04/11/2011 09:09 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011

Meatless Monday: The Doctor is In

"Eating is complicated," says Dr. Annemarie Colbin. Or maybe it's just us. Colbin, CEO and founder of Natural Gourmet Institute understands that. "Human beings are complex creatures. We have many levels, many details, many of which are contradictory."

One diet doesn't work for everyone. Or even for one person during a whole lifetime. What we want and need to eat is constantly in flux. "It changes," says Colbin, author of the seminal book Food and Healing. "It depends on the time of your life, how your body's made up, how it changes, your emotional ups and downs."

Natural Gourmet Institute follows that kind of sanguine, sane approach. You can take classes relating to food and health, like the new Cooking for Kids (and Adults) With Allergies or go for the culinary gusto with a class on Indian cuisine or go pro. The school, the oldest of its kind, is the only natural foods cooking school to offer an accredited chef's training program. NGI grads include The Conscious Cook author Tal Ronnen, who cheffed Ellen and Portia's vegan wedding reception, Alex Jamieson, who detoxed her husband Morgan Spurlock after he made Supersize Me, and Amanda Cohen chef of New York's meatless mecca, Dirt Candy. They've taken plant-based cuisine far beyond the lackluster steamed vegetable plate -- about the only restaurant menu option available when Colbin opened NGI. They've made it delicious. NGI's stellar instructors include Peter Berley and vegan pastry queen Fran Costigan. With over 250 public classes, Colbin's school offers something (meatless) for everyone.

The health aspect comes first for Colbin. It always did. The full name of her Manhattan academy, launched in 1977, is Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts.

"I grew up with the understanding that food has something to do with your health," she says. "Even as a girl, I was interested in eating healthy." What especially interested her is how broadly that's defined.

Born in Holland, as a child Colbin understood healthy eating to be "garlic, parsley, yogurt, whole grain bread" -- the European model. When she married, she and her husband followed a macrobiotic diet, in which healthy means "brown rice, miso soup, azuki beans, seaweed" -- the Asian model.

So which is right? All of the above.

Colbin began the school in her own kitchen, teaching "how to make delicious, healthy and well-balanced vegetarian meals." She had no business plan, no money. Friends thought she was nuts. But her timing turned out to be good. After years of people on meat and processed foods, "everybody became more and more unhealthy and looking how to help themselves." They started turning to Colbin. Focusing on food for healing, she'd teach half a dozen students at a time and feed them lunch, too. "It was like I had a party every week."

NGI is still a party, but now with 200 students, it long ago outgrew Colbin's apartment and moved to its current location. At 70, she's still a vital part of the school she began in her kitchen, and is on campus several days a week. And still interested in how what we eat affects how we are.

"One of the things that interests me is the issue of balance. I did my whole doctorate on food and systems theory, rather than food as nutrients, which is chemistry. It's complicated," she says, but then again, so are we.

"Our worst problem is having to choose," she says. "The question isn't what do you eat but how do you live your life and is the machinery working so you can contribute properly."

Black Bean Soup

Colbin leaves it to talented NGI grads like Tal Ronnen to create dishes like artichoke and oyster mushroom rockefeller. Colbin is into basics. "It's the grains and beans I found interesting," she says. "If you eat grains and beans a basis for vegetarian eating, you don't go looking around trying to stuff yourself."

Here's a protein-rich black bean soup for you, Dr. Colbin. And for everyone else, too.

2 cups dried black beans
5 cups water or vegetable broth
6 cloves garlic, divided use
a few peppercorns
1 bay leaf
2 onions
6 carrots
4 stalks celery
2 peppers (I used 1 poblano and one red pepper)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
28 ounces tomato puree
2 tablespoons sherry
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
sea salt and pepper to taste
chopped cilantro for garnish

Presoak beans overnight -- pour them into a large pot and cover with water.

The next day, rinse and drain beans. Return to large pot along with water or broth, 2 garlic cloves, the peppercorns and bay leaf. Bring to a boil over high heat.

Then cover and reduce heat to low. Let black beans cook for about an hour, or until they become tender.

Using a food processor, briefly pulse remaining 4 cloves of garlic plus onions, so vegtables are finely chopped, but not mushy. Then in the same way, pulse carrots, celery and peppers, doing so in batches if necessary.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped vegetables. Cook for 5 minutes, or until vegetables start to soften. Add cumin, chili powder and smoked paprika. Stir in tomato puree. Reduce heat to low and continue cooking, covered for half hour.

Gently pour the tomato and vegetable mixture into the beans. Stir and cover, letting soup simmer for another half hour. At this point, everything should be nice and tender and the flavors starting to melt.

Splash in the sherry and vinegar, season with salt and pepper.
Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Serves 6 to 8.