Soul food: Can't you just smell it cooking? It's always been there at our family reunions, made with love and handed down through generations. But the recipes, rich in fat, salt and calories, contribute to our soaring rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and other life-threatening health problems.

Recently, cookbooks have offered healthier versions of classic dishes. But if you take the “soul” out of the food, how does it taste? We lured a group of soul-food lovers to a taste test to find out, enlisting a secret weapon—chef Zoraida Oliveira, owner of West Orange, N.J.–based Sumptuous Sweets—to choose the recipes and cook up the goods. “I was looking for recipes that tried to make up for the loss of fat with spices and other ingredients,” she says. Here's how it went down:

OVEN-FRIED CHICKEN
Patti LaBelle's Lite Cuisine vs. The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook
Old School: “People love [fried] crispy skin, but it's so bad for us,” Oliveira says. Milk and flour in the batter pile on carbs and fat.


New School: The“oven-fried” versions are a modified Shake ‘N Bake—you coat skinless chicken in seasoning and bread crumbs. But Patti LaBelle calls fo r“brining,” soaking the meat in mild salt water for at least three hours. “It's a great way to make poultry even juicier,” says Oliveira.


The Verdict: Patti LaBelle's version won wings down. “The crust is crunchier,” says Oliveira's mom, Thelma deWalcott, a retired mental-health therapist. Anisa Keith, a financial analyst, said it's definitely not fried chicken, but it's “still nice and juicy.”

MACARONI AND CHEESE
Black Family Dinner Quilt vs. Whole Food, Soul Food
Old School: Cheese and pasta, thickened with milk and flour: divine but disastrous, combining fat, cholesterol and major carbs.


New School: Both reduce cheese; BFDQ's has only four ounces, compared with WFSF's two cups, compensating with garlic, nonfat sour cream and bread crumbs.


The Verdict: RicardoOliveira, Zoraida's husband and a consultant who recently lost 17 pounds on the Atkins diet, says, “[BFDQ's] scallions and spices add a different twist, but I want more cheese!” WFSF's recipe had the texture and flavor that testers craved. “It's nice and creamy,” deWalcott says.

BREAD PUDDING
Black Family Dinner Quilt vs. At Home With Gladys Knight
Old School: It's easy and tasty, but heavy on sugar, milk, butter and starch.  


New School: BFDQ's version, with plenty of sugar, milk and eggs, isn't that “light,” but its vanilla and rum sauce sounds tasty. Gladys Knight's version,published by the American Diabetes Association, is sweetened with Equal. “It's good to try sugar substitutes, especially if you have health concerns,” says Oliveira.


The Verdict: Knight's formula earned mixed reviews. Keith, who isn't big on sweets, liked this recipe, but Oliveira says, “It definitely tastes like a light recipe.” However, BFDQ's bread pudding received wows from the first bite to the last crumb. “This is the bomb!” deWalcott says. “The pecans, raisins and rum sauce really make this delicious,” says Keith.

TAKE HOME
“There really is no such thing as a ‘bad' food,” says Veronica McLymont, MS,RD, dietician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “The key is in how it is prepared and served.” To make your everyday cooking healthier, try reduced-fat milk and cheeses, watch the oil, butter and sugar and bake, grill or roast instead of frying—just like the winning recipes below. Enjoy!

Patti LaBelle's Oven (Tastes Like Southern) Fried Chicken
    Makes 4 servings

1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
Four 4-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 egg
1/2 cup fat-free buttermilk
1 1/2 cups plain dry bread crumbs
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon seasoning salt, such as Lawry's
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper

1. In a large bowl, dissolve salt in water. Add chicken and enough cold water to cover. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or up to 6 hours.
2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and coat foil with fat-free cooking spray. Drain chicken and pat dry.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together egg and buttermilk.
4. In a large resealable plastic bag, mix together bread crumbs, poultry seasoning, black pepper, salt, seasoning salt and red pepper.
5. Dip chicken, one breast at a time, in buttermilk mixture, then place in the bag with bread-crumb mixture. Shake well to coat, then transfer to a rack. Repeat with remaining chicken breasts.
6. Put baking sheet in oven until smoking hot, about 2 minutes.
7. Coat both sides of chicken with fat-free cooking spray and place on the hot baking sheet. Bake until an instant-read thermometer registers 160°F in a breast and juices run clear, about 30 to 35 minutes.
8. Turn on broiler and broil 4 inches from heat to brown top, about 5 minutes. 

Per serving: 310 calories, 34 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 850 milligrams sodium.

Reprinted from Patti LaBelle's Lite Cuisine by Patti LaBelle and Laura Randolph Lancaster (Gotham Books, $15).


Macaroni 'n' Cheese
    Makes 6-8 servings

1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni
3 tablespoons regular or soy margarine
3 tablespoons unbleached white flour
2 cups regular or soy milk
1/4 cup onion, minced
2 cups regular or veggie cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. In a large pot, cook macaroni according to directions.
2. Melt margarine in a saucepan and blend in flour.
3. Add milk, then cook and stir until thick. Add seasonings, onion and cheese, and stir until cheese melts.
4. Mix cheese sauce with macaroni.
5. Place in 1 1/2 quart casserole dish and bake at 350°F for approximately 45 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and browned.

Per serving: 202 calories, 5 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fat, 1 gram dietary fiber, 258 milligrams sodium

Reprinted from Whole Food, Soul Food by Donna A. Smith (Magnico Company, $12.95; call 256-721-4063 or visit www.healthopera1.com.)


Saucy Vanilla Rum Bread Pudding
    Makes 12 servings

Pudding:

1-pound loaf French bread (day-old)

4 cups milk

2 cups sugar

3 eggs beaten

1 1/4 cups raisins

1 cup chopped pecans

2 tablespoons vanilla

Vanilla rum sauce:

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 cup water

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon rum

1 teaspoon margarine

1 teaspoon vanilla

1. For pudding, heart oven to 350°F. Grease 3-quart casserole.

2. Tear bread into 1-inch pieces. Place in a large bowl. Add milk. Soak 20 minutes.

3. Combine sugar, eggs, raisins, nuts and vanilla. Mix well. Pour intro casserole. 

4. Bake at 350°F for 40 minutes. Serve with vanilla rum sauce (below). Serve warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate leftover pudding.

5. For vanilla rum sauce, combine sugar and cornstarch in small saucepan. Stir to blend. Stir in water. Cook and stir on low heat until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Remove from heart. Stir in rum. margarine and vanilla.

Per serving: 430 calories, 9 grams protein, 73 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 290 milligrams sodium.

Reprinted from The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook: Health Conscious Recipes and Food Memories, by Dorothy I. Height and The National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (The Wimmer Companies, $12.95. Call 800-727-1034 for information.)