How a superstar vegan chef is making soul food healthy

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Soul food is notoriously heavy in saturated fat and refined carbs, delicious as it may be. Mac‘n cheese, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy; even the greens tend to come loaded with butter or boiled in oil. But Jenné Clairborne, AKA Sweet Potato Soul, is trying to change that, one vegan hush puppy at a time.

Her first cookbook, which shares the name of her popular blog and YouTube cooking series, is packed with vegan twists on the foods Jenné grew up eating in her grandmother’s Georgia kitchen.

“I wanted to highlight the most important vegetables in the South.”

Sweet Potato Soul cookbook
Photo: Harmony

“Southern food is super diverse,” says Claiborne, who incorporates dishes from the Carolinas to Louisiana in her cooking. “I wanted to highlight the most important vegetables in the South,” says Claiborne, whose recipes give black-eyed peas, collard greens, and corn (all staples in a Southern kitchen) a fresh, healthy update.

Claiborne uses, for example, cauliflower in her riff on fried chicken, hearts of palm in her crab cakes, oyster mushrooms in her etouffée and jackfruit in her barbecue sliders. “Instead of using a processed alternative, I like to use whole foods. From the nutrition standpoint, it adds so much more,” says Claiborne.

But of all the veggies, it’s pretty clear that sweet potatoes are Claiborne’s favorite. They show up in everything from hummus to bisque and make appearances in biscuits, pancakes, gingerbread, two kinds of cookies, and glazed donuts—yes, seriously. “You can eat foods that are familiar, but you can hack them so that they are better for you,” says Claiborne.

Want to try Claiborne’s vegan jalapeño hush puppies for yourself? Keep reading to get the recipe.

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Vegan Hush Puppies
Photo: Sidney Bensimon

Jalapeño hush puppies

The secret to this recipe, says Claiborne, is mixing white vinegar with the non-dairy milk to replicate buttermilk and make the hush puppy dough light and tender. Ground flax and water substitute for eggs and jalapeño adds a spicy kick.

Makes 4 to 6 servings


1 cup plain unsweetened soy milk or other nondairy milk, at room temperature
1 tsp white vinegar
2 Tbsp ground flaxseed meal
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp grapeseed, canola, or safflower oil, plus 1 quart for frying
4 green onions, minced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced

1. In a small bowl, stir together the soy milk and vinegar to make a vegan buttermilk. Set it aside to thicken and curdle for five minutes.

2. In another small bowl, stir together the flaxseed meal and one-fourth cup of water. Set it aside to thicken for at least three minutes.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, and salt.

4. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the flaxseed meal mixture. Add the two tablespoons oil and whisk to combine. Pour the wet mixture into the dry and stir well. Fold in the green onions and jalapeño.

5. In a large dutch oven, heat the quart of oil to 350°F. Double-line a large plate with paper towels and keep nearby.

6. Use a cookie scooper to scoop balls of batter—each one should be about two tablespoons’ worth—directly into the hot oil. Add as many scoops as you can fit in at a time without overcrowding. Gently stir them with a wooden spoon. Once they float to the surface and turn a golden color, they are done. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the prepared plate.

7. Repeat with the remaining batter and serve.

Adapted from Sweet Potato Soul. Copyright © 2018 by Jenné Claiborne. Photographs copyright © 2018 by Sidney Bensimon. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

If you want more ways to enjoy vitamin A and fiber-rich sweet potatoes, check out these three recipes or these five out-of-the-box ideas.

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