Traditional southern cooking has been banished to the "unhealthy" side of the culinary ledger. We've come to think of the typical "down home" style of southern cooking as being filled with foods high in fat, sugar, and salt. I'm the first to admit that fried chicken, mac n cheese, and pecan pie are not exactly superfoods that are kind to either our waistlines or our arteries. But, tasty as that type of meal might occasionally be, it is the stereotype, not the epitome of southern cooking. Traditional southern cooking can be as healthy as it is delicious. In fact, many of the foods used to prepare those traditional southern meals don't just nourish the body - they feed the spirit by lifting our mood.
Unlike meals depicted in popular movies and even cooking shows, traditional southern cooking is not based around huge platters of fried meat, vegetables drowning in butter, and sugar-laden desserts as part of every, or even most, meals.
It's true that those dishes can be found, with their own distinctive southern style preparation, in every good southern cook's arsenal. In fact, one bite of my grandma's fried chicken and my mama's pecan pie will have you packing your bags and asking to be adopted into the family. But, those dishes are the exception, to be enjoyed occasionally and in moderation, not the basis of everyday meals.
But the real heart of traditional southern cooking lies in the use of fresh, nutrient-packed vegetables, liberally seasoned with health-boosting herbs and spices. Southern cooking is true "farm to table" meals - just without the trendy tag.
Traditional southern cooking is really all about the seasoning and fresh vegetables. I'm talking bay leaves, sage, paprika, oregano, peppers, garlic, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, coriander, allspice, and cumin. When the right spices are added to the vegetables that make up the backbone of southern cooking - it's a powerhouse of distinctive deliciousness.
Take a look at some of the main components of a traditional southern meal - you might be pleasantly surprised at how healthy, and calorie friendly, these foods really are.
Collard greens are front and center of any traditional southern meal.
Ask a dozen southern cooks the best way to prepare collards and I guarantee you'll get a dozen different answers. But one thing there's no debate about is that fresh is always best. There is simply no comparison between the texture and flavor of fresh vs. frozen collards. The time spent cleaning, de-stemming, and tearing the leaves into bite-size pieces is time well spent.
Our taste buds (when not confused by a steady diet of processed foods) naturally guide us to the nutrients we need, so it makes sense that collards, with their high content of fat-soluble vitamins, taste best when some form of fat is included in the cooking process. A small amount of fat goes a long way when used as a seasoning for greens- and the choice can range from olive oil to turkey.
Not only incredibly high in Vitamins A, C, and K, collards are also a rich source of folate, calcium, and potassium. At only 50 calories a serving, collards are good for your brain, eyes, skin, and bones.
Did I mention that they are also high in insoluble fiber and rich in antiviral and antibacterial properties?
Can you really call it a traditional southern meal if it doesn't include sweet potatoes?
Potatoes have a bad rap, but did you know 1 cup of cooked sweet potatoes only has 180 calories and delivers 214% of your daily vitamin A requirements? Nope, that's not a typo - one cup provides 214% of the daily requirement of Vitamin A and 52% of Vitamin C.
Sweet potatoes also contain powerful anti-inflammatory nutrients, are a good source of biotin and fiber, and are rich in minerals such as manganese and copper. Sweet potatoes are a great energy and mood-boosting food because they are incredibly rich in B vitamins, potassium, and one of the best sources of beta-carotene.
In addition to being delicious and nutritious, sweet potatoes are wonderfully versatile. They can stand alone as a side dish, blend well with other vegetables in stews, and shine as the primary ingredient in a dessert.
And, when it comes to sweet potato pie, it's probably one of the few times you can use the words "healthy" and "pie" in the same sentence. Okay, we'll say "healthy(ish)". A sweet potato pie not only contains less sugar and fat than most desserts, it contains cinnamon and nutmeg. With the blood sugar regulating properties of cinnamon and the digestive aid properties of nutmeg, it's a winning combination.
Heart-healthy beans are a staple of traditional southern cooking
Every single southern cook I know has a pot of black eye peas on the stove on New Year's Day. I've always heard it was to begin the year with "good luck", but since one cup of black eye peas provides 5o% of daily folate requirements, I believe it begins the year with good health as well.
A single 200 calorie cup of black eye peas contains 11 grams of fiber and 13 grams of protein, along with being a good source of both iron and zinc
And of course, there is no such thing as sitting down to a traditional southern cooked meal without sliced tomatoes and raw onions, sliced or chopped being on the table.
At only 6 calories per slice for onion, and 22 calories for a whole medium sized tomato, that's less than 30 calories combined for these antioxidant-rich, heart-healthy sides.
Are you following the calorie count with me?
A generously portioned, nutrient-packed plate containing black eye peas, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and sliced tomato is less than 500 calories.
That leaves plenty of room to add your choice of healthy fat and/or an additional protein source.
To the folks who dismiss southern cooking as unhealthy, I say - Y'all can turn up your noses all you want, meanwhile, I'll be over here eating my Omega-3 rich bowl of gumbo...now pass the hot sauce, please.