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.
Smashed Potatoes with Garlic and Basil
1 1/2 pounds small new red or fingerling potatoes, washed
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons very finely minced garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil
Salt and ground black pepper
Place potatoes in a large saucepan; cover with water. Bring to boil, cover, then simmer until a thin-bladed knife inserted into the potato can be removed with no resistance, 15 to 20 minutes.
Reserving 1/4 cup of the potato cooking liquid, drain potatoes and transfer them to a large shallow bowl. Slash potatoes several times with a paring knife; add oil, garlic, basil and reserved potato water, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Roughly crush potatoes with a fork. Adjust seasonings and serve immediately.
Quick-Braised Mustard Greens with Prosciutto and Garlic
2 quarts water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 pounds mustard greens (stemmed, washed and coarsely chopped)
2 tablespoons oil
2 large garlic cloves
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, minced
1/2 to 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
Bring 2 quarts of water to boil over high heat in a large Dutch oven or soup kettle. Add salt and the greens; stir until wilted. Cover and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until greens are just tender, about 7 minutes. Drain in a colander, rinse kettle with cold water to cool it down, and then fill it with cold water. Pour greens into the water to stop the cooking process. Gather a handful of greens and squeeze out the water until only steady droplets fall from them. Repeat with remaining wet greens. Cut each wad of greens into a medium dice.
In a large sauté pan, heat oil, garlic, pepper flakes and prosciutto over medium heat until garlic starts to sizzle. Add greens; sauté to coat with oil. Add stock; cover and cook over medium-high heat, adding more stock during the cooking process if necessary, until greens are tender and juicy, but most of the stock is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Serve.
Oven-Fried Chicken Tenders That Taste as Good as Fried
This same technique works for bone-in parts as well, just lower the oven temperature to 400 degrees and increase the cooking time by 10 to 15 minutes.
For a darker crust, broil the chicken for just a couple of minutes at the end.
1 large egg
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Salt and ground black pepper
1/2 of a 51/4-ounce box plain melba toast crushed with a rolling pin to sand and pebble texture
1 pound (2 large or 3 medium) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut crosswise into 12 "fingers"
11/2 tablespoon olive oil
Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Mix egg, mustard, thyme and a light sprinkling of salt and ground black pepper in a shallow dish. Put melba toast crumbs in another shallow dish. Set a greased wire rack over medium rimmed baking sheet lined with foil.
Using one hand for the dry ingredients and the other for wet, lay chicken pieces, 4 at a time, in egg mixture; roll to coat. Then, working one piece at a time, lay chicken in melba crumbs. Press a mix of sand and pebble crumbs onto top of chicken. Turn piece over; repeat pressing crumbs into chicken on remaining side. Gently shake off excess.
Set chicken on rack. Using a pastry brush, gently sling oil over chicken pieces. Bake until chicken is nutty brown, about 30 minutes.
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