Cheesy grits, crunchy fried chicken, and creamy pimento cheese: the hallmark dishes of the South, at least in my New York state of mind. Not only are these classic staples from the South, but they’re also high in calories and fat, and upon telling chef Art Smith that they made me think of Southern cooking, he was determined to set the record straight. Southern food, explained chef Smith, doesn't have to mean high-caloric dishes that have been soaked in butter or fried, but instead can be flavorful dishes that are good for you, too.
Nothing better demonstrates healthy Southern food than the cassoulet recipe we developed for the InterContinental Kitchen Passport Cookbook app. Vegan and rich in high-protein foods, it is incredibly delicious and not an offense to your waistline. It also serves another purpose in representing the South: it’s a one-pot wonder. Chef Smith explained that people in the South are not only looking for comforting foods that soothe the soul, but also ones that will feed a crowd and can be done in a snap. Having grown up in the South, chef Smith had a traditional cassoulet recipe in mind. When discussing ingredients, we debated about whether to go with hominy, black-eyed peas, or sweet baby peas, and I said, why not all three? A quick brainstorming session quickly led us to our recipe and before long we were cooking up another delicious dish for the InterContinental program.
The "holy trinity," chef Smith explained, is a combination of carrots, celery, and onion (others may know it as mirepoix), and is simmered with the sweet baby peas in this recipe to create a pea dish that is good enough to eat on its own. Added to the pot with tomatoes, white wine, and firm bites of hominy and black-eyed peas, the peas become just one flavorful piece of the dish. Topping the savory stew is the cornbread crust, which is crisped at high heat in the beginning of its baking and then is left to do its job as a hood to the cassoulet at a lower temperature. It retains its crunchy texture on top, while the underbelly is perfectly moist and soaks in the flavors of the stew. As a ravenous meat eater, I was disappointed when chef Smith wanted to use vegetable protein, but I quickly learned that it’s just as good as the real thing. Chef Smith suggested adding chunks of ham or ground turkey sausage to make it a meal fit for a carnivore, and reassured me that it would still be delicious and healthy.
With chef Smith leading the charge, the recipe was easy to make and fulfilled its duties as a one-pot meal. Overall, it was a hit, in our opinion and in the opinion of our friends at the tastings, and we’re confident that we’ve succeeded in reinventing the South.
Anne Dolce is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @anniecdolce