theGrio’s healthy cooking series: Chef Danielle Saunders

Chef Danielle Saunders cemented her spot in the national cooking arena as the 2011 Grand Champion of the Food Network’s Chopped competition series. A former personal chef to Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Saunders has also worked for Dr. Oz Garcia. These experiences — in addition to graduating from the New York Restaurant School — have helped Chef Danielle tailor her cooking to meet the exacting standards of celebrities and everyday men and women seeking great taste while optimizing health.

Currently the proprietress of It’s a Family Affair, which serves up healthy pre-prepared meals for high profile clients on the go, Saunders is also working on a cookbook memoir that honors her grandfather, who was also a professional chef and set her on her path. This Thanksgiving, Chef Danielle is back in the family fold, getting ready to cook her clan’s celebratory meal.

Between working on preparations for guests, Saunders shared how folks at home can use her flavorful, yet healthy style to enhance their own spread.

Saunders is concerned with “the negative tone that goes with soul food.” People believe “that it’s fatty, and full of things you don’t need,” she told theGrio. “My take on it is to take out things that don’t necessarily adulterate the dish, and replace them with things that make dishes taste better and are better for you.

“For instance, one of my dishes, jerk shrimp gumbo,” Saunders continued about her signature creation, “you start that dish off with a roux, which is traditionally butter and flour. I’ve replaced that with coconut oil and garbanzo bean flour, which is full of protein. Coconut oil is a saturated fat, but it’s good for you.”

This alteration makes a southern favorite much healthier. We may not be thinking of gumbo as we prepare our holiday tables, but there is plenty of room in the African-American culinary canon for trimming the fat. Saunders recommended collard greens as a good place to start.

She mused that many prepare greens with pork, or have replaced this ingredient with smoked turkey, for flavor. “But what I’ve done is taken it a step further and actually confited the turkey parts by braising them with duck fat with fresh herbs — whether it be sage, thyme, rosemary, or whole garlic. What it does is, this tenderizes the meat and lends much more flavor to it. That elevates something that we take as a simple dish.”

A dab of duck fat is nothing compared to the heart-stopping effects of a hunk of salted pork to be sure, but if you are not up for developing your own herbal concoctions, Saunders offers a few simple tips for making every meal healthier.

“For me, one of my main healthy tips is that you can’t substitute freshness,” she said. “Start out with the freshest ingredients, and keep the dishes simple. People tend to do too many things to the food, and make cooking complicated. It should come from the heart. I think that makes it easier to create a great dish.”

“If it’s coming from the heart, keep it simple, and keep the ingredients fresh,” Saunders concluded. “I’m just trying to keep everybody healthy, and doing it one plate at a time.”

Check out Chef Danielle Saunders’ recipe for an updated version of two soul food classic deserts merged into one. This version incorporates coconut oil and other coconut-based ingredients, which have many health benefits such as weight loss promotion and ulcer prevention, as opposed to orthodox elements such as butter.

Sweet Potato and Pecan Pie

Sweet Potato and Pecan Pie

Ingredients: 

2 9″ or 10″ prepared deep-dish pie crusts, unbaked (or small tart shells)
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup coconut palm sugar
2 3/4 cups well-mashed, cooked sweet potatoes or yams ran through a fine strainer (to remove potato hairs)
2 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup melted coconut oil
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger paste
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons of Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract

Directions:

1. In a mixer throughly beat mashed potatoes, sugar, and coconut oil together. As this mixture is whipping, add the beaten eggs and cream. Add the spices and continue to blend on low speed. Be careful not to over-beat.

2. Once this is well mixed, and you have a smooth and fluffy consistency, add this mixture to your pie shells and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. This allows the pie to set.

3. Remove and add the crumble topping generously (see directions below) and bake at 350 degrees for an additional 25 minutes or until golden brown. Bake until knife inserted in center comes out clean, for about 55 minutes.

Pecan Crumble Topping

2 cups pecans whole
1 cup of coconut flour
5 tablespoons of room temperature coconut oil
1 cup of coconut palm sugar

Mix all above ingredients in food processor until well incorporated then place on top of pie and bake until golden brown.

Read more healthy cooking tips from other chefs here.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.