Southern cooking is notoriously unhealthy. Almost everything is deep fried, covered with gravy, or both. From a health perspective, this is a major issue. The meat-heavy, deep-fried diet of the south is suspected to be a major contributor to the disproportionately high rates of strokes in southern states (especially among African American communities). In fact, the area between Louisiana and Georgia is referred to as the “stroke belt” for this very reason.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I was never really exposed to southern cooking. The little taste I got was on an annual family spring break road trip down to Orange Beach, Alabama. As soon as we reached southern Illinois, restaurants like Church’s Chicken, Waffle House, and Cracker Barrels would start appearing by the dozen. And as a teenage boy, I ate it all—the all-star special at Waffle House, a two-piece at Church’s, and all sorts of fried goodness at the famous Lambert’s Café (home of the throwed rolls). Now, 15 years later, with a degree in nutrition and dietitian credentials, a lot has changed with my diet. Yet my fond memories of stuffing myself with southern food while having a great time with my family will remain. I still love southern food, but in a different way.
It turns out that southern cooking uses a lot of really healthy ingredients, such as sweet potatoes, corn, black-eyed peas, okra, watermelon, and my favorite, greens. When these foods aren’t deep fried, drowning in gravy, or cooked with pork, they are some of the healthiest foods out there. This recipe deconstructs the typical southern meal and puts it back together with an extra focus on health. It’s perfect for anyone who loves southern cooking, but still wants to maintain their well-being. Enjoy!
Shout out to Post Punk Kitchen for the awesome cornbread recipe. I’ve been using it for years!
- Orange sweet potatoes are rich in beta-carotene, a pigment whose consumption is associated with a lower breast cancer risk. It can also improve the complexion of our skin.
- In a study looking at diet and breast cancer risk in over 50,000 African American women, the one food that appeared most protective was collard greens. They are, after all, part of the cruciferous vegetable family—a group of veggies known to contain anti-cancer compounds. Collard greens are also one of the best sources of calcium. In fact, one cup of cooked collards contains more calcium than a cup of milk.
- Black-eyed peas were likely first cultivated in West Africa. They were brought to the southern United States by slaves in the 17th century and became a popular crop throughout the south. In later years, botanist George Washington Carver encouraged poor farmers to plant black-eyed peas because, like all legume plants, they take nitrogen from the air and deposit it back into the soil, improving overall soil quality. He also encouraged these farmers to grow healthy food crops, such as sweet potatoes and peanuts, so they could feed themselves and their communities.
- Corn is a great source of resistant starch. As its name implies, resistant starch resists digestion and absorption, making its way to our large intestine where our gut bacteria can feed on it. This promotes a healthy gut flora and may help lower colon cancer risk. Corn is also a good source of lutein, a yellow pigment that fights oxidative stress in our retina, which may help lower one’s risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.
- Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food made by fermenting soybeans. Unlike tofu, tempeh includes the whole soybean, which gives it a higher content of potassium, fiber, protein, magnesium, and omega-3 fat. It has a mild, nutty taste, but takes on the flavor of whatever you’re cooking it in. It can be found refrigerated near the tofu in most grocery stores.
- 2 cups of corn meal
- 1 cup of whole wheat flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 2 cups of unsweetened soy milk
- 3 tsp apple cider vinegar
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- ⅓ cup olive or canola oil
- 2 bunches of collard greens, de-stemmed and shredded or chopped into thin strips
- 2 - 15oz cans of black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
- 2-3 medium orange sweet potatoes
- 2 - 8oz packages of tempeh, chopped into dice-sized cubes
- BBQ sauce
- Hot sauce
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Add the soy milk and apple cider vinegar to a medium-sized mixing bowl and whisk until it starts to froth (about 1 minute). Set aside.
- Mix the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
- Add the maple syrup and oil to the soy milk mixture and stir well.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredient bowl and stir well.
- Grease a 9x13 baking pan and pour in the batter so that it is distributed evenly.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes.
- Place the chopped tempeh on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes (you can do this at the same time as the cornbread). Give them a shake about halfway through. Once cooked, toss them with a desired amount of BBQ sauce.
- In a medium pot, over low-medium heat, add enough water to cover the bottom. Then add the chopped greens and let steam for 15-20 minutes (stirring frequently), or until they are soft, but not too soggy.
- In a large microwave-safe bowl, add the black-eyed peas and cover with a paper towel. Microwave until hot (about 3-4 minutes), giving them a stir halfway through to make sure they are evenly heated.
- Wash the potatoes and poke holes in them on all sides with a fork or knife. Wrap each one in a paper towel so that they are entirely covered and saturate them with water. Microwave them until tender (2-3 minutes for smaller potatoes; 3-4 minutes for larger potatoes). Slice or dice the cooked potatoes however you like.
- Fill a bowl/plate with a desired amount of BBQ tempeh, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas.
- Drizzle with hot sauce or more BBQ sauce.
- Top with a piece of cornbread.