Comfort and joy: How to make comfort food and health coexist in the New Year

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

After celebrating the turn of this year by watching a vintage concert on a sheet tacked in the guest room, I was ready to celebrate New Year's Eve with people again.

So, on a bright and sunny October day this fall, I bought tickets to a New Year's Eve concert and booked the flight and hotel room. 

But as the year wore on and the weather turned cold, omicron began to spread like wildfire. Instead of pictures of holiday feasts, my social media feed was filled with pictures of positive COVID tests.

None of these illnesses were serious, but the writing was on the wall: There would be no trip, no celebrating the end of this roller coaster year with thousands of people. Soon, the concert was canceled, as many other events around the country were. I'm hoping this is the last surge we'll endure.

Southern black-eyed pea 'caviar'

So as we step into 2022, I'm back to some of my 2020 ways: I'll spend the early days of the year planning a garden, dusting off the sprouting jars and fermentation crocks and otherwise planting the seeds for a healthier year ahead. 

One of the things that helped me get through the early days of the pandemic was a little book filled with meticulously planned meals, shopping lists and details of what needed to be planted, pruned, picked and pickled. It was easier to get excited about the future when we knew what at least part of it would look like. It's also fun to go back and read what we were eating and planning during that time. 

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For example, I made such a huge Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner last year, it took two days to eat. The plan for that spans several pages, with details about what I needed to pick up from the seafood market and order in my weekly produce box. The prep list was huge. It was one of the most complicated meals I've ever made, but it was my Christmas gift to my husband and, let's face it, myself. 

That little planning book is coming out again. Instead of figuring out the logistics of navigating New York City, I'll plan a meal that will bring us into the new year.

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For New Year's Day brunch, there will be little silver-skinned white anchovies for good luck, wrapped around olives and peppers, a la Gilda, the Basque pintxo. There will be grapes in the Spanish tradition, and of course there will be champagne. We'll snack on deviled eggs and the black-eyed pea "caviar" I make every year, which is simply peas and chopped vegetables tossed in a vinaigrette. I've provided a similar recipe below. It's comforting, but also healthy. The two need not be mutually exclusive. 

I hope it sets the tone for a year of delicious food but also healthier habits. As the winter wears on, the meal planning will get even more intense for me. This year, I'll resolve to prep chicken and vegetables to slide in the oven after all of the work and the exercise is done. I'll make "dump meals," or pre-portioned and bagged frozen dinners that can be thrown in the Instant Pot and ready in 45 minutes. I'll once again make mini frittatas for grabbing when heading out the door to school drop-off and then to the office. Speaking of the office, I resolve to pack more lunches and order fewer lunch deliveries. 

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You can follow along on southernkitchen.com as I provide more ideas for healthy meals for busy people in the coming weeks. But first, let's focus on New Year's Day dinner, which you can cook any day of the year, of course.

This year, I plan to season and slow-roast salmon at 275 degrees until it's tender in its own fat. You should try that; you'll never look back. I'll scatter the whole thing with fresh chopped parsley and a little lemon zest, then add a nice squeeze of lemon juice. Salmon, by the way, is considered a good luck food because it's a forward-swimming fish rather than a bottom feeder. It's also rich in healthy fats. 

On the side, I'll serve these smoky, spicy collard greens, a popular recipe from Virginia Willis we have on our cooking website, southernkitchen.com. The greens are meat-free but packed with flavor from chipotle peppers and the fresh acidity of tomatoes. If you'd like to add a hit of umami, you can stir in some miso paste. Collards represent money and, of course, they're packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber. 

Cheers to your health and a happy 2022. Perhaps we'll even find a way off this roller coaster.

Smoky, spicy collards.

Smoky vegan collard greens

Serves: 6

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 sweet onion, such as Vidalia, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, chopped

2 cups tomato or vegetable juice

1 chipotle in adobo, chopped, plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce from the jar

12 cups chopped collard greens (about 12 ounces)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

In a Dutch oven or other large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Stir in the tomato juice, chipotle and adobo sauce. Add the greens and cover.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the greens are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Lulu’s Lower Alabama 'caviar'

Serves: 10

Ingredients

3 (15-ounce) cans black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup quartered cherry tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped red onion

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

3 tablespoons each chopped green, red and yellow bell pepper

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

In a large bowl, combine the black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onion, parsley, peppers, vinegar, oil and sugar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours before serving with tortilla chips or crackers.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com