Healthier Southern Cooking: Eric and Shanna Jones on how to get full flavor with less junk

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Eric and Shanna Jones of Dude That Cookz and the recently released "Healthier Southern Cooking" cookbook.

Few will claim fried chicken is good for you. But it can be good for your soul. Keeping that in mind, one Texas culinary couple has released a cookbook with healthier takes on Southern food with plenty of homestyle comfort.

"Everything I do in cooking, the secret ingredient is love," said Eric Jones, who with his wife, Shanna Jones, is behind the blog, "Dude That Cookz.

Eric Jones, who works in tech full time but began developing recipes as a passion project, is a Louisiana native. He's been cooking since he was 6 years old, honing his style in the kitchens of family matriarchs who blended garden-fresh Southern flavor and Cajun spices.

Jones infuses many of the recipes of his childhood with healthier tweaks, cutting down on the butter here, using non-dairy milk there, and sometimes replacing wheat with gluten-free flour. 

"The cleaner eating came from a lifestyle change," he said. "I've always been active with playing sports and aware of my diet, but my parents passed away at a young age from health reasons."

Eric and Shanna Jones, who together have a daughter and a son, don't eat pork and shellfish for religious reasons. "Growing up with Cajun dishes, it was challenging to find a workaround," Eric Jones said. 

His background manifests in his Cajun Alfredo pasta, made with chicken sausage instead of Andouille, or in his oil-free baked okra, which has all the crunch of the Southern deep-fried side.

Those flavors also come together in "Healthier Southern Cooking," which the Joneses released on March 15. Shanna Jones, who also works full time in tech, said she never expected to get into recipe development, let alone produce a cookbook.

"Healthier Southern Cooking" contains 60 flavorful homestyle recipes, all with a healthier twist.

She was the first in the family to get into food blogging, with a dining and lifestyles site she put on the backburner when their family began to grow. Meanwhile, her husband continued to cook, creating healthier versions of restaurant dishes and classic Southern fare.

"He was already cooking a lot," Shanna Jones said. "He's the creative person in the family, as far as food goes. I cook to survive. He cooks to create."

Watching her husband develop new recipes at home, she knew they had a hit on their hands. "All the stuff you're creating people need to know," she told her husband. "Why don't we get this out to the masses?"

Chicken-fried chicken with country gravy from "Healthier Southern Cooking."

Within a week, they had launched the site. 

Though the theme of Dude That Cookz is healthier fare, none of it comes across as austere. Recipes cut down on butter, but don't omit it altogether. Salt is still present, but some of it gets replaced with flavorful herbs and seasonings. 

"So you still have a little bit of the flavor, but it doesn't take over the dish," Eric Jones said. 

Other tricks include exchanging grated Parmesan cheese for bread crumbs in a recipe for low-carb diets. Parmesan also works well as a thickener in sauce instead of flour.

And though the South is known as the land of fried food, even the chicken-fried chicken is shallow pan-fried with just enough sunflower oil to render the bird crisp and golden-brown. According to Shanna Jones, you won't begrudge her husband the lower-fat technique.

"You really don't miss it because you still get all the feeling and vibes on your palate as you would from eating something deep-fried," she said. 

Most of the recipes don't claim to be entirely fat-free. Nor do the desserts entirely remove all of the sugar — just some of it. 

"Hence 'healthier,'" Eric Jones said. 

Cook the book

Healthier chicken-fried chicken with country gravy

Crunchy, oil-free baked okra

Better-for-you Southern peach cobbler

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