Southern Lights: Easier, Lighter, and Better-for-You Recipes from the South

Image of Southern Lights: Easier, Lighter, and Better-for-You Recipes from the South
Release Date: 
June 6, 2023
Gibbs Smith
Reviewed by: 

“Throughout these pages, I’m going to (politely) refute the claim that Southern food is all bad for you and hopefully breathe new life into some tired, worn-out notions,” writes Lauren McDuffie in the first pages of her latest cookbook, Southern Lights: Easier, Lighter, and Better-for-You Recipes from the South. McDuffie is an advocate of Southern cuisine, but she wants us all to know the entire truth of this regional way of cookery that many of us dismissively think of as fried and fat.

Once you make your way through the stereotypes, past the overwrought, done-to-death, attention-seeking heavy hitters, the archives of Southern cookery shine with a special sort of brilliance,” continues McDuffie, noting that she is a home cook who has done the majority of her culinary learning in the South ranging from the foothills of central Appalachia to the sandy, abundant low country coastline.

McDuffie’s love of Southern cuisine and her ability to bring it to the fore was also apparent in her first cookbook, Smoke, Roots, Mountain, Harvest: Recipes and Stories Inspired by my Appalachian Home. The same passion is conveyed in this magnificent cookbook with its luscious photos—McDuffie is also a photographer and takes photos for “Harvest and Honey,” her award-winning food blog and “My Little Kitchen,” her cooking blog. The photos are a perfect accompaniment to the recipes which show us how to enjoy the rich heritage of Southern cuisine but without the guilt and calories.

Southern Lights takes us into the world that McDuffie says she loves most: the people, places, things, and flavors that evoke feelings of home.

To accomplish this, McDuffie, an advocate for fresh and healthful, took a hard look at her kitchen pantry and asked herself a series of questions such as why she was using a particular oil or cut of meat in her cooking and what substitutions would work just as well when using her favorite recipes. From there she re-created favorite dishes incorporating different ingredients but yielding the same delicious results.

Her recipe for Frico Chicken in a Buttermilk Bath is a great example. Its origins are that perennial Southern classic—fried chicken brined in buttermilk and then deep fried in lard. A definite winner when it comes to taste. Not so in other respects. So what does McDuffie? She produces a more healthful and low caloric alternative that really works.

Calling it a remix and noting that frico translates to fried in Italian, she describes this dish as similar to a simple baked cheese crisp that tops a boneless, skinless, and flattened chicken thighs browned in a minimum of oil. A surprising easy to make but sophisticated dish, it offers the crunch and flavor of buttermilk heavily battered chicken with no grease or guilt.

Like pulled pork sandwiches. McDuffie gives us a very creative take by substituting spaghetti squash (yes, you read that correctly) for the pork in her recipe for “Pulled” BBQ Spaghetti Squash Sandwiches.

“This has got to be one of the most unusual sandwiches I’ve ever made, but man is it a hit in my house,” writes McDuffie in the introduction to this dish. “Tangled strands of roasted spaghetti squash mimic the fatty pork in a classic meaty version, making for a lighter, more nutritious way to get your fix.”

The squash mixture is then topped with Halloumi cheese (smoked Gouda or cheddar can be used instead) along with coleslaw and barbecue sauce.

Voilà! A low-cal, high-flavor profile meal and just one of many in McDuffie’s latest cookbook.