Judy Donnelly, Food is Medicine

I got to attend another fun and informative cooking class at the Dempsey Center in South Portland the other night — Food is Medicine with registered dietitian Judy Donnelly. She cooked two delicious dishes and also dished up some important information. I’ll cut right to the chase and share the recipes and some of what I learned.

Sweet Potato & Black Bean Chili


  • 1 TBS plus 2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium-large sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 TBS chili powder
  • 4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp ground chipotle chili (see note)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed or 3 – 3 1/2 cups cooked beans
  • 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes (Judy used fire-roasted tomatoes)
  • 4 tsp lime juice
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Sweet potato chili, Food is Medicine


  1. Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add sweet potato and onion and cook, stirring often, until the onion is beginning to soften, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, chili powder, cumin, chipotle, and salt and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Add water and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the sweet potato is tender, 10 -12 minutes.
  2. Add beans, tomatoes and lime juice; increase heat to high and return to a simmer, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.

Make-ahead tip:

  • Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months.


  • Chipotle peppers are dried, smoked jalapeño peppers. Ground chipotle chili pepper can be found in the spice section of most supermarkets or online.
  • Leftover cilantro? Chop and store in a container in the freezer.
Serving sweet potato chili, Food is Medicine

Why is this recipe good for you?

Starting at the top of the ingredients list, olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, which are considered healthy fats. It also contains a lot of antioxidants, which act against inflammation and help lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL). Judy says whenever you can, you should use olive oil. If you MUST cook with butter, try half olive oil, half butter. It may not work so well if you’re baking, but see it as an opportunity to experiment.

Sweet potato is full of nutrients. Among other things, it’s rich in beta-carotene, which is an important antioxidant. It’s also low in sodium, fat-free, and high in fiber. Judy says it’s good to cook colorful foods.

Onions and garlic may not be colorful, but they pack a potent punch, especially garlic. Judy recommends chopping up any garlic as a first step and setting it aside for about 10 minutes. Chopping activates a healthy enzyme, but heat stops the process so you want to allow the time for the enzyme to be released before adding it to the pot. She added the garlic at the same time she added the spices. When she added water, she started with a small amount so she could deglaze the pot, i.e., scrape up anything that was stuck to the bottom. Then she added the rest.

The black beans add protein, fiber, and iron. Make sure to drain and rinse. Tomatoes are also packed with nutrients — they’re a good source of vitamin C and other antioxidants. The acid from the lime brightens up the flavors and cilantro adds a flavor all of its own. I think you either love it (I do) or think it tastes like soap.

The chili was very good. Maybe not what we’re used to — not thick, no meat, not wicked spicy — but still delicious, light, and healthy. The original recipe is from Eating Well Magazine.

Judy Donnelly serving Cashew Kale with Tofu

Cashew Kale with Tofu


  • 12-oz extra firm tofu, cut into 5 slabs
  • 3 TBS olive oil, divided
  • 1 large carrot, thinly sliced
  • 2 bunches of kale, thick stems removed, chopped into about 1-inch slices
  • 2 chopped garlic cloves
  • About 1 1/2 tsp ginger, grated
  • 3 TBS tamari (it’s gluten-free) or lite soy sauce, divided
  • 1/2 cup raw cashews
  • 1/4 cup raisins (or cranberries)


  1. Lightly marinate slabs of tofu in a little bit of the tamari or soy sauce. Heat 2 TBS oil in a pan over medium heat and sauté tofu until lightly browned (about 3-4 minutes). Flip and repeat on other side. Remove from pan.
  2. Add remaining oil to pan and sauté the carrots for 5 minutes. While carrots are cooking, cut tofu into small cubes. Grate the ginger.
  3. Add the kale, garlic, ginger, tamari or soy sauce, cashews, and raisins and sauté a few minutes until the cashews begin to soften. Add tofu back to pan, heat and serve.

Serves four. Recipe is adapted from Kicking Cancer in the Kitchen by Annette Ramke and Kendall Scott.

Flipping slices of tofu, Food is Medicine

Why is this recipe good for you?

Who loves tofu? Anybody? I turned my nose up the first time it was offered, but have eaten it many times since, prepared many different ways. Judy told us that tofu is to soy milk like cheese is to cow’s milk. Only it’s a healthier choice. It’s high in protein and contains a ton of essential amino acids. If you are concerned about GMO soybeans, opt for an organic, non-GMO brand of tofu. You can be overwhelmed by all the choices — silken, soft, firm, extra firm. Judy’s advice: Don’t fret. Get extra firm. They all contain water, which you can squeeze out with a towel.

Carrots, like sweet potatoes and other orange vegetables, are loaded with beta carotene. Kale is supposed to be one of the most nutrient-dense foods in the universe. Some people think it’s too bitter for their taste, but the bitterness comes from a phytochemical that’s really good for you. In this recipe, I tasted no bitterness at all.

You’ll be getting plenty of protein from the tofu kale, and cashews. Some of the benefits of eating plant-based proteins versus proteins from animal products are that they are low in saturated fat, high in fiber, and less expensive. Other good sources of plant-based proteins are edamame, tempeh, lentils, chickpeas, most varieties of beans, nutritional yeast, quinoa, almonds, peanuts, natural nut butters (oil on top), and seitan.

Ginger has lots of health benefits, including that it helps your body to fight off certain bacteria and viruses. The raisins are certainly not low in calories or sugar, but they’re a good source of iron and fiber and contain a lot of antioxidants. They also add a little bit of interest to the recipe, says Judy, and may also add a little sweetness to the kale.

Serving Cashew Kale and Tofu, Food is Medicine

The best part of the class was that we all got to sample the dishes. This one was just as tasty as the chili. I will definitely try making both recipes at home. Check out the Dempsey Center website to see the many different classes, programs, and support groups they offer in their Lewiston and South Portland locations.