Whether you call it traditional southern cooking, soul food, or just plain down home cooking, it seems that southern cooking has been banished to the "unhealthy" side of the culinary ledger. 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. Real southern cooking, the kind I grew up on and cook for my own family, is as healthy as it is delicious - even though no oven baked kale chips are involved.
Traditional southern cooking is not centered around having meat, pasta or dairy based dishes at 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, my grandma's mac n cheese and my mama's pecan pie will have you packing your bags and asking to be adopted into the family. But the real heart of 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.
Collard greens are front and center of any southern meal. Ask a dozen southern cooks the best way to season 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 seasoning.
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? I say "no". 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 make 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.
I know beans don't make the list on the Whole 30, but heart healthy legumes remain at the top my list. 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.
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 tomato is less than 500 calories. That leaves plenty of room to add your choice of a healthy fat and/or an additional protein source. And, finally, good southern cooking is all about the seasoning. I'm talking bay leaves, sage, paprika, oregano, peppers, garlic, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, coriander, allspice, and cumin.
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.