Counter Action: Sweet potato–black bean enchilada casserole

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For a lot of people, winter’s not the best time of year. They’ll be rolling along just fine … and then BAM, winter hits them like a sledgehammer and it’s all they can do not to spend the next three months curled up in a lethargic ball in the corner.

Other people are more or less melancholy all year round, so winter isn’t so much a sledgehammer as an especially prolonged dip in the already hilly road.

Personally, I have the most success getting through winter when I view it as a military campaign. Not that I’ve ever been in the military, but I took a History of WWII class once and I’ve read The Things They Carried, so I have a sketchy idea of what it’s like. Work with me here. If you ask too many questions, the metaphor falls apart.

So here are my beating-winter priorities:

  • Have a mascot. It can be super relaxing to spend some time with something that’s always happy to see you. I’m lucky enough to live with three snuggle-happy cats, but if you’re in a pet-free zone, try visiting an animal shelter every few weeks. If you’re still in college, many student wellness centers will bring in therapy dogs or a clowder of shelter cats for students to pet.
  • Tune out the press. We all have those Facebook friends for whom absolutely everything appears to be going well. They’re forever posting about their killer workouts; their stellar grades; their fun, meaningful, high-paying job; their amazing significant other; the gourmet dinner they just hosted for 25 people; the coffee/quote/friend/salad that makes them #soblessed. If this makes you feel as inferior and frustrated as I do, consider unfollowing those people for a while. Better yet, take a break from the social media rat race altogether — it might help you regain perspective and re-realize that we all have our struggles and weaknesses.

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    “Never been sick a day in his life! Been sleeping through the night since he was 5 days old! Eats anything I give him! #soblessed #askingforfewerfollowers”

  • Don’t dismiss the band. Put together a playlist that helps you rise above the blues. Some of my favourites are Two Steps from Hell’s “Cassandra“, Ingrid Michaelson’s “One Night Town“, and — yes, I’ll admit it — Hank Green’s “Shake-a-Booty“.
  • Find a good drill sergeant. I’ve tried to follow Jillian Michaels’ 30-Day Shred several times now, and I’ve never been able to make it a permanent part of my life. Then I discovered Jessica Smith TV, and I realized what was missing: encouragement. Her workouts can be seriously tough (second-position demi-pointe plié squats, anyone?), but she always projects kindness and the understanding that not everyone will be 100% up to the task right away. If this is what you need in a workout leader, don’t give up until you find one who works for you. It can make a huge difference in your motivation to work out — which in turn means you’ll be more likely to get the myriad physical and chemical benefits that exercise brings.
  • Stay well-provisioned. Nothing brings me down faster than the realization that I have nothing in the cupboard except some stale bread and a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter. Cooking tasty, nutritious meals takes time and energy, I know — but it doesn’t have to take much.
  • Find some buddies. You’re not alone in feeling down. In fact, the longer I listen to my Pandora comedy station, the more I realize that a lot of my favourite comedians have dealt with depression on a regular basis. This was a helpful realization on two levels: First, that human beings can turn those kinds of harrowing experiences into such beautiful art; second, that I can trust them to offer helpful advice. Here’s something Patton Oswalt posted recently that I found especially helpful:

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  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re in over your head. Calling my school’s counseling center to ask for an appointment was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I’m so glad I did it. It was really helpful to talk through various issues, face questions I’d been avoiding, and get some tools for managing my mental health more efficiently. Plus, I knew that I was in the hands of professionals who were uniquely qualified to evaluate whether I needed medication or more in-depth therapy. It was wonderful to hand that responsibility over to them, instead of trying to sort through conflicting advice from friends, family, and the Internet.

On the topic of provisions, I just made this casserole yesterday, and I can already tell that it’s going to become a standard this winter. It’s pretty easy to throw together, it’s fairly cheap, it’s filling, it’s got fantastically vibrant flavours, and it packs a nutritious punch. Perhaps best of all, one batch will feed one person for a week, and it freezes beautifully for the days you don’t feel like cooking.

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Sweet potato–black bean enchilada casserole

(Inspired by these Sweet Potato, Corn, and Black Bean Enchiladas from Averie Cooks; seasonings adapted from The Creekside Cook’s Crash Hot Sweet Potatoes)

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium sweet potatoes, diced
  • 1 tsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. salt (divided)
  • 1 tsp. cumin (divided)
  • 1/2 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 c. corn
  • 1 c. dry black beans, cooked until tender (or 1 can, drained)
  • 6 large flour tortillas
  • 1 small can of your favourite enchilada sauce, divided (I used 8 oz. of Chi-Chi’s mild taco sauce)
  • 3/4 c. of your favourite salsa, divided (I used medium-hot Pace Picante salsa)
  • 3/4 c. grated cheese, divided (your choice — I used pepper jack)

Directions:

  1. Bring medium pot of water to a boil. Add sweet potatoes and cook until tender (~20 minutes).
  2. Drain sweet potatoes, reserving ~ 3 T. hot water. Add honey, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. cumin, and rest of spices. Mash until smooth.
  3. Add 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. cumin to black beans. Set aside.
  4. Spread half of the enchilada sauce evenly in large casserole dish. Add 2 tortillas to cover bottom of dish.
  5. Spoon half of the sweet potato mix, half of the corn, half of the beans, half of the salsa, and a third of the cheese over tortillas.
  6. Add 2 more tortillas and repeat step 5.
  7. Add last 2 tortillas and spread last half of the enchilada sauce and third of the cheese over the top.
  8. Cover in foil and bake at 375°F for 20 minutes. Remove foil and cook for 5 minutes longer, or until cheese is golden-brown and bubbling.
  9. Serve warm with green salad. Keep leftovers refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Possible variations:

  • Replace sweet potato with 1 medium butternut squash (cubed and roasted), or with 2 c. roasted or stewed pumpkin.
  • Chop 3 c. spinach and add half to each layer.
  • Garnish with sliced avocado, cilantro, and/or sour cream.
  • Replace Pace Picante salsa with any of these delicious homemade options: pico de gallo, green tomatillo salsachipotle salsa, or cilantro–lime salsa.

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Photo credits: Mother and baby from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

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Counter Action: White bean stew with Parmesan and greens

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I have an alarming amount of fun in my local grocery store.

It’s one of these food outlet deals, where they stock surplus goods from other grocery stores. You do have to be a little careful about expiration dates, and if you’re working from a strict list of needs … well, you probably shouldn’t. They’ll probably carry bread and milk every day, but don’t count on habañero–mango salsa or fresh ginger.

On the bright side, this now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t policy turns grocery shopping into a little adventure every week. They might have regular old chicken stock … or they might have a bunch of super-fancy organic free-range chicken stock for 50 cents a box. They might have your normal bagged spinach … or they might have a set of fancy bagged salads, croutons and dressing included, that will forever change the way you feel about kale.

A couple of weeks ago, I was prowling the aisles with my cart when I saw something new at the end of the bean/lentil/rice display: a whole carton of Great Northern beans.

I’ve been curating a slew of Great Northern bean recipes since forever, and now making some of them was actually within reach, thanks to some other store who ordered too many of them.

I tried to play it cool. I’m technically an adult, after all, even if I sometimes temporarily lose that card by, say, buying ridiculously cheap chocolate milk instead of regular, as I did today. But with those beans, I knew, my adult card would be sticking around a lot longer. They’ve got fiber, they’ve got protein, they’re low in cholesterol and calories and fat, and if you’ve been putzing around saying to yourself, “Boy, I’m feeling a little low in iron and potassium,” they’ve got you covered. To make them even more attractive, in this stew, they’re anything but bland. There’s red pepper flakes and paprika to give them a kick, Parmesan and the aid of a potato masher to make them creamy, and greens to boost their health quotient even further.

In short, if you’re looking for a way to keep your eating on the healthy side this holiday season, this stew is the perfect way to do that. And good news: If you start haunting your local outlet store today, you might be able to track down some Great Northerns by New Year’s.

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White bean stew with Parmesan and greens

(adapted, barely, from How Sweet Eats)

Ingredients:

  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 4 c. vegetable stock
  • 4 c. water
  • 2 c. dry white beans (I used Great Northern), soaked overnight
  • 1 Parmesan rind (+ more to grate on top)
  • 1 c. chopped kale
  • 4 c. chopped spinach

Directions:

  1. Heat olive oil in large stockpot over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook until soft. Add garlic, peppers, salt, and paprika, and cook until fragrant.
  2. Add stock and water. Raise heat to high until soup boils.
  3. Add beans and Parmesan rind. Reduce heat and simmer covered until beans are tender (between 30 minutes and 1 hour, depending on how long they soaked).
  4. Add greens and cover pot for a few minutes, or until greens are wilted. Stir to combine. Simmer uncovered until contents are thick enough to be called stew instead of soup.
  5. With potato masher, mash stew a few times. Serve with Parmesan grated on top and plenty of sourdough.