Southern cooking historically healthy

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” Email her at carolynoneil@aol.com.

Glazed pork belly is a starter plate at Empire State South. Farm Burger offers the option of adding pork belly as a topping. Miller Union features sorghum-glazed pork belly with sweet potato puree.

While Nathalie Dupree recognizes the appeal of pork, she can’t understand why dishes starring these slabs of mostly fat have become so popular. “Pork belly is a ridiculous thing to eat,” she says. “It’s a seasoning, and one slice is good for five people. I can’t imagine why a person would want to eat the whole thing.”

Dupree, who is the author of 12 cookbooks and host of more than 300 television cooking shows, is a leading expert on Southern foods. Her latest cookbook, co-authored with Cynthia Graubart, is “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” It is a comprehensive tome serving up more than 750 recipes and weighing in at over 6 pounds. Buy two copies and you can bench-press your way through their recipes for the lightest biscuits and flakiest pie crusts.

From Charleston Seafood Gumbo to Simple Sauteed Greens and six different recipes for okra, the cookbook is a delicious journey across the American South with snippets of food history sprinkled throughout. Did you know that gazpacho appears in the 1824 cookbook “The Virginia House-Wife”?

Southern sides

Dupree, who lives in Charleston, S.C., with husband Jack Bass, is pleased with the current countrywide craze for Southern foods but targets stereotypes to correct.

“When visitors come to Charleston, they want fried chicken,” she says. “They think that we eat fried chicken every day. It was never that way. Actually we have more seafood in Charleston.”

While all eyes are on pork, chicken, barbecue and other meaty entrees, Dupree points out that vegetable cookery has always been the South’s true strength: “We are essentially agrarian in the South. We had our own gardens and grew vegetables. Now we might have cooked them a long time, but we ate the liquid, too.” Her recipe for A Mess of Greens and “Pot Likker” suggests adding pieces of cornbread or potatoes to sop up the broth. Nutrition note: Potassium and iron, B vitamins as well as vitamin A and vitamin K leach out of the greens into the cooking liquid.

Dupree says many of today’s young chefs tell her they grew up watching her “New Southern Cooking” series on PBS. She applauds them for paying special attention to the vegetable plates and side dishes on their menus. Farm Burger sells kale chips. Miller Union presents parsnip puree. JCT Kitchen serves varieties of greens and peas that change with the season.

“People forget that meat is a condiment,” Dupree says. “Thomas Jefferson said meat is a condiment not an aliment — maybe that’s why he lived such a long time.”

“Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” devotes three pages to frying chicken, but Dupree admits she rarely fries foods. “I only fry about two to three times per year. I don’t want to wash my hair. And you need to cover the stove with aluminum foil. It’s messy.”

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