Southern food can be healthy and delicious in these recipes

Published Feb. 14, 2012

Southern comfort food queen Paula Deen took a beating last month when she revealed she has Type 2 diabetes, three years after her diagnosis, and an endorsement deal with diabetes drugmaker Novo Nordisk.

Listening to the fallout from the Food Network personality's announcement, a person might think all Southerners eat is fried chicken, Twinkie pie and bacon-and-fried-egg-topped burgers between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Not so, say Southern chefs and cookbook authors, who counter that the extremes make good television but don't reflect the cuisine or how Southerners eat today.

"Over the top sells. This is what the Food Network wants. This is what Paula is serving up. I don't think she's maligning Southern food. I think she is misrepresenting Southern food," said Chapel Hill, N.C., cookbook author Jean Anderson, who wrote the award-winning A Love Affair With Southern Cooking.

Many Southern classic and traditional recipes are nutritious and not overloaded with sugar, butter or eggs, Anderson said.

Some examples are fish muddles (stew), which is made with tomatoes and onions; ambrosia, a classic dessert made with fresh oranges and pineapple and freshly grated coconut; pickled anything; and vegetable dishes such as long-simmered greens, field peas over rice and juicy tomato sandwiches.

"Vegetables are so important in the South," Charleston author Matt Lee said. He co-wrote The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern with his brother, Ted.

"Edna Lewis was doing that back in the 1970s. You would think the more educated foodies would have absorbed that information. But the enduring image of fatty, lardy Southern down-home cooking has been the dominant image of the foods of the South."

Adds Ted: "It's so hard to sell a television show on delicious Southern vegetables. Lord, we have tried."

If all this attention to Southern food has any silver lining, Atlanta cookbook author Virginia Willis, author of Basic to Brilliant, Y'all, hopes it is this: "It's been exciting that all these people have been talking about Southern food. It's an opportunity to educate."

Their tips:

Blake Hartwick

Chef at Something Classic catering company in Charlotte, N.C.

Þ Replace the smoky flavor that bacon or ham offers by using roasted serrano chili peppers.

Virginia Willis

Author of Basic to Brilliant, Y'all

Þ If you must have meat as seasoning, use smoked turkey wings or necks. Or try a little bit of smoked salt.

Þ If a recipe calls for mayonnaise, replace half with low-fat sour cream or Greek yogurt.

Jean Anderson

Author of A Love Affair With Southern Cooking

Þ If you must have pork, use a country ham slice instead of a ham hock. It's leaner and smaller.

Þ Instead of a graham cracker crust for a pie, try spraying the pie plate with vegetable oil and then sprinkling graham cracker crumbs. It removes the fat from the crust and works just as well.

Þ Use angel food cake as shortcake. Bake in muffin tins, split apart and serve with fresh summer berries for a leaner dessert.

Þ Instead of a mayonnaise-based dressing for coleslaw, consider an oil and vinegar dressing or try a red slaw using barbecue sauce as a dressing ingredient.

Þ Instead of cheddar cheese in casseroles, use Parmesan. It has better flavor and less is required.

Þ Many vegetable dishes call for a white sauce, which can be made with 1 cup fat-free evaporated milk, 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon flour. It makes enough for 4 to 6 servings of vegetables.

Jay Pierce

Executive chef at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Cary and Greensboro, N.C.

Þ Try flavoring vegetables with sauteed shiitake mushrooms to create the rich flavor called umami.

Þ Instead of thickening a sauce with a roux of flour and oil or butter, try cornstarch dissolved in water. Or for creamed spinach, try cornstarch dissolved in Pernod, a licorice liqueur.

Þ Acid and salt work the same way by enhancing flavors. Use acid such as lemon juice or vinegar first, then taste. You will end up using less salt.

Matt & Ted Lee

Chefs and authors of The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern

Þ Another ingredient that can add a smoked flavor to dishes is smoked Spanish paprika.