My introduction to soul food came many years ago when someone took me to the restaurant Martha’s for the first time. It was on Elm Avenue, down close to Jasper’s Barbecue and across the street from Dorsey-Keatts Funeral Home.
If my memory serves me correctly, the front entrance to Martha’s was a screen door, the kind your parents would yell at you for letting slam shut every time you went outside as a kid. Tables and chairs were mismatched at Martha’s, and the servers weren’t the friendliest folks. If the restaurant’s phone would ring during the lunch rush, an employee would often just pick it up and leave it off the hook for a while.
But a couple of things made up for all that: the food and the jukebox. The jukebox was stocked with plenty of blues and soul and R&B, with singles from Ray Charles and Little Milton and John Lee Hooker. And then there was the food. The lunch plate consisted of a meat, two or three vegetables and fried cornbread. And while there were vegetables on the plate, they certainly weren’t the healthy variety. Sweet potatoes dripping in sugary syrup. Black-eyed peas with lots of bacon and salt. Things like that. And it was all good — really good.
During a recent visit to Waco, Beaumont chef Sean Perrodin made the argument that soul food can be both delicious and healthy.
Perrodin was the featured chef at the Healthy Soul Food Cooking Demonstration and Health Fair on April 8, held at the Waco Multipurpose Center on Elm Avenue, just down the street from where Martha’s previously stood. Perrodin said that high blood pressure and diabetes — two issues facing many African-Americans — are not hereditary.
“It’s a lifestyle choice. The African-American culture is the highest sugar consumer among any ethnic group,” he said.
Diabetes and high blood pressure, along with obesity, are among the most common factors that cause heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in America, and strokes. And African-Americans are at an even higher risk for both of those, according to the American Heart Association.
During his talk, Perrodin touted the benefits of drinking water instead of soda and coffee; said that salt is OK, as long as it’s the real Himalayan stuff, not any refined product; and talked about the healthy vitamins and minerals that are in dark green vegetables such as collard and mustard greens, spinach and kale.
“Every day you have a chance to do better,” he said. “Do your research, people.”
Perrodin said he made the choice to partake of a healthier diet when his weight reached 295 pounds.
“Everything I do is personal,” he said. “We don’t change our lives until something personally happens. I used to say round is a shape, but it’s out of shape. Once I invested in myself a little bit more and ate better, I went from 295 to 210 in less than eight months without exercising. I was amazed at the power of food, and the power of right foods can ultimately help you have a better life.”
Originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, Perrodin has been in the food business for 25 years, 17 of those in Houston.
“That’s where I learned a lot about the world of food. There are so many cultures there,” he said.
Perrodin, who is now the chef at iCreole Bistro at the Beaumont Club, also extolled the benefits of cayenne, saying, “It burns fat, it increases metabolism and has 14 benefits for theheart.”
He added, “It helps elevate your body temperature and increases your metabolism by burning fat. It also keeps the heart pumping.”
Perrodin’s endorsement of cayenne led us to search for at least a somewhat healthy version of hot chicken, a variety of fried chicken that is a specialty in Nashville. There, the chicken is fried, then topped with a sauce that is heavy on the cayenne. We wanted to try a roasted hot chicken, and it worked. Yes, it lacked the crunch of fried chicken, but it was still moist and plenty hot.
The original recipe called for 2 tablespoons of cayenne to be mixed with garlic and olive oil and then rubbed onto the chicken under the skin. However, Abby used just 1 tablespoon, and that was enough. If you like really spicy stuff, feel free to use the full 2 tablespoons.
We paired the chicken with Wild Rice Hoppin’ John, Skinny Cornbread — substituting unsweetened applesauce for butter — and an angel food cake.
- 1-2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
- 1⁄3 cup olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 chicken, 3-4 pounds, spatchcocked
Preheat the oven to 450 F. In a small bowl, mix the cayenne, olive oil, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Rinse the chicken well inside and out, and pat dry. To spatchcock the chicken, place the bird breast side down on a cutting board with the tail facing you. Hold the fleshy flap on the chicken’s tail — called a parson’s nose — with one hand and cut out the backbone, using sharp scissors or a boning knife. (Discard the backbone or save it for the next batch of chicken stock.)
Turn the chicken over so the breast side is facing up, and, using the palm of your hand, press down firmly on the chicken to flatten it. (Alternatively, you can simply roast the chicken using your favorite recipe. Spatchcocking it allows the chicken to cook more evenly and a little quicker.)
Put the chicken in a baking dish with low sides. Season both sides generously with salt and pepper. Starting at the neck of the chicken, and making sure to break no more of the skin than you have to, rub the cayenne mixture onto the chicken, under the skin, including the legs. The whole chicken should appear reddish.
Roast the chicken for about 1 hour until it reaches an internal temperature of 160 F. The juices should run clear and colorless when you pierce a thigh.
Remove the dish from the oven and let the chicken rest for 15 minutes before carving and serving. Makes 4-6 servings.
Wild Rice Coppin' John
- 1 pound fresh black-eyed peas
- 1 slice thick-cut bacon
- 1 yellow onion, halved
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 fresh bay leaves
For the rice:
- 2 slices thick-cut bacon, diced
- 1 white onion, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1 small jalapeño, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1 cup whole grain wild rice
- 2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 6 scallions, sliced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the black-eyed peas: In a large Dutch oven, combine the peas, bacon, onion, garlic and bay leaves with 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the peas are tender, for about 45 minutes. The peas should be al dente, not mushy.
Place a colander in a large bowl and drain the peas, reserving the cooking liquid. Discard the onion, bacon, garlic and bay leaves. Set the peas aside.
For the rice: To the same Dutch oven, over medium-high heat, add the diced bacon and cook until crispy, for about 5-7 minutes. Add the onion, bell pepper, jalapeño and garlic and sauté until the onions and peppers are soft, for about 8 minutes.
Add the thyme and wild rice and toast the rice for 2 minutes, stirring halfway through to evenly brown.
Add the chicken broth and raise the heat to high. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer until the rice is tender, for about 45-60 minutes.
Once the rice is cooked through, add the reserved black-eyed peas and scallions. Toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper and adjust to taste. If the Hoppin’ John is too dry, add the reserved pea liquid — 1/4 cup at a time — until the mixture is moist, but not soup-like. Serve immediately. Makes 4-6 servings
- 1 egg
- 1 egg white
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
- 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Heat oven to 375 F. Spray a 9-inch square baking dish or muffin tin with nonstick spray.
In a medium bowl, whisk together egg, egg white and brown sugar. Add honey, applesauce and milk. Mix well.
Stir in cornmeal, flour, baking powder and baking soda.
Pour into baking dish and bake for about 25 minutes or until golden brown. If using a muffin tin, bake for about 20 minutes or until golden.
Let cool 10 minutes, then cut into squares or remove from muffin tin. Makes about 8 servings.
Angel Food Cake
- 1 1/4 cups egg whites (from about 9 eggs)
- 1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
- 1 cup cake flour
- 1 1/4 teaspoons cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Place egg whites in a large bowl and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Sift 1/2 cup sugar and flour together twice; set aside.
Place oven rack in the lowest position. Heat oven to 350 F. Add cream of tartar, extracts and salt to egg whites. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining sugar, about 2 tablespoons at a time, beating on high until stiff peaks form. Gradually fold in flour mixture, about 1/2 cup at a time.
Gently spoon into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan. Cut through batter with a knife to remove any air pockets. Bake 35-40 minutes or until lightly browned and the entire top appears dry. Immediately invert pan. Cool the cake completely, for about 1 hour.
Run a knife around side and center tube of pan. Remove cake to a serving plate. Slice the cake and serve with whipped cream and fresh fruit, if desired. Makes 12-16 servings.
- 1/2 cup coconut sugar or honey
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 6 lemons)
- 4 cups cold water
In a small saucepan set over medium heat, place coconut sugar, or honey, and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Once it’s boiling, remove from heat and carefully pour into a glass pitcher.
Add lemon juice and remaining water, then refrigerate for 2-3 hours until it’s thoroughly chilled. Pour over ice cubes, add lemon slices to garnish, if desired, and serve. Makes about 6 servings.