5 Ways the South Turns Vegetables into Healthy Comfort Food

published Feb 25, 2017
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(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino)

What do you think of when you think of Southern food? Fried chicken? Red velvet cake? Sweet potato pie? If you don’t immediately say vegetables, you’ve got Southern cooking all wrong.

Vegetable cookery has a hallowed place in Southern cuisine, with a few of the most nutritious vegetables standing out: okra, cabbage, and dark leafy greens of all kinds. Southern cooking has the ability to take these nutritional powerhouses and turn them into comfort food of the finest caliber.

Here are five recipes that will teach you how to cook vegetables like a Southerner. These are weeknight-friendly, soulful, and delicious dishes that make vegetables the most exciting and beloved food on the plate.

(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino)

The Secret of Turning Vegetables into Comfort Food

What Southern vegetable cooking figured out long ago is that some vegetables like being cooked a bit longer than most recipes recommend. Snappiness, crisp-tender texture, and vibrant color gets so much of the attention when it comes to veggies, but if you want to really unleash the comforting nature of vegetables you’ve got to cook them down a bit.

The Lessons of Southern Greens

No Southern vegetable dish tells this tale better than collard greens. This meaty, slightly bitter green turns into a silken mess when it has times to mellow out in a broth laced with fatty, porky flavors. But don’t just stop at collards — they’re the gateway green to a whole world of dark leafy vegetables that deserve a place in your pot.

Food writer Chadwick Boyd likes to employ the rule of three when he makes a pot of greens, starting with collards, then adding in something more assertive in flavor like mustard greens, and finally something a bit more mellow and soft like chard to round out the pot. You can mix and match the greens you like to get to a combination that feels right for you.

(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino)

“To say that potlikker is broth isn’t wrong, but it’s not all right either, rather like referring to a wedding cake as dessert.” – Sheri Castle

(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino)

Just don’t forget the biscuits! As the greens cook, they form a delicious infused broth that’s just as much a part of the comfort food experience as the greens themselves, and you need biscuits to sop up that liquor that goes so far beyond simple “broth.” As cookbook author Sheri Castle writes, “To say that potlikker is broth isn’t wrong, but it’s not all right either, rather like referring to a wedding cake as a dessert.”

Cook greens, learn life lessons: 4 Cooking Lessons You Learn from a Pot of Greens

(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino )

The Lessons of Southern Green Beans

Green beans, so delicious when they’re cooked only a few minutes over blistering heat, have a different, almost sweet side to show when you cook them a long while. In fact, after collards, these are perhaps the best-known vegetable to benefit from this longer cooking method. And they have a way of making a believer out of the stragglers who are still dubious of the cook time.

In our recipe for one-pot Southern-style green beans and ham, the green beans steal some cues from a pot of greens and saddle up with salty, smoky ham steak during their longer cook time for a homey effect.

(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino)

The Lessons of Southern Cabbage

Cabbage is no different. Here’s a simple way to pull it off: Cook it with bit of broth in bacon fat until it grows translucent, and finish with a hearty splash of vinegar and the crispy bits of bacon to wake up any of the slumbering flavors.

Are you sensing a pattern here? There’s definitely something delightfully formulaic about the idea that you can take a veggie, add some broth and some smoked pork, and cook everything until it’s tender. If it feels simple, it’s because it’s meant to be simple. This is all about creating a satisfying, comfort-food dish that’s mostly about the vegetables.

(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino )

The Lessons of Southern Okra

But there are some trends in modern home cooking we can’t ignore since they lend themselves so well to our goal of Southern vegetable comfort. A sheet pan supper of roasted okra, black-eyed peas, and tomatoes has to be one of our favorite recipes thus far. It takes handfuls of distinct ingredients and marries them with a modern way to cook. Toss everything on a sheet pan and roast until it becomes a lush and juicy mess.

The dish gets seasoned with coriander and cumin for extra warmth. It’s best served straight from the pan over buttered rice. If you can track down the regional speciality of Carolina Gold rice, even better.

(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino)

A More Modern Lesson on Collard Greens

Speaking of modernity, let’s consider comfort sans the pork. Chadwick nails a modern interpretation of collard greens by giving them a personality all their own. In this recipe, they get dressed in a honey-sweetened pepper vinaigrette and finished with a handful of peanuts for a hearty crunch.

So the lesson in all these dishes? Vegetable comfort food is not only possible — no one does it like they do in the South. Slow-cooking, tender braises, porky flavor, and bits of modernity scattered in here and there make it easy to find a cozy moment in a pot of greens, in a pan of okra, and or in the priceless amber liquid these dishes often leave behind.

Be at the ready with your biscuits and cornbread in hand, and eat your vegetables.