Black-eyed pea salad
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Black-eyed pea salad

Culinary heritage helps improve diets

By Jay Reeves

The Associated Press

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Rickey Dorsey knows he doesn’t have the best diet, and his plump belly proves it.

“I’m definitely used to a lot of fried food and sweets,” the Birmingham man said. “And sweet tea.”

Dorsey, 53, is trying to change that. He is among about 500 people across the United States who have participated in a program to learn about cooking fresh foods based on traditional African cuisine.

Aimed at blacks but open to anyone, the “A Taste of African Heritage” classes are sponsored by the Boston-based nonprofit group Oldways, which promotes healthier eating through traditional foods. Sessions encourage people to skip hamburger joints and processed meals and to get comfortable in the kitchen cooking fresh food.

In a world of cheeseburgers and fried chicken, participants learn to use ingredients such as beans, greens, rice, grains, vegetables and spices that are common in traditional African dishes.

Foods are seasoned with things such as ginger, allspice and curry rather than salt or lard. Meat servings are small and lean. Ingredients are sauteed, steamed or quickly boiled in pots with small amounts of oil; there is no breading or flour on chicken thighs or onions.

After only a few weeks attending a class at a church in downtown Birmingham, Dorsey said he’s already lost a few pounds and has more confidence about what and how to cook.

“It was so interesting learning about the African culture,” he said.

Classmate Sharon Reid, 54, said she’s heard of ingredients such as raw ginger for years but didn’t know what to do with them.

“This is fresh stuff,” she said with an assortment of peas and beans spread on a table nearby. “And they teach you how to eat and to cut back on all the salt and stuff.”

Formed in 1990, Oldways emphasizes traditional, plant-based diets such as those from the Mediterranean region, Asia and Latin America over the processed items common in many U.S. homes and restaurants. Following a pilot program in 2012 for the African classes, the organization last year began using a $250,000 grant from Walmart to offer six-session classes across the country.

African cooking classes have been held in large cities, including San Francisco, New York and Washington, as well as smaller ones, including Jasper, Ga., and Danville, Va. One N.C. city, Fayetteville, also has been the scene for a class.

The sessions primarily are targeted at blacks, who suffer disproportionate rates of obesity, strokes, diabetes, heart disease and other ailments often linked to diet. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 35 percent of Americans are obese, blacks have the highest rates at nearly 48 percent.

Fifty of 150 planned courses already have been completed, and many participants are seeing measurable results, said Oldways’ president, Sara Baer-Sinnott.

Linking healthy dietary practices with ethnic foods seems to be working, she said, and the classes will continue into 2015.

“We’re designing this so that one of the motivators is heritage,” she said. “We’re finding that it resonates with people.”

But anyone can benefit from eating the foods, said Mandy Willig, a dietitian and assistant professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

“(The course) is designed exactly to show us that the actual African heritage consisted of lots of fruits and vegetables, of grains,” she said. “It was a very low sodium diet that relied on a lot of herbs and spices to actually provide the extra flavor.”




Black-Eyed Pea Salad

1/2 medium-size red onion, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

2 15-ounce cans black-eyed peas, thoroughly rinsed (see cook’s note)

3 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Juice from 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup fresh dill or parsley, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook’s note: Rinsing canned beans reduces up to 41 percent of sodium.

Rinse the black-eyed peas, place in a bowl and set aside.

Dice the celery, onion and bell pepper into small cubes. Place them in the bowl with the black-eyed peas and mix to combine.

Dress the salad with the vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, fresh herbs, salt and pepper to taste.

Yields 6 servings.

Recipe courtesy Oldways.



Mafe (Sweet Potato Peanut Stew)

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium-size yellow onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 large sweet potato, chopped into medium-size cubes

2 large carrots, cut into thin rounds

2 green zucchini, cut into thin half-rounds

15-ounce can diced tomatoes, no salt added

2 cups water

1 small cube or 1 teaspoon of vegetable bullion powder

1 tablespoon Berbere spice

1/4 cup natural peanut butter

3 sprigs of fresh thyme, minced, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

Sea salt to taste

Heat the oil in a soup pots on medium heat, and saute the onion and garlic until translucent (3-4 minutes).

While the onions and garlic cook, chop up the sweet potato, carrots and zucchini. Add them to the pot; saute for 3-4 minutes.

Add the diced tomatoes, water, bullion and Berbere spice, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, add the peanut butter and the thyme to the stew. Cook, covered, for another 3-5 minutes.

Yields 4 servings.

Recipe courtesy Oldways, based on a recipe from Iba Thiam, chef and owner of Cazamance restaurant in Austin, Texas.



Blackened Okra

1 pound of fresh okra, uncut

Bowl of ice water

1/4 of a lemon

1/4 tea-spoon of olive oil for oiling pan

1 teaspoon sea salt

Boil the okra in a shallow pan of water until soft, about 3-4 minutes.

Submerge boiled okra in a bowl of ice water; let cool for 1 minute.

Rub a quarter teaspoon of olive oil onto flat skillet and heat on high until very hot.

Toss okra into skillet and let sizzle; spritz with lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt; check for blackening on the face-down side after about 2 minutes.

Once charred on one side, flip and blacken the other side. Spritz with lemon and salt again on the unseasoned side.

Yields 6 servings.

Recipe courtesy Oldways.



Millet With Cauliflower And Mushrooms

1 medium-size yellow onion or 1 leek, minced

1 half head of cauliflower, chopped into florets

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

8 to 10 button or crimini mushrooms, diced small

2 sprigs of fresh oregano, leaves minced (about 1 tablespoon)

Half of a Scotch bonnet pepper, minced (optional, if you like a little more spiciness.)

2 cups of millet

6 cups of water

Sea salt to taste

Dice the onion into medium-size pieces.

Chop the cauliflower into small florets.

Put 1 tablespoon of olive oil into pan; put on medium heat. Add the onions and Scotch bonnet pepper, and cook for 2 minutes.

Add mushrooms and oregano, cook for another 2 minutes. Once the onions begin to brown slightly, add the cauliflower, millet and water to the pot and bring to a boil.

Once boiling, cover the pot, turn the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, uncover, and fluff with your fork, then cover again. Let pot sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Salt to taste.



Yuca Fries

2 medium sized yuca roots, peeled

1 tablespoon olive oil

Dried or fresh thyme

Sea salt

Ground black pepper

Peel the waxy brown skin from the yuca roots and chop each one in half, widthwise at the middle, to make 4 pieces.

Place yuca in a medium sized pot or saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil with a pinch of sea salt. Cook the yuca until you can pierce it with a fork, about 20-25 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

When cooked, drain water and lay the yuca on a paper towel.

When cool enough, pat the yuca dry and chop the pieces into french fry-style sticks. Place the sticks on a baking sheet, and lightly drizzle with olive oil, and season with sea salt, pepper and thyme. Use as much thyme as needed to dust each fry.

Bake the fries for 20 minutes, until golden, turning once.

Yields 8 servings.

Recipe courtesy Oldways.