Southern Cooking: Lightened Up (Featuring Carolyn O’Neil!)

Southern Cooking: Lightened Up (Featuring Carolyn O’Neil!)

Slimsdown Mac and Cheese

By: Catherine Cioffi, RD, Contributing Blogger

As I lived most of my life in the Northeast, I’ve found my recent move to the South to be quite the learning experience. In particular, my favorite part has been getting to know the “local” cuisine of Southern comfort food – from crispy fried chicken, to creamy cheesy grits, to biscuits, fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese, and more!

All of these dishes and ingredients are full of flavor and love. And yet, they most certainly aren’t the healthiest. A research team at University of Alabama at Birmingham recently found that individuals who regularly eat a “Southern-style” dietary pattern may be at increased risk for heart attack compared to those who do not.

So what are we to do? Is it possible to have our Southern cake, and eat it too?

To help answer this question, I’ve enlisted Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD – a nutrition expert and cookbook author who’s putting a healthy “spin” on traditional Southern comfort.

CATHERINE: Tell us about your recent cookbook, “Slim Down South: Eating Well and Living Healthy in the Land of Biscuits and Bacon” and what inspired you to create it?

CAROLYN: When I first told friends I was working on a healthy Southern cookbook, they suggested we call it Kiss my Skinny Grits! or, as a nod to Scarlett’s tight corset, Gone with the Girdle. A Southern diet book may seem like a comical oxymoron, but as a registered dietitian who has lived most of her life in the South, I know it’s not.

I wanted to create this book with the editors of Southern Living to show that great-tasting Southern foods can and do fit in with modern health and nutrition advice. The stay-slim philosophy of The Slim Down South Cookbook starts with wholesome ingredients you should be eating more of, not avoiding. Fresh peaches, pecans, okra, greens, and sweet potatoes fill Southern pantries with good health and great taste. We gave traditional Southern dishes a healthy makeover, from casual lunches to candlelit affairs and from breakfast to dessert (yes, dessert!), to create recipes that are both fabulous and figure-friendly.

The cookbook also includes scores of secrets from slim Southerners about how to navigate temptation. I’ve learned that the best way to get folks to improve their eating habits is to allow them to embrace foods they love. If your life’s not complete without fried chicken, design an eating plan that includes it on occasion. Just remember: the key to indulging without bulging is portion control. (And when we need a little extra help looking slender, there’s Atlanta-based Spanx and its smoothing shapewear!)

CATHERINE: Do you have any quick tips or tricks that you would suggest for cooks trying to lighten up traditional Southern dishes?

CAROLYN: A couple of things here: I like to use reduced fat versions of dairy products when I can to cut the fat and calories in recipes. With desserts I like to use more fresh fruit than pastry in what I call a “pastry flip” so it’s not a cobbler with a tiny piece of peach and a whole bunch of pastry.

Other smart techniques include pan-frying instead of deep fat frying and using oil, such as peanut oil, that gets to a high temperature so that the food is crispy verses greasy and actually less oil is absorbed. My fried chicken recipe uses this technique. We also removed the skin from the chicken too to lower the saturated fat content.

CATHERINE: What is YOUR favorite southern food?

CAROLYN: For splurging: Macaroni and Cheese! For savory flavors: Shrimp Salad with Sweet Tea Vinaigrette. I’ve included my recipe for Baked Smokin’ Mac & Cheese below.

Baked Smokin’ Mac & Cheese
Recipe and photo from The Slim Down South Cookbook by Carolyn O’Neil, MS RDN

Creamy, cheesy, a crunchy topping, and plenty of carbs: No wonder mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. It’s even made appearances as a side on Southern meat-and-three plates. Not only is this version lighter, it’s got a little ham, too. Use elbow pasta if you can’t find cellentani.

Makes 8 servings
Hands-On 30 min.
Total 1 hour

1 lb. uncooked cellentani (corkscrew) pasta
2 Tbsp. butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
3 cups fat-free milk
1 (12-oz.) can fat-free evaporated milk
1 cup (4 oz.) shredded smoked Gouda cheese
½ cup (2 oz.) shredded 1.5% reduced-fat sharp Cheddar cheese
3 oz. fat-free cream cheese, softened
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground red pepper, divided
1 (8-oz.) package chopped smoked ham
Vegetable cooking spray
1¼ cups cornflakes cereal, crushed
1 Tbsp. butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Prepare cellentani pasta according to package directions.
2. Meanwhile, melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Gradually whisk in flour; cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk and evaporated milk until smooth; cook, whisking constantly, 8 to 10 minutes or until slightly thickened. Whisk in Gouda cheese, next 3 ingredients, and ⅛ tsp. ground red pepper until smooth. Remove from heat, and stir in ham and pasta.
3. Pour pasta mixture into a 13- x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Stir together crushed cereal, 1 Tbsp. melted butter, and remaining ⅛ tsp. ground red pepper; sprinkle over pasta mixture.
4. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes or until golden and bubbly. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

CALORIES 453; FAT 12.1g (sat 6.8g, mono 2.3g, poly 0.3g); PROTEIN 26.8g; CARB 59.9g; FIBER 2.1g; CHOL 48mg; IRON 3mg; SODIUM 846mg; CALC 398mg

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