I was born in Alabama and grew up on the Florida Panhandle, so when I think comfort food, I think Southern. But while I still appreciate a piece of crisp fried chicken, a spoonful of creamy mashed potatoes or a bowl of long-simmered salt pork-flavored turnip greens, I've developed a taste for lighter versions of these old classics. This week I'm sharing three of my favorite healthy Southern recipes.
In my lighter recipe for mashed potatoes — which can be so heart-cloggingly irresistible with butter and rich cream — I use extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter, and potato-cooking liquid replaces the cream. Then I heighten flavor with fresh garlic and basil.
I know that for many of us with small households (and small budgets) fresh herbs and garlic are not cost effective. By the time we get around to using them all, the fresh herbs have disintegrated and the garlic has wrinkled.
When I know I can make good use of them, I still buy fresh herbs, but I've recently discovered fresh herbs in a tube called Gourmet Garden that have all the flavor of fresh herbs but last for months. (The tubes I got in August have a sell-by date of December!) And instead of stemming and chopping fresh leaves or peeling and mincing garlic cloves you simply pull the tube from the fridge and squeeze.
For years I grew up eating winter greens — collards, mustards, turnips and kale — simmered for hours with a big ham hock or block of salt pork. There's a reason for this: They taste good, but after licking my greasy lips, I know they aren't so good for me. On the other hand, quickly blanched or sautéed versions of these greens may be nutritious, but aren't soulful and delicious.
I've found a happy medium — shallow blanching the greens until just tender, then quick braising them in a sautéed garlic, pepper flakes and just a touch of pork in the form of prosciutto. Instead of braising the greens in water, I use a little chicken broth for instant flavor. The result: high flavor; high nutrition.
I wasn't a big oven-fried chicken fan until I discovered melba toast as a coating. Crushed with a rolling pin (or ground in a food processor) the sand and pebble texture comes darn close to real fried chicken. A beaten egg helps the crumbs adhere, and a little Dijon and dried thyme leaves add flavor.
There's no doubt that the old-fashioned recipes for a plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and long-simmered greens offer a delicious taste of the South, but I'm guessing my Oven-Fried Chicken That Tastes as Good as Fried, Smashed Potatoes with Garlic and Basil, and Quick-Braised Mustard Greens with Prosciutto and Garlic will taste as much like comfort food as their heavier versions.
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