When it comes to places leading the matcha-making, poké bowl-eating wellness way, the South isn’t often thought of as a trend-setter. (I’m allowed to say that—I lived in North Carolina.) But while East and West Coasters were busy brewing kombucha, the Southern food scene quietly underwent a health-conscious shift—and now, people across the country are starting to pay attention.
To start with, the region’s fare is way more wholesome than it’s been made out to be. “Southern food is traditionally vegetable-based because there is something in-season growing here 12 months out of the year, either off a tree or out of the ground,” says Lighten Up Y’all author Virginia Willis. Collard greens, black eyed peas, okra, mustard greens, sweet potatoes, and yes, kale, are all staples—and they’re no longer being loaded with salt or meat-based gravies.
“People always assume soul food has to be flavored with meat, particularly pork,” says Brenda Beener, who opened the vegan soul food restaurant Seasoned Vegan in New York City two years ago. Instead, her menu—which she specifies is not just inspired by Southern cuisine—features zucchini mac (made with zoodles and cashew nut cheese), “shrimp” and grits (which swaps seafood for burdock root), and collard greens (flavored with a medley of plant-based spices like pepper, onions, and garlic—AKA, not pork).
“Basically, I took the food my mama used to make and veganized it,” she says. “Instead of a lot of cooking oils and meat flavoring, I use fresh herbs and spices.”
Other innovative healthy dishes? The black-eyed pea hummus at Los Angeles soul food restaurant My Two Cents and veggie etouffee at vegan Southern food hot spot Love, Peace, and Sol in Denver. This is not your grandmother’s Southern food—but the roots are still there.
“Judging Southern food by just fried chicken would be like judging Italian food by just spaghetti and meatballs,” Willis says. “It’s a one-dimensional view of a very rich and full cuisine, including the health aspects of it,” she notes, adding that people have vegetable plates all the time in the summer because the produce is so good.
If you’re looking to get your Southern fix—minus the fat—at home, she suggests using vegetables almost as a substitution item, upping the nutrient density of whatever you’re making. In her mac and cheese recipe, for example, broccoli makes up almost half the dish.
And in an effort to show some of that famed Southern hospitality, Willis is sharing one of her most in-demand recipes here: (healthier) sweet potato gratin.
Sweet Potato Gratin
3 large sweet potatoes
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 Tbsp freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
3 Tbsp 2 percent milk
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp sage
1 tsp dark brown sugar
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. (This will help with cleanup.) Spray a 2-quart shallow baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Using a fork, pierce the sweet potatoes in several places and place on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until fork-tender, about 50 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.
3. When the potatoes are almost tender, prepare the topping: In a small bowl, combine the chopped pecans, flour, parmesan, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Add the milk, oil, and sage. Stir until well-combined. Set aside.
4. When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes, discarding the skin. Place the pulp in a large bowl. Add the brown sugar and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper. Smash the potatoes with a potato masher until chunky.
5. Transfer the sweet potatoes to the prepared baking dish. Lightly flour your hands and crumble the topping in small, cherry size pieces on top of the sweet potatoes. Transfer to the oven and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.
Want something faster? Here are 10 healthy—and delicious—meals that can be whipped up in 15 minutes or less. And if you’re looking to switch things up in the breakfast department, definitely check out these zoats recipes.
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