Question: "I am trying to take my grandmother’s Southern recipes and make them healthier. What are some ideas to make them meat-free and more suitable to my diet?"
Answer: There are many delicious ways to make Southern recipes healthier and meat-free. One qualm about Southern food is the amount of saturated and total fat that are present. Many Southern dishes are either pan-fried or deep-fried in a large amount of oil. Fatback, lard, and butter are also heavily used in Southern cooking, as a seasoning, in frying, or in baking. The issues with these fats are the amount used and their saturated fat content. The sodium content of many Southern dishes is also a concern. Greens and fried foods are often heavily salted.
Coming from a Southern background, in the past I have eaten my share of collards cooked with ham hocks. I actually prefer the healthier way to make collards which involves the monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil. Instead of simmering collards with chicken stock and a ham hock, sauté collards in olive oil with fresh garlic or garlic powder for a few minutes until the leaves become bright green. You can either serve the greens like this with a side of vinegar or, for more tender greens, add vegetable stock to cover and allow the greens to simmer until the desired texture is reached. If using the vegetable stock method you can either eat as is or place the mixture in a food processor and process, making a thick collard puree. This thick collard puree is perfect as an alternative to mashed potatoes; all you have to do is add a teaspoonful more of olive oil, salt to taste, and, if desired, nutritional yeast.
To make Southern greens with no cooking required, take 10 cups of fresh washed kale with the stems removed (which is about a large 27-ounce bag that could feed 4-6 depending on how much you and your family or guests like kale). For a more rustic dish, rip the kale leaves into small pieces, or for a more refined dish, cut the kale leaves into thin ribbons, the size of shredded cabbage for coleslaw. Place the prepared kale into a bowl. In a food processor, place a handful of raw sunflower seeds, a tablespoon of mustard, 2 teaspoons of nutritional yeast, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and 1-½ tablespoons of your favorite vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and add water to attain a consistency of thick salad dressing, like Caesar salad dressing. Once the desired consistency is attained pour this dressing over the kale leaves, toss, and eat immediately or cover and marinate in the refrigerator for up to one day. Have fun with this dressing recipe by adding other nuts or seeds such as cashews, or pepitas. The great thing about this dressing is that you can add your own flair by adding completely different ingredients like olives, shallots, pickled jalapeños or hot sauce. Whenever I make this kale salad at home it is always different, depending on the ingredients that I find in my pantry.
For me, a characteristic flavor profile of Southern food is smoke. The meat products used in many vegetable dishes tend to add a smoky flavor. One way to attain this smoky flavor without adding meat is grilling. Try taking whole romaine lettuce leaves, and tossing them with olive oil salt and pepper. Place lettuce onto a hot grill and cook until the leaves are wilted but still retaining their color; do not be afraid if you see grill marks on the lettuce because this is where the flavor is! Serve with the dressing for kale, which is described above, to emphasize the smoky flavor.
Another tasty Southern dish is black-eyed peas, which are sometimes made with fatback or lard. My favorite way to cook black-eyed peas involves a little Asian influence. I use a teaspoon of peanut oil and a ¼ cup of lite coconut milk per 2 cups of cooked black-eyed peas, or if you like things saucier, add more lite coconut milk and a splash of soy sauce for that fantastic umami flavor. Season with 2 teaspoons each of minced garlic and nutritional yeast; add salt to taste. To make this dish even more hearty serve the black-eyed peas over brown or wild rice.
Written by Amanda Gilley, a Culinary Nutrition student from Johnson & Wales who did an internship with the VRG.