Chefs lighten up Southern fare

Fans of Southern foods, take heart. A new study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham shows that the Southern region of the United States is not the fattest part of the country, as previously reported.

Research published in the journal Obesity reveals that the North Central states (North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri) have the highest rates of obesity. But, before you grab another piece of fried chicken, Dr. George Howard of UAB’s School of Public Health notes, “The South has very bad obesity problems, but not worse than some other regions.”

Slimmer Southern flavors

Southern chefs have some tasty suggestions for staying true to food traditions while battling the bulge.

Capi Peck, chef at Trio’s Restaurant in Little Rock, Ark., prefers fruit crumbles over cobblers for dessert because they’re made with less pastry, and Peck improves the nutritional profile of fried green tomatoes by frying in canola oil and serving them with a remoulade sauce made with light mayonnaise, fresh herbs and lemon.

Peck, who is an avid gardener and enjoys swimming, yoga and cycling, says, ”The secret is to lighten things up with bright flavors. Instead of butter, I’ll use a citrus sauce on fish. For shrimp, I make a vibrant cucumber salsa or use roasted red peppers to waken up the taste buds without all the calories.”

In South Florida, where contemporary cuisine collides with Southern recipes, chef Michelle Bernstein dredges chicken in quinoa (a whole grain) before frying and makes cabbage slaws with vinegar-based dressings instead of mayonnaise. “It’s about making smart choices. A pan-seared pompano with peanut sauce and braised greens is Southern, delicious and healthy.”

Bernstein, who owns Michy’s restaurant in Miami, cooks grits in vegetable stock and finishes the side dish with roasted vegetables. “The grits are creamy and so satisfying with no cream or butter at all.”

Cooking up solutions

Eating a new way to maintain a healthy weight doesn't have to mean giving up Southern food favorites. Revisiting traditional recipes can help improve food appreciation today, according to chef Hugh Acheson of Empire State South in Atlanta, and Five & Ten and the National in Athens (check out our visit to Acheson's Athens home).

“Cooking whole chickens instead of just boneless, skinless chicken breasts and slow-roasting pork shoulders instead of grilling a pork chop may take longer but gives you deeper flavors,” he said.

Acheson's cookbook, "A New Turn in the South," celebrates the healthy bounty of the region's farmland and coastal waters.

Weight-control research shows that satisfaction is the key to enjoying a meal without overeating; so it’s good to know Southern chefs are busy cooking up appetizing solutions for great dishes and good nutrition.