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DECATUR -- Donita Sorensen had just finished her second cup of Crossing Healthcare dietetic intern Nikki Zintak’s vegetarian chili when Zintak announced what the next dish in her cooking demonstration would be.

“Here are the ingredients: Cocoa powder, dark chocolate chips, quick oats, honey, vanilla, vegetable oil and … black beans,” Zintak said, smiling. “That’s right, I said black beans. They’re black bean brownies.”

Sorensen, of Decatur, wrinkled her face, stood up and said, “Ooh, I’m leaving.”

Sorensen wasn’t joking. She literally got up and walked out.

“You’re going to miss out,” Zintak said. “These are going to be delicious brownies.”

While Sorensen left, Brenda Luter of Decatur stayed. And when the brownies were served, she was pleasantly surprised.

“I like them -- I can’t taste the beans,” Luter said. “All I could taste was the cocoa and the chocolate.”

The cooking demonstration was part of Crossing’s “Chocolate and your heart health” event on Feb. 16. While Crossing’s nutrition staff wasn’t recommending adding chocolate as a food group, it did say chocolate -- and dark chocolate in particular -- aids the cardiovascular system by improving blood flow, reducing blood pressure and prevent plaque buildup in arteries.

Chocolate also stimulates endorphin production, which gives a feeling of pleasure, and contains serotonin, which acts as an antidepressant.

And then there’s the obvious -- it tastes good.

The problem is, chocolate is usually prepared with lots of sugar and other high-calorie ingredients. Zintak’s black bean brownies were not only lower in calories and saturated fat than normal brownies, they were higher in fiber and protein.

“They may seem a little different than regular brownies because dark chocolate is a little more bitter than regular chocolate,” Zintak said. “But they’re pretty good.”

Luter asked Zintak if she could add pecans or black walnuts and Zintak highly recommended it. Luter said she was going to try them out on her great-grandchildren.

“I’m not going to tell them what they are and I’m going to see if they can tell the difference,” Luter said, smiling.

In addition to the brownies, Zintak made a vegetarian chili -- sans chocolate. Zintak, a Willow Springs native, got her undergraduate degree in culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University and is currently finishing her master’s degree in culinary nutrition at Illinois State University.

“I loved cooking and being in the kitchen, but I wanted to help the community and help educate people on how to cook healthy,” Zintak said.

Zintak showed off her culinary skills, teaching the proper way to cut an onion and how to tell if oil is hot (sprinkle some water on it, and if it sizzles, it’s ready).

Zintak’s chili had just six ingredients and contained no fat. It was high in fiber and low in sodium. Zintak used Mrs. Dash chili seasoning as a low-sodium option, though Luter said she thought it could have used more of it.

“That’s definitely an option if you like your chili spicier, as long as you’re not adding extra salt,” Zintak said.

Zintak said she loves sour cream in chili, but suggested a healthy option to sour cream -- plain Greek yogurt.

“Sour cream is wonderful, but plain Greek yogurt has a similar tanginess and consistency, and you’re getting more protein and less fat,” Zintak said. “It may taste different initially, but I’ve grown used to it and actually like it better than sour cream.”

Vegetarian chili

  • 2 cans black beans
  • 1 can kidney beans
  • 2 cans reduced sodium diced tomatores
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 diced onion
  • 1 packet Mrs. Dash chili seasoning
  • Toppings: oyster crackers, green onions, cheese

Directions: Cook onions until soft and translucent. Combine all other ingredients in crockpot. Add onions and stir together. Set crock pot on low. Let sit for 6 to 8 hours or until ready to eat.

Black bean brownies

  • 1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • ½ cup quick oats
  • ⅓ cup honey
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla
  • ½ cup dark chocolate chips
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients except chocolate chips in food processor or blender. Blend together until smooth. Stir in chocolate chips and, optionally, sprinkle extra chocolate chips on top. Pour into 8x8 pan greased only on the bottom (not the sides). Bake for 15 to 18 minutes. Take out of oven and let cool for 10 minutes before cutting.

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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