Traditional southern cooking often produces dramatic flavors. Fried chicken, pinto beans seasoned with salt pork, collard greens and ham hocks, pork and sausage jambalaya, fried okra, creamed cabbage, pecan pie. All of these wonderful dishes from our southern heritage are literally bursting with flavor. And the ingredients used to produce them, salt, sugar, pork fat, butter, cream, shortening are literally hazardous to our health. While in the mouth, these flavors tantalize us, our arteries, hearts, pancreas and intestines are crying for mercy. The southern cooking tradition is rich and diverse but it relies too heavily on salt, sugar and food fats.
What if we could create flavorful sensations and promote our health? Do we have to kill ourselves to satisfy a palate? To retain flavor while cooking healthier meals, we need to replace flavorful yet harmful ingredients with less harmful ones; broaden the range of flavors we use and learn to balance different flavors.
For example, pork loin works very well in any recipe that calls for bacon or sausage such as gumbo, jambalaya or any soup or stew. This simple change replaces a high calorie, high fat, high cholesterol, high sodium cured meat with a fresh, lean meat that is very flavorful. While sugar is necessary in some dishes, it does not belong in vegetables or soups. Baked goods can be delicious with a third or half of the sugar called for in the traditional recipe. Salt is a tricky seasoning. A little salt brings out the flavors in a dish. Too much covers them up. Learn to use salt sparingly. Taste as you go. When you can identify different flavors in the dish, you have enough salt.
One basic rule when modifying a recipe is, “If we are removing or reducing a flavorful ingredient, we must replace that flavor with something to make the dish appealing.” For example, pinto beans are a bland food that need added flavor. Removing the pork fat and reducing the salt will dramatically improve the healthfulness of the dish but we must replace these flavorful ingredients with something. A combination of ingredients, garlic, onion, fresh or dried peppers, tomatoes, oregano, black pepper and a pinch of salt can create a multidimensional flavor that offsets the pork fat removed. Replacing the cooking water with low sodium vegetable broth adds other flavors.
Build on this start with other seasonings such as cayenne pepper. Start with very small amounts, one quarter teaspoon so that the spiciness doesn’t overwhelm you. Ingredients like ketchup, soy sauce or BBQ sauce are high in sodium. Use them sparingly and start with less salt. You can always add more later.
The goal is to be able to taste all of the flavors. Think of a symphony orchestra. The conductor keeps all of the instruments in balance. The melody balances within the chords. The horns, strings and woodwinds contribute but do not overpower. Together they form a full beautiful sound. As the conductor, you are creating a symphony of flavors.
Look for other flavors to add to your symphony. Start with spices and fresh herbs. The Ancho chili is a dried version of the fresh poblano pepper and is the most widely used chili in Mexico. The flavor that they bring to mole sauce can best be described as a warm glow. They are a rich background flavor to the symphony of the garlic, tomato, nuts and chocolate. I find that dried chili peppers – there are many different varieties – create that warm glow in my soups, beans and sauces. What other flavors can broaden the appeal of your symphony?
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.