Soul Food Junkie Cheo Smith gives dishes a healthy spin [RECIPES]

Cheo Smith at work in his kitchen
Cheo Smith at work in his kitchen

B FRESH Photography
A few weeks back, we reported on the release of a new film called Soul Food Junkies by director Byron Hurt about the unhealthy effects of the high-fat foods that are part of Southern cuisine, particularly on the African-American community. We had a connection to the movie already since local photographer/videographer Rebecca McDonald worked on the production team, but her partner, local caterer Cheo Smith, connected with Soul Food Junkies in a more directly food-focused way. The Hot Dish caught up with Smith to discuss his budding business, his relationship with soul food and how it inspires his cooking, and some tips on how to lighten up your plate.

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Hot Dish: Tell us a bit about your culinary background. What informed your food mission?

Cheo Smith: As CtheSmithEat, I am an aspiring chef starting up my own catering company. With Minneapolis-based food truck Café Racer, I spent the summer as menu advisor and Executive Chef, where I was able to add a level of polish and high-level execution to the owner's draft menu. As a first foray into the food industry, beyond studying for a culinary arts certificate at Art Institutes International MN, it was great to get some real world experience with the day-to-day operations of a small food business. Planning a menu and shopping for ingredients and equipment inspired me to look seriously at how I can feed people wholesome meals and teach them how to make solid food choices in the future.   

HD: And more specifically, what's your relationship with soul food? 

CS: For as long as I can remember, I would make an annual Thanksgiving trip with my family to visit my Uncle in a suburb just outside of Philadelphia. We would gather to celebrate the holiday and - most of all - to eat. Our table was always filled with traditional African-American soul food classics like candied yams, greens with ham hocks, mac and cheese, as well as regional New England style dishes like crab-stuffed salmon. While we are cooking, we rarely look for healthier alternatives to the ways we fix our dishes. We use a lot of bacon, salted pork products, and butter and there are a lot of hidden fats and salts in the dairy and packaged stock we use.

Black eyed peas recipe below
Black eyed peas recipe below

B FRESH Photography
HDHow did you first decide to start making over the recipes?

CS: When preparing dinner for the Soul Food Junkies viewing party I wanted to make a healthful soul food meal that followed the thinking that at least half of my plate should be vegetable and that meats and starches should make up no more than a quarter of my plate. I learned about this ratio of meat to veggies from Artistic Catalyst and chef Robert Karimi. Too often we look at meat as the star of our meals while relegating vegetables to a supporting role. A plate full of colorful veggies, beans and fruits lets us fill up on foods that provide vital nutrition and gives us that wiggle room to have a piece of fried chicken or steak.

HD: What are some easy ways to lighten up these dishes and other comfort food classics?

CS: After watching the film Soul Food Junkies, director Byron Hurt reminded me of all the ways I know to make dishes as healthy as possible. I start by looking over my original recipe and figuring out where lighter substitutions can be made. In most recipes, the amount of oil used can nearly be cut in half and techniques like steam sauteing can eliminate oil entirely. Slow cooking greens and other dark green veggies allows flavors to develop and concentrate into a rich broth that doesn't need the additional fats and salt of a smoked ham hock.  

Healthy Soul Food Recipes

Black Eyed Peas
1lb. dried black eyed peas, soaked in water overnight and drained
½ large red onion chopped into ¼ inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. olive oil
½ tbsp. spicy brown mustard
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 qt. low sodium chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
Water to cover

In a medium stock pot, bring the olive oil to medium low heat and add the onions and a pinch of salt for seasoning. Cook the onions until they begin to turn translucent and become fragrant which should take around 5-7 minutes. Add the minced garlic and stir before adding the beans.  Immediately add the chicken or vegetable stock, mustard and enough water to cover the beans by two to three inches. A wider, shallower pot will need more water to account for increased evaporation.  Increase heat, and bring the beans up to a boil.  When the beans have reached a rolling boil, reduce heat to medium low and let them gently simmer until they are tender, approx. 45 minutes.

Slow Cooked Greens
1 bunch each (approx. 2 lb. total weight) of mustard and collard greens
1 bunch kale
1 medium onion diced
2 cloves of garlic 
2 tbsp. spicy brown mustard
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 qt. low sodium chicken or vegetable broth
Salt and pepper
Red pepper flakes
Water to cover

Roughly chop the greens and kale into 1 ½ inch pieces. Fill a large stock pot with cold water and, working in batches, gently rinse the greens and kale in the stock pot and place them in a large bowl. You will see quite a bit of grit and sand at the bottom of your pot. Rinse and dry your pot and add the oil. Bring the oil to medium low heat and add the onions and cook until they turn translucent, roughly five minutes. Season the onions with a pinch of salt. When the onions are fragrant, add your garlic and begin adding the greens and kale. When all of the greens are in the pot, add the broth, mustard, soy sauce, and vinegar. Add water until it nearly reaches the top of the greens and bring them up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a medium simmer. I like to season at this point because I can taste how the greens are coming along and determine how much salt and pepper I should add. Start small, you can always add more, and be sure to taste the whole way through. The greens should cook for an hour, uncovered, at a medium simmer and then be turned to low until serving. Add red pepper flakes depending on how much spice you like.

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