10 Relatively Healthier (Yet Still Tasty) Recipes for Southern Classics

A few days ago, I shared with you a list of ten decadent Southern classic recipes. The problem with so much Southern cuisine is that many dishes are so heavy and fattening. Sure, our ancestors ate such unhealthy meals and lived to pass them on, but our desk-job, technology-dependent lifestyles can’t offer us the same guarantees as did a lifetime of toiling on the farm or at the mill.

So this week, I’m sharing a list of lighter recipes for Southern classics. I’m following the same format as my earlier list, roughly mimicking the courses of a meal. Some of these recipes are healthier alternatives to the ones featured in the first list, while others are new ideas for good-for-you Southern fare. Enjoy!

10. Corn Maque Choux Chicken Pasta

A good cook can take classic delicacies and make them work, but a great cook can elevate them and create something new and special.

Elizabeth Cauvel, one of my favorite competitors on this season of MasterChef (and, like me, a University of Georgia alum), recently took the New Orleans classic Corn Maque Choux — a corn- and pepper-based dish — and added chicken and pasta to create a flavorful, yet still light (even with the heavy cream in the recipe, it’s lighter than just about anything deep fried), fusion of Cajun and Italian styles. This dish can be a substitute for a salad, or a great starter or side.

Ingredients for the poached chicken
3 cups water
1 lemon
2 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts

Ingredients for the pasta
3 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced small
1 and ½ red bell peppers, diced small
3 ears of fresh corn, boiled then kernels cut off
1 jalapeno, diced small, with or without seeds to your taste (seeds make it spicier)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. paprika
½ cup dry white wine
1/3 cup reserved chicken poaching liquid
leaves of fresh thyme picked from 10-12 sprigs
pinch dried oregano
½ pint of heavy cream
salt and pepper
½ bunch cilantro, chopped
¾ lb. rigatoni

Poach the chicken: bring water to a boil with a generous pinch of salt. Cut a lemon in half, squeeze the juice in the water then just drop the lemon halves in. Bring down to medium heat, add chicken, cover, and simmer until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from poaching liquid (reserving the liquid) and cool until you can touch it, then pull the meat from the bones. Set aside.

In a large pan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and red bell pepper. Season with salt and pepper and cook about 6-8 minutes, until getting soft.

Add the corn, garlic, jalapeno, cilantro, paprika, oregano, and thyme. Stir it around and cook it all together for 4-5 minutes. Add the white wine and reserved poaching liquid and turn the heat up to high. Cook until the liquid reduces by half and you can no longer taste raw wine (the alcohol taste must be gone).

Add the heavy cream to the corn mixture. It will be quite liquidy at this point but you just keep the heat on high and reduce it until it’s thickened. Taste it and adjust seasoning.

Boil the rigatoni in salted water. When they’re about 2 minutes shy of al dente, use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta directly into the sauce (it’s ok if the pasta is dripping; you want some cooking liquid). Stir the pasta into the sauce and add a ladleful of pasta cooking water. The sauce should still be on high. Stir the pasta around, letting it finish cooking in the sauce. The pasta water will cook out and you may need to add more until the pasta is perfectly al dente.

Stir in chicken. Serve in shallow bowls with fresh cilantro on top. Enjoy!

9. Lighter Fried Green Tomatoes

As delightful as fried green tomatoes are, a traditional recipe creates a tasty treat dripping in grease and loaded with fat and calories. Bobby Deen (that’s right, Paula’s son) offers a recipe that boasts 1059 fewer calories and 114 grams fewer carbs!

1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
1 egg white
10 drops hot sauce (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1 cup cornmeal
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon canola oil
3 large green tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (about 1 1/2 pounds)

Preheat oven to 450°F. Spray a large cookie sheet with nonstick spray.

Combine buttermilk, egg white, and hot sauce in a medium bowl. Mix cornmeal and salt in a pie dish. Dip the tomato slices into the buttermilk mixture, then into the cornmeal, gently turning to coat.

Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the tomato slices in a single layer and cook until browned on one side, 3 – 4 minutes.

Transfer the slices, browned-side up, to the cookie sheet. Lightly spray the tomatoes with nonstick spray. Bake until the tomatoes are golden brown on both sides, about 8 minutes. Wipe the skillet clean and repeat with the remaining oil, and tomato slices. Serve hot.

8. Oven-Fried Okra

We can make so many fried goodies better for us by preparing them in the oven rather than in the deep fryer. Case in point: fried okra. Oven-fried okra can crunch just as well in our mouths — and taste as good — as that greasy, deep fried stuff.

This recipe from Cooking Light yields golden brown breaded okra that offers all the enjoyment with much less of the guilt.

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Dash of ground red pepper
1/2 cup fat-free buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 pound fresh okra pods, trimmed and cut into 3/4-inch slices (about 3 cups)
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 450º.
Combine cornmeal, 1/2 teaspoon salt, black pepper, and red pepper in a shallow dish; set aside.
Combine buttermilk and egg in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add okra; toss to coat. Let stand 3 minutes.
Dredge okra in cornmeal mixture. Place okra on a jelly-roll pan coated with cooking spray. Lightly coat okra with cooking spray. Bake at 450º for 40 minutes, stirring once. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt.

7. Grits-Stuffed Greens

As a counter to the creamy collard greens in last week’s post, I wanted to show that Southern cooks can create some outside-the-box options for greens — because, let’s face it: cooking collards the traditional way is classic but can also be humdrum.

This recipe from the Southern Living cookbook 1,001 Ways To Cook Southern features a spin on a stuffed vegetable dish by throwing in — what else? — grits.

6 large fresh collard green leaves
1 cup 2% reduced-fat milk
1 cup low-sodium fat-free chicken broth
1/2 cup uncooked quick cooking grits
3/4 cup (3 oz.) shredded 2% sharp Cheddar cheese
1 Tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Pepper sauce

Rinse collard greens. Trim and discard thick stems from bottom of collard green leaves (about 2 inches); place greens in a steamer basket over boiling water. Cover and steam 10 to 12 minutes or until greens are tender. Cool completely.

Bring milk and broth to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Gradually stir in grits. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until grits are thickened. Remove from heat; stir in cheese and next three ingredients, stirring until cheese is melted. Let stand five minutes.

Place one collard leaf on a flat surface, and spread out sides. Spoon 1/2 cup of grits toward bottom center of leaf. Fold one side of leaf over filling. Fold opposite side of leaf over filling. Beginning at one short side, roll up leaf tightly, jelly-roll fashion. Repeat with remaining collard leaves and grits.

Place bundles in a single layer in a steamer basket; steam, covered, 10 to 15 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Serve with pepper sauce.

6. Red Potato Salad

Potato salad has found a home on Southern tables for generations. Though I’m not fond of it, I know plenty of people who swear by it. Paula Deen’s somewhat lighter take on potato salad includes red potatoes and makes for a quick, easy side dish. This one can be even lighter if you use light mayo.

12 cups cubed red potatoes
1 cup chopped green bell pepper (about 1 medium)
1/2 cup minced red onion
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Cook potatoes, covered in boiling water, 10 minutes, or until tender; drain well and cool.

In a large bowl, combine potatoes, bell pepper and onion.

In a small bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients. Pour over potato mixture, tossing gently to coat. Cover and refrigerate.

5. Oven-Fried Catfish With Fresh Dill Tartar Sauce

This recipe from MasterChef Season 1 winner Whitney Miller uses the old Southern standby — a cast iron skillet — in the oven to create a lighter take on fried catfish.

Ingredients for catfish
1 cup low-fat buttermilk
4 catfish fillets (about 1/2 pound each)
3/4 cup fine-grind cornmeal
3/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon lemon-pepper seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed freeze-dried chives
pinch of cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil

Ingredients for tartar sauce
1 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons stone-ground mustard
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon minced fresh dill
3/4 teaspoon minced fresh chives

To prepare the fish: pour the buttermilk into a shallow baking dish. Place the catfish fillets in the buttermilk and turn to coat. Refrigerate for 25 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine the cornmeal, onion powder, garlic powder, lemon-pepper seasoning, salt, chives, and cayenne in a shallow dish or pie plate.

Pour the oil into a large cast-iron skillet and turn to coat the bottom. Place in the oven to heat for 6 minutes.

Working with one fillet at a time, shake off the excess buttermilk and dredge in the cornmeal mixture to coat.

Place cornmeal-coated fillets in the preheated skillet. Bake for 10 minutes. Turn the fillets and bake until golden brown and crisp – 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the fillets.

Meanwhile, to make the tartar sauce: mix all of the ingredients together in a small bowl.

Serve the hot fish with the tartar sauce.

4. Crispy Oven-Fried Drumsticks

When you think Southern food, you almost automatically think fried chicken. Fried chicken is so prevalent throught the country that I didn’t include a recipe in last week’s post — I figure everybody has a fried chicken recipe they love.

Oven-frying the chicken presents an alternative to greasy fried chicken, and this recipe from 1,001 Ways to Cook Southern shows how:

3 cups cornflake cereal crushed
1/2 grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup fat-free buttermilk
8 chicken drumsticks (about 2 lb.) skinned
Vegetable cooking spray

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine first five ingredients in a large zip-top plastic freezer bag; seal and shake well to combine.

Pour buttermilk into a shallow bowl. Dip two drumsticks in buttermilk, and place in bag. Seal and shake well, coating drumsticks completely. Place drumsticks on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Repeat procedure with remaining drumsticks. Sprinkle remaining cornflake mixture evenly over drumsticks on baking sheet. Lightly coat with vegetable cooking spray.

Bake at 425 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until drumsticks are well browned and done. Serve immediately.

3. Turkey-Artichoke-Pecan Salad

Some lazy Southern evenings — especially in the summer — call for a nice salad. This Southern Living recipe features favorite Southern flavors blended together in a light salad that’s easy to prepare and perfect for sitting out on the porch, watching the summer sun fade away.

5 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
Chopped cooked turkey
Canned artichoke hearts, coarsely chopped
Green onions, thinly sliced
Chopped toasted pecans
Feta cheese

Whisk together vinegar, parsley, basil, salt, and pepper. Whisk in olive oil until blended. Toss with chopped turkey, chopped artichoke hearts, sliced green onions, chopped pecans, and feta cheese.

2. Strawberry Napoleons

Leave it to Southerners to take a delicate French dessert like the Napoleon and claim it as an elegant treat for any occasion. These delightful sweets are rich and flavorful, though they are also certainly lighter than countless other sugary desserts.

Southern Living‘s 1,001 Ways to Cook Southern features the perfect recipe for a strawberry Napoleon – cooked on the grill.

2 (5.3 ounce) containers plain fat free yogurt
3 Tablespoons honey
1 (16 ounce) container fresh strawberries, sliced
2 Tablespoons sugar
4 frozen phyllo sheets, thawed
Vegetable cooking spray
1 teaspoon sugar
Optional garnishes: mint sprigs, whole strawberries

Preheat grill to 300-350 degrees (medium heat). Stir together yogurt and honey; cover and chill yogurt sauce until ready to serve.

Combine strawberries and two Tablespoons of sugar; cover and chill until ready to serve.

Place one phyllo sheet on a flat work surface. Coat with cooking spray and sprinkle evenly with 1/4 teaspoon sugar. Cut phyllo stack into thirds lengthwise; cut each in half, creating six even rectangular stacks. Repeat procedure with remaining phyllo sheets, cooking spray, and sugar.

Grill phyllo stacks, without grill lid, one to two minutes on each side or until lightly browned.

Place one grilled phyllo stack on each of six serving plates; top evenly with half of strawberry slices. Drizzle evenly with half of yogurt sauce. Top each with one grilled phyllo stack. Top evenly with remaining strawberry slices and yogurt sauce. Garnish, if desired. Serve immediately.

1. Bobby’s Lighter Gooey Butter Cake

Paula Deen’s decadent Gooey Butter Cake is the perfect way to close out a Southern meal, but — dang it– it’s so fattening! This collaboration between Paula and Bobby Deen shaves a whopping 665 calories per serving off the original! That’s hard to beat.

For the cake:
1 (18 1/4-ounce) package yellow cake mix
1/2 cup reduced-fat buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon canola oil

For the filling:
1 (8-ounce) package reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel)
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup plain low-fat (2%) Greek-style yogurt
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon melted butter

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 9 x 9-inch baking dish with nonstick spray.
Place the cake mix in a large bowl. Whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and oil in a small bowl until blended. Add the buttermilk mixture to the cake mix, stirring just until blended. Pour the mixture into the baking dish.
Beat the cream cheese until smooth. Beat in the sugar, yogurt, egg, vanilla, and butter. Spread over the cake mixture. Bake 40 – 50 minutes. You want the center to be a little gooey, so do not over bake.

What do you think of these lighter recipes? What’s your favorite lighter Southern fare?

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