Hold the bacon — Healthier Southern staples
A plate of Hoppin' John Salad at Wishbone restaurant. The salad features traditional Southern fare such as black-eyed peas.
Hoppin’ John Salad
(From Joel Nickson)
8 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 bunches scallions, chopped
2 carrots, chopped and boiled for five minutes
½ bunch parsley, chopped
5 cups brown rice, cooked
4 cups canned black-eyed peas, washed and drained (may also use dry peas, soaked and cooked)
1 cup peanuts, blanched
1 onion, cut in half and sliced thin
1 cup red wine vinegar
½ cup canola oil
Black pepper, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
Mix together salad ingredients and dressing ingredients, separately. Combine by tossing salad with dressing.
Updated: December 19, 2012 1:51PM
Matunda ya Kwanzaa. That means first fruits of the harvest in Swahili.
And during Kwanzaa, an homage to Africa’s ancient year-end harvest festivals, as well as all things African-American, food customs are a prevailing theme. The festival, which is observed during the last week of each year, originated in 1966. Since then, Kwanzaa has been a perennial chance to toast classic, comforting soul foods indicative of the American South. And recently chefs are giving some of those guilt-inducing classic recipes healthier makeovers.
At soul food eateries like Wishbone in Chicago, Kwanzaa party orders have been up in recent years. But there the standard Southern fare isn’t just a culpable indulgence anymore. Oak Park resident Joel Nickson and his brother Guy opened the first of two family-run eateries in 1990, because they wanted to show off soul food’s lighter side. “A lot of people think soul food is all hush puppies,” Nickson says. “We wanted to have soul food that wasn’t just fried.”
They’ve succeeded. At Wishbone, brown rice is as popular as white; polenta squares are frequently topped with medleys of grilled, roasted red pepper, zucchini and other vegetables.
Grits are everywhere lately, from greasy spoons to gourmet restaurants, and the trend is noticeable at Wishbone. “It’s 50-50 now between grits and home fries,” Nickson says. What’s more, he insists that grits can taste just as good without cheese. “Grits with a little bit of black pepper and a little bit of butter go great with eggs,” Nickson says.
And Nickson has a new recipe for a healthier Hoppin’ John Salad. The side dish has a history dating back to at least 1846, when it was included in Frederick Law Olmstead’s A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. Nickson’s recipe features the historic salad’s usual nutritious main ingredient, black-eyed peas. The legumes are, after all, a celebrated New Year’s Day staple in the South. The peas, which represent coins, symbols of prosperity, get plenty of plate time during Kwanzaa, too. But another traditional Hoppin’ John ingredient is missing from Nickson’s recipe: bacon. Instead, Nickson’s Hoppin’ John is rich in flavorful, nutritious ingredients, including tomatoes, scallions, carrots, parsley and peanuts. He mixes the ingredients together with cooked brown rice and tosses the mixture in a salad dressing made with red wine vinegar, canola oil, sliced onion, black pepper and kosher salt.
Nickson’s bacon-less Hoppin’ John is just one example of ways to make the Kwanzaa table healthier. The classic mix of beans and rice is a wholesome, complete meal. “Beans and rice are the perfect food,” Nickson says, “it’s the one combination you could totally live off of.”
Collard greens, which are traditionally enjoyed stir-fried, are showing up in new recipes that accentuate the strong, broad leaves of the time-honored vegetables. One recipe incorporates collard leaves into lasagna as a substitute for pasta layers. Another recipe wraps the hearty greens around rice, similar to how grape leaves are stuffed.
The classic, sweet Southern side known as ambrosia, a marshmallow-y fruit salad, can be made healthier, too, by substituting fresh fruit for canned and using lighter cream. Vanilla or Greek yogurt is even better, and can be just as flavorful.
Healthier bread pudding recipes offer lighter dessert options for Kwanzaa. More and more recipes are calling for less sugar, whole wheat bread and fresh fruit.
But for all the healthier soul food revamps, some restaurants stick strictly to the tried and true comfort food recipes. “Whether collard greens or jambalaya, we pride ourselves on making traditional soul food. It’s what people tell us they remember from when they were younger,” says Eric Mangriotis, general manager at Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop in Evanston.