber are a dieter’s paradise because they satisfy without adding too many calories. I like to add chickpeas, white beans, roasted cauliflower or beets to a salad to increase fiber in my diet.
Your body doesn’t always know when it’s had enough food right away –it can take up to 20 minutes for a person to feel full after they’ve had enough food already, during which time you might keep eating. To cut back on this effect I quell my hunger throughout the day with small snacks of carrot and celery sticks or a couple of nuts, then sit down to meals with friends or family and eat slowly.
The habit that helps me the most is to have healthy snacks on hand, wherever I am at my desk, car, or the refrigerator at home. I don’t buy anything that isn’t healthy for me. I’m surrounded by food all the time, but once you have the awareness, you have an idea of what to grab and what to avoid.
OA: How can home cooks make healthier eating easier?
MSM: To make eating salads convenient, I buy lettuces on the weekend, wash them and store them in Ziplock bags with a damp paper towels which extend the life of the lettuce and makes tossing together a simple side salad a snap.
Make healthy snacks just as convenient as chips and you’ll be more apt to grab them when hunger strikes. I keep slice melon, apples, nectarines or whatever fruit is in season and keep them handy in the refrigerator.
I keep my diet at an 80/20 ratio of vegetables to protein. I like to consider proteins as in compliment to the main part of the meal, which I always plan around the vegetables.
Colorful Chile Relleno Recipe
Big on flavor and veggies, but low on calories and super satisfying.
5 Poblano chilies (choose uniformly shaped peppers for stuffing)
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1 cup green garbanzos (or substitute canned garbanzos)
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and diced ½” 1 onion, peeled and diced 1/4″
2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. grated Mexican Manchego or Monterey jack cheese (or any cheese that’s good for melting)
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. grated Cotija (or any salty, dry cheese like Romano, Parmesan, Pecorino)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Chipotle salsa (see recipe)
Crispy tortilla strips for garnish (see recipe)
Optional garnish (if calorie count is not too high), 2 Tbsp. plain yogurt (full fat) for drizzling over hot chile before the tortilla strips.
Roast peppers over an open flame or under the broiler until skin is charred black, but the flesh is not cooked soft. Place in a paper bag to cool. When cool enough to handle, rub the charred skin off the peppers and on 4 of the poblanos cut a slit and carefully remove the seeds, ribs and core – leaving the stem intact. Take the remaining poblano and the 2 bell peppers, remove the stems and seeds and cut into 1/2″ dice.
Bring a pot of well salted water to a boil and add the diced butternut squash, when just tender drain and place cooked squash in a single layer on a plate or cookie sheet to cool.
In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the diced onion with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook until slightly golden brown, about 10-12 minutes, then add the garbanzos, squash and diced poblano and bell peppers. Cook together 5 minutes over medium heat stirring and tossing to combine well. Remove from heat and place in a bowl, add 1/2 cup each of the grated cheeses and mix well to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place the 4 whole poblano chilies in a casserole and divide the stuffing between them. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 Tbsp. of each cheese over the filling in the pepper’s opening.
Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until the filling is piping hot and the cheeses on top are golden brown.
On each plate, place a 1/4 cup chipotle salsa to one side, then place hot poblano in the center of the salsa, drizzle with the yogurt and top with crispy baked tortilla strips. Serve immediately with watercress jicama salad alongside the relleno.
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