Soul food: Can't you just smell it cooking? It'salways been there at our family reunions, made with love and handeddown through generations. But the recipes, rich in fat, salt andcalories, contribute to our soaring rates of diabetes, high bloodpressure and other life-threatening health problems. Recently,cookbooks have offered healthier versions of classic dishes. But if youtake the “soul” out of the food, how does it taste? We lured a group ofsoul-food lovers to a taste test to find out, enlisting a secretweapon—chef Zoraida Oliveira, owner of West Orange, N.J.–basedSumptuous Sweets—to choose the recipes and cook up the goods. “I waslooking for recipes that tried to make up for the loss of fat withspices 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 skinlesschicken in seasoning and bread crumbs. But Patti LaBelle calls for“brining,” soaking the meat in mild salt water for at least threehours. “It's a great way to make poultry even juicier,” says Oliveira.
The Verdict: PattiLaBelle's version won wings down. “The crust is crunchier,” saysOliveira's mom, Thelma deWalcott, a retired mental-health therapist.Anisa Keith, a financial analyst, said it's definitely not friedchicken, 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: Bothreduce cheese; BFDQ's has only four ounces, compared with WFSF's twocups, compensating with garlic, nonfat sour cream and bread crumbs.
The Verdict: RicardoOliveira, Zoraida's husband and a consultant who recently lost 17pounds on the Atkins diet, says, “[BFDQ's] scallions and spices add adifferent twist, but I want more cheese!” WFSF's recipe had the textureand 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'sversion, with plenty of sugar, milk and eggs, isn't that “light,” butits vanilla and rum sauce sounds tasty. Gladys Knight's version,published by the American Diabetes Association, is sweetened withEqual. “It's good to try sugar substitutes, especially if you havehealth concerns,” says Oliveira.
The Verdict: Knight'sformula earned mixed reviews. Keith, who isn't big on sweets, likedthis recipe, but Oliveira says, “It definitely tastes like a lightrecipe.” However, BFDQ's bread pudding received wows from the firstbite to the last crumb. “This is the bomb!” deWalcott says. “Thepecans, raisins and rum sauce really make this delicious,” says Keith.

TAKE HOME
“Therereally is no such thing as a ‘bad' food,” says Veronica McLymont, MS,RD, dietician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New YorkCity. “The key is in how it is prepared and served.” To make youreveryday cooking healthier, try reduced-fat milk and cheeses, watch theoil, butter and sugar and bake, grill or roast instead of frying—justlike 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. Addchicken and enough cold water to cover. Cover and refrigerate for atleast 3 hours, or up to 6 hours.
2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil andcoat 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 placein the bag with bread-crumb mixture. Shake well to coat, then transferto 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 onthe hot baking sheet. Bake until an instant-read thermometer registers160°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 gramsprotein, 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 andcheese, 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 forapproximately 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