Orchids + Sweet Tea: Shanika Graham-White has a new, healthier way to cook Southern food

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
In Orchids + Sweet Tea, recipe developer and food stylist Shanika Graham-White shows you that plant-forward meals can be delicious, bold, and flavorful.

Shanika Graham-White, the author behind the popular Orchids + Sweet Tea blog, always turned to comfort food as a self-described picky eater.

But after giving birth to her now 6-year-old son Kameron, she realized her rich diet of dairy- and meat-heavy food wasn't doing her any favors. 

Like many women, the self-taught chef and cookbook author's postpartum hormonal crash led to a plethora of side effects, including depression and fluctuating weight.

But after consulting with her doctors, she tweaked her diet to healthier food and began incorporating more exercise.

Slowly, Graham-White began to feel better. 

Read next:Black-owned vegan restaurants are spicing up Southern cuisine

The problem: She wasn't ready to get rid of many of the Southern and Jamaican comfort foods she grew up eating. Instead, she learned how to parlay some of her favorite flavors and textures into healthier dishes that still satisfied those cravings.

"At first it was difficult, especially with the Southern food," she said. "What is Southern food without cheese and dairy?"

Graham-White gradually learned how to incorporate ingredients that delivered richness and flavor into her recipes without leaning on meat and dairy.

Cashew cream, for example, has all the lushness of milk and works well as a base for vegan macaroni and cheese, she said. Nutritional yeast, also known as brewer's yeast, packs an umami punch reminiscent of cheese. 

Overnight oats stood in well as replacements for the sweet processed flour-based breakfasts she once ate at Waffle House and IHOP.

"I really wanted comfort," she said. "Even though I'm eating healthier, I don't want to eat bland. I still have those picky eating elements and I still love an over-the-top breakfast."

Carrot Cake Overnight Oats from Orchids + Sweet Tea.

Now, she finds those flavors in dishes like her Spiced Carrot Cake Overnight Oats , a make-ahead heart-healthy and gluten-free breakfast with warming spices, maple syrup, grated carrots and nuts. 

You can find more than 120 similar "plant-forward" recipes in her forthcoming book, Orchids + Sweet Tea: Plant-Forward Recipes with Jamaican Flavor and Southern Charm, published by Simon & Schuster.

The recipes focus on traditional comfort food with a healthier twist; think gluten-free and dairy-free macaroni, vegan peach cobbler or baked "fried" chicken. 

Graham-White's methods for showcasing the food she grew up with, only in a healthier light, have earned her Orchids + Sweet Tea blog a large following. She has more than 31,000 followers on Instagram and her recipes have been featured on Taste of Home, Food 52 and others.

But those readers don't all come for the vegan, gluten-free macaroni.

Her most popular recipe, for example, is a downhome rendition of a Southern classic: cinnamon roll recipe with cream cheese icing, which has had more than 145,000 view in the past year. It's all about balance; another one of the blog's most popular recipes is a Cucumber-Ginger-Lemon Detox Juice.

Vegan Peach Cobbler from Orchids + Sweet Tea.

Graham-White's blog preceded her turn toward healthier meals, but she said her emphasis on homey but better-for-you food helped earn her a greater following. 

"When I began to put an extra emphasis on spices and seasoning, making really decadent food but using healthier ingredients, I created a niche without realizing it," she said. "I'm doing what's authentic to me, and it's nice to see so many resonate with that."

An easier way to be healthy

Though the recipes seem as though they'd be complex, Graham-White said many are simple enough for anyone to pull together quickly. She is, after all, a home cook at heart.

"With a 6-year-old at home, I don't always have time and (kids) don't always have patience," she said. "So I've tweaked things to make them easy."

On average, she said, most recipes in her book take about 30 minutes to execute. 

Most can be made gluten-free simply by using gluten-free flour in place of traditional flour. That's the case with Graham-White's vegan peach cobbler, for example, which comes together quickly and doesn't require eggs and dairy.

"There are so many options for gluten-free flour," she said.

Almond flour, quinoa flour and Bob's Red Mill one-to-one gluten-free all-purpose flour all stand in well for traditional flours.

Though vegan and gluten-free recipes are on-trend, Graham-White's recipes aren't about adhering to a popular "diet," she explained.

"There's like 11 hates I have with that word," she said, laughing. "The word 'diet' to me feels restrictive, and maybe that's coming from a picky eating perspective. That's why I didn't want to focus on diets, but what works for your body and adjusting from that."

That's also the focus of her book.

"It's basically how I do my food," she said. "There's no specific diet. It's just eating more plant-based food. You can incorporate dairy and meat, but they're not the highlights. They're in the background."

Cook the book

Vegan Peach Cobbler

Spiced Carrot Cake Overnight Oats 

Vegetarian Southern Biscuit Breakfast Strata