02/17 2010

Sweet Southern Sensations – Slimmed Down

I grew up in the South and – though my body is better off without it – I sometimes crave down home cooking. Many southern favorites are deep fried or heavy on fat and sugar, but I’ve come up with some healthier twists on the dishes I love, and would like to share my recipe makeovers with you.

Rob likes to remind me, “You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl.” I’m constantly reminded of my heritage, whether I’m out and about in my home town of Boise, or traveling for work in Washington or California. Whenever I open my mouth, I am immediately asked, “Where are you from?” (Almost everyone assumes I am from Texas, though I’m not quite sure why).

One of the things I miss most is Southern food — appetizers, veggies, main dishes and desserts which taste great, but are often not that great for you. I’ve discovered that you can doctor (some, at least) southern favorites to get flavor without the coronary. This is the first in a series of slimmed-down southern recipes that I’d like to share.

Fried Okra


I’ll start by sharing my love affair with okra, the only food I still really like to eat fried. If you are going to indulge in this not-so-healthy side dish, please do so in the South, a region of the country that knows the proper way to fry foods of any kind. On the rare occasions okra is for sale at the grocery store in Idaho (of course I buy the entire supply when they do), the checkout person always says, “What is that?” Little do they know they are missing out one of life’s special treasures. The good news is that I have figured out how to make a healthier version of fried okra that’s just as good as the fattening one. All you have to do is chop the okra, place it in a sauce pan, sprinkle corn meal or a corn meal/flour mixture on top, salt generously, and sauté e in olive oil. I’m telling you, almost-fried-okra rocks! I would have included a photo but they haven’t had okra at Albertson’s since last summer.

I’ve discovered even more ways to put fried okra on a diet. Here, Kasey writes about roasting okra. The Country Cook writes about spicing up okra. And lastly, Chef Barrae puts a new spin on an old favorite, with tasty looking Shrimp Creole soup. Bet you had no idea there were so many wonderful (and healthy) ways to cook okra. The next time someone suggests boiling this vegetable, don’t do flavor a disservice.

Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp and grits is probably #1 on my list in terms of favorite Southern dishes, and many of my friends and family still request I make it for them. I was first introduced to the dish in Chapel Hill at a wonderful restaurant called Crook’s Corner. Though the late Bill Neal is often credited with the recipe’s invention, many others have added their own touch to this Southern tradition. Here are a few lowcountry restaurants that serve this dishMy healthier version of this creamy and flavorful concoction is available on my site.

And speaking of the South, here are some other traditions I dearly miss.

1)      Warm Springs – I love to visit the South in March and April before it gets too hot and humid. The weather is absolutely splendid. In Idaho, we can have the heat on as late as May. I remember wearing wool sweaters in Boston in June. When it’s late Spring, I’m ready for shorts and tank tops. But Mother Nature simply isn’t ready to grant me my wish.

2)      Friendly faces – When I was in Chapel Hill last Fall and went back to visit one of my favorite establishments, the Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen,  the lady at the drive-through window handed me my breakfast and gave me a very sincere, “Hon, now you have yourself a nice day.” Immediately, my face wore a smile from ear to ear, and I was reminded of how much I miss those sorts of greetings. Even if you are checking out at the grocery store, a total stranger has a nice way of making your day.

3)      Hot pools – I’m not talking about the name Luke has labeled a Jacuzzi. Instead I am referring to the water temperature in swimming pools in the South. And while I’ll admit the ice water of the Northwest can be refreshing at times, I still prefer a pool I can get in and stay in for longer than 30 seconds. Call me a wimp if you will, but I still love hanging out in the water without freezing to death.

iced-tea4)      Sweet tea – After realizing how much sugar is added to Southern sweet tea, I do not partake as much as I used to. But I’ll also say that it tastes so darn good. And even the iced tea without sugar tastes better than elsewhere in the country. I’ll never forget when I first moved to Boston and ordered iced tea with my lunch. The server said, “I’m sorry, we don’t serve iced tea in the winter.” Did I hear her correctly? No wonder it’s better in the South.

5) Barbecue – I couldn’t stand barbecue when I lived in the South. I turned up my nose and said, “No thank you” whenever it was served. Of course, now that I live many miles of way from the barbecue capital of the world, I miss it dearly. I have ordered pulled pork barbecue in several places in the Northwest, including Seattle and Boise, and it doesn’t hold a candle to that which you can buy in Tennessee or North Carolina (we used to ship it in for the Seattle college alumni get-togethers). There’s a reason the Rendezvous is a famous landmark in Memphis. Since barbecue is such a passionate topic among Southerners, I might have to write about this another day (though you’re not likely going to see me preparing it myself, slimmed down or otherwise).

6)      Desserts – From key lime pie to pecan pie to bread pudding, three of my personal favorites, Southerners know how to make desserts. Maybe it’s an extra stick of butter or cup of sugar, but they simply taste better. Whether you are in Alabama, Florida,  North Carolina or Tennessee, cakes and pies seem to melt in your mouth. (Please send me any good key lime pie recipes, if you have one, because I still can’t make it as good as I can find it in Southern restaurants).

key lime pie

And on that sweet note, I’ll save another slimmed down sensation for next Wednesday. Send me a recipe (melinda@hinsonneely.com) if you have one you’d like me to makeover.

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