Can true Southern cuisine—think fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and fried okra—be transformed into healthier fare without losing the flavors and tastes that make this type of cookery so satisfying?
While most of us would say no way, Eric and Shanna Jones, authors of Healthier Southern Cooking: 60 Homestyle Recipes with Better Ingredients and All the Flavor, are out to show that healthy doesn’t mean boring. Their Southern credentials are impeccable. A husband and wife team, Eric is a native of Louisiana and Shanna hails from Houston, Texas, where she was born and raised. Together, they’re the founders of Dude That Cookz, a creative cooking blog with lots of great recipes and photos. Eric is the cook and Shanna a photographer who manages the brand, a role that also includes maintaining their blog and social media content and whatever else needs to be done so that Eric can focus on cooking. But Shanna also contributes to the kitchen as an avid baker. Married for more than a decade, the couple has two children.
And a love of cooking
Eric, who describes himself as a country boy and country cook, learned his way around a kitchen early on from his grandparents. His grandmother made—and he learned—the type of Louisiana Southern cuisine that tastes oh so good but definitely doesn’t meet the criteria for low in calories or heart healthy. But his own need for what he terms as “dietary adjustments” as well as his parents’ early demise from health issues made him rethink the food he loved to cook and eat. The conundrum was how to make rich and soul-satisfying Southern food that’s healthy without losing the flavor.
Well, it turns out that you can, often by substituting ingredients without losing the full mouth feel that fats provide. Cooking clean is the key. Clean is the term Eric and Shanna give to their recipes that have less salt, less fat, less sugar, and a lot fewer calories.
Creamed corn, a staple of the Jones’ kitchen, is reimagined by substituting evaporated milk for heavy cream and using coconut milk and Parmesan cheese. Peach cobbler, that classic Southern dessert, eschews the usual thick sugary syrup, reducing the amount of sugar and instead adding maple syrup as an ingredient.
Southern potato salad calls for lots of mayo and, of course, potatoes themselves are starches that convert to sugar in our system. The solution? Less mayonnaise, the use of red potatoes since they have less carbs and calories than russet potatoes, and adding hard boiled eggs—all of which, says Jones, make a dish that is full of flavor and texture.
But what about that Southern staple: fried chicken with gravy? The answer again is coconut milk, this time replacing buttermilk. Then instead of deep frying, it’s pan-fried in a minimum amount of sunflower oil. As for the gravy, 2% works just as well as cream or whole milk.
In the cookbook, the first by the couple but undoubtedly not the last, each recipe has a write-up by Jones as to how he’s reducing the caloric footprint of the dish as well as lowering the level of salt but maintaining the flavor profile with the addition of other herbs and spices.
Of course, Jones admits, sometimes you just need a double-stacked burger. But the beauty of all this, by eating clean, once in a while you can eat dirty without a lot of guilt.
Chicken Fried Chicken with Gravy
- 1 pound (454 g) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 2 teaspoons (4 g) smoked paprika
- 3 teaspoons (6 g) black pepper, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (5 g) garlic powder, divided
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 2 teaspoons (4 g) Himalayan pink salt, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons(510 ml) sunflower oil
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) canned light coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) Sriracha sauce
- 2 1/4 cups (281 g) all-purpose flour, divided
- 2 tablespoons (16 g) cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons (28 g) unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon (9 g) minced garlic
- 2 cups (480 ml) 2% milk
- 1 tablespoon (6 g) grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
Cut each of the chicken breasts in half. Cover the chicken with plastic wrap, and lightly pound it with a meat tenderizer until it is 1/2-inch thick.
Season the chicken evenly with the smoked paprika, 2 teaspoons of the black pepper, 1 teaspoon of the garlic powder, chili powder, 1 teaspoon of Himalayan pink salt, thyme and cayenne pepper.
In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, coconut milk and Sriracha sauce. Submerge the chicken into the egg mixture. Allow the chicken to marinate for 15 minutes in the refrigerator.
In a large ziplock bag, combine 2 cups of the flour, 1⁄2 teaspoon of the Himalayan pink salt, cornstarch and baking powder. Place the marinated chicken breasts in the flour mixture. Close the bag, shake it well to coat the chicken and then place it in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
Heat 2 cups of sunflower oil in a deep 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Preheat the oven to 175°F. Add the chicken to the skillet and pan-fry it for 4 minutes on each side, until it is golden brown and crispy and its internal temperature reaches 165°F.
Next, heat a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil and the butter. Once the butter has melted, add the minced garlic and cook it for 1 minute.
Stir in the remaining 1/4 cup flour to form a thick paste, then add the milk. Stirring the mixture constantly, add the Parmesan cheese, oregano, onion powder, remaining 1 teaspoon of black pepper, remaining 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of Himalayan pink salt. Reduce the temperature to low and cook the gravy for 8 to 10 minutes, until it is thick and silky.
To serve, pour the gravy over the chicken or serve the chicken with the gravy on the side.
For the crust
- 1 1⁄4 cups (156 g) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1⁄2 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
- 1⁄2 cup (114 g) cold unsalted butter
- 6 tablespoons (90 ml) cold water
- 1 large egg, beaten
- Pinch ground cinnamon
For the filling
- 5 cups (770 g) thickly sliced fresh or thawed frozen peaches
- 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) pure maple syrup
- 1⁄4 cup (55 g) light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1⁄2 teaspoon bottled lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1⁄4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon water
To make the crust:
Combine the flour, granulated sugar and Himalayan pink salt in a medium bowl. Cut the cold butter into small pieces. Add the butter to the flour mixture and, using a pastry cutter, incorporate the butter into the flour until crumbs appear. Slowly add the cold water to the flour and mix it into the flour using your hands or a spatula until the dough starts to form a ball. Dust a work surface with additional flour.
Transfer the dough ball to the prepared work surface and knead it 4 to 5 times, until it is smooth and elastic. Tightly cover the dough with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease 2 (6 1/2-inch) cast-iron skillets.
To make the filling:
Combine the peaches, maple syrup, brown sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice, vanilla and nutmeg in a large bowl. Stir the ingredients together well. In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and water to create a slurry. Add the slurry to the peaches. Mix everything together well and set the bowl of filling aside.
The above recipes are from Healthier Southern Cooking by Eric and Shanna Jones, Page Street Publishing,
This review originally appeared in The New York Journal of Books.