6 Iconic Southern Ingredients Lightened Up, Y'all

Yes, there is a lot of Southern food that is fried, but Southern food is about more than just fried chicken and fatback.
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Across the country in recent years there's been a renaissance of all things Southern, and chefs everywhere from New York City to Portland are offering Southern dishes in their restaurants, cafes and food trucks. Some are more successful than others. Topping grits with pimiento cheese or coating chicken in red velvet crumbs doesn't make something Southern. Yes, there is a lot of Southern food that is fried, but Southern food is about more than just fried chicken and fatback. Traditionally, Southern cooking was actually a vegetable-based cuisine. We have nearly a 12-month growing season in most of the South. This is the fertile land of peaches, green beans, tomatoes, okra and corn. My newest cookbook celebrates the healthy and wholesome side of Southern cooking. Here, I am sharing with you a handful of iconic Southern ingredients and delicious ways to use them, from my newest cookbook, Lighten Up, Y’all!

Collard Greens — Collards in Tomato-Onion Gravy

I’ve yet to meet a collard green I didn’t like. I’ve always loved collard greens, even as a child. My sneaky mama would try to sneak (healthy) spinach on our plates by telling my sister and me that they were collard greens. We were not fooled, and now we know there was no need. Collards, turnip greens and mustard greens are dark leafy winter greens that are, like the ever-popular kale, nutritional powerhouses. Look for brightly colored greens free of brown spots, yellowing edges or limp leaves. The best way to clean greens is to fill a clean sink with cold water, add the greens and swish them around. The dirt will fall to the bottom of the sink. Lift the greens out, drain the sink, and repeat until the water is clear and the greens are free of dirt and grit.

Rice and corn go hand-in-hand as the premier Southern grains. Rice was planted in South Carolina as early as 1680 and was a major export crop. The coastal sea islands of the Low Country on the Atlantic side and the swampy coastline of the Gulf of Mexico are very humid, with abundant rainfall, and have long, hot summers and mild winters. These areas are the perfect climate for growing rice. Southern foodways are rooted in a potent combination of agriculture and poverty. The South has a long growing season and large swaths of immensely fertile soil. Rice was often used to stretch meals out to feed large families, and became a major staple food. This old-school Louisiana rice dish is traditionally made with giblets, liver and ground pork. It’s simple country cooking, using up any spare bits and pieces of meat.

Sweet Potatoes — Sweet Potato Gratin

Sweet potatoes are as Southern as kudzu, that other Southern vine. They have long been a Southern staple. As a child, I used to think I didn’t like sweet potatoes. When I grew older, I actually realized it wasn’t that I didn’t like sweet potatoes; I didn’t like the candy-coated, marshmallow-topped “sweet potato souffles” that are often found on the Southern table. Sweet potatoes are inexpensive, easy to find, good, and good for you. They are packed with vitamins and fiber. There’s a bit of a mix-up of the terms "sweet potato" and "yam." Truth is, what are often labeled and sold as yams are actually sweet potatoes. Botanically speaking, yams are tubers and a member of the lily family; sweet potatoes are the root of a member of the morning glory family. Yams originated in Africa, whereas sweet potatoes are New World plants. There are many varieties of both that differ in size, taste, shape and color. This recipe for Sweet Potato Gratin with Herb Crumble highlights the savory aspect of the sweet potatoes. The first bite is quite the surprise, but I am certain you’re going to love every bite.

I grew up in the heart of pecan country in Georgia, where it’s one of the largest crops in the state. Pecans rival peanuts for the title of official Southern nut. The big argument is over the pronunciation. Is it “pee-can” or “puh-cawn”? I feel sorry for folks who have never had a perfectly ripe pecan. We see nuts in the grocery store all the time and never think about the fact that there they do indeed have a season. It is my mission in life to teach people that pecans need to be kept in the freezer or refrigerator. Pecans have a high fat content, which means they are prone to spoilage if not stored properly. If kept in a sealed, airtight container, they can last maybe 45 days. However, if kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator, pecans’ storage life increases dramatically, easily reaching nine to 10 months. The best way to extend their life is to store them in an airtight container in the freezer, where they will last 18 months to two years. My practice is to buy pecans in the fall, when they are harvested, and store them in the freezer. That way I have fresh pecans for the entire year. The only salad my grandmother put pecans in was her Jell-O fruit salad mold. This wilted salad recipe, on the other hand, marries winter greens, goat cheese and pecans for a decidedly new Southern taste.

Pimiento Cheese — Lightened-Up Pimiento Cheese

The “pate of the South,” pimiento cheese is the epitome of a summer picnic delight. Everyone has a slightly different recipe, but the primary ingredients remain the same. Pimiento cheese is a classic spread made from cheese, mayonnaise and pimiento peppers. Pimientos are a variety of mild chile pepper called “cherry peppers.” They are even sweeter than bell peppers and very mild, with the lowest Scoville scale rating of all the chiles. Some recipes also include onions, hot sauce and even cream cheese. One universal truth is that you should not be tempted to buy grated cheese, because the end result won’t be creamy enough. The traditional way of enjoying pimiento cheese, nicknamed “P-cheese,” is on a cracker, slathered between two slices of white bread or spread into the curl of a crispy, crunchy celery stick. But “P-cheese” is getting its groove on and breaking out of the box all across the South and indeed, the entire United States. There is a group of chefs and home cooks who are mixing it up and using it to top nachos, burgers and grits, and even making pimento cheese fondue. I’m going to tell you a secret: This recipe has nearly a third of the calories found in a popular store-bought brand, and I promise you, if you don’t tell, no one will ever know. Break out the celery and say yes to P-cheese!

Southerners love chicken. Fried chicken is so iconic that it has nearly become a stereotype. However, we also love chicken smothered and covered with gravy; sopped with pungent, spicy vinegar and grilled; slow-smoked over hardwood; barbecued with tangy sauce; and even humbly baked. It’s served for breakfast on a biscuit, seen on many a plate for dinner and supper, and generally eaten at all hours of the night and day. This recipe for Oven-Fried Chicken on a Stick was inspired by the offerings of a gas station in Oxford, Mississippi. Since Oxford is a Southern college town, there are robust opportunities for late-night carousing. Fried-chicken-on-a-stick is food consumed in attempts to mitigate fuzzy heads the next morning. My grandfather called fried chicken “Gospel Bird” because it was most often served on Sundays, once a week. I’m sure he wouldn't approve of the reason for the late-night chicken, but I’m sure he’d love this recipe for crispy, crunchy Oven-Fried Chicken on a Stick.

Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y'all , among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.

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