The South is a dominating region. It is the largest unified area of the country, complete with distinct borders, culture, and cuisine. The latter is so popular that it has adopted its own endearing label as comfort food. Of course, other dishes can be comforting, but none quite achieve the same effect as fried or creamy or spicy goodness.
Influences on Southern cuisine, like most of America’s foundation, came from many diverse places. Slavery had an undeniable effect on the region, and ingredients native to various parts of Africa, like okra and red beans, were fundamental in the development of Southern cuisine. French emigrants settled first in Quebec, then made their way down the Mississippi to Louisiana, which you will recall was once a French territory. They left their mark in the form of Cajun (or, less accurately, Creole) culture. There are also influences that traveled north from Central America, the Caribbean islands, and Cuba that give some dishes a Latin flair. No matter what, you can always be sure to find starchy, creamy menu items like biscuits and gravy, or hushpuppies and butter.
If you are looking for some new dinner ideas, try this regional variety of meals. There should be a meter to determine how comforting a meal is, but the scale would be too subjective. Still, find your most belly-warming choice from our 14 selections below and make it part of your go-to meals—we've included a few side dishes and desserts, too. You may even be able to keep the cook time short enough for your long nights.
Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili Burgers
Black bean patties are considered an alternative to meat-based burgers, but they are well-loved even when no one at the table is meat-conscious. Tieghan Gerard at Half Baked Harvest's sweet potato black bean chili burger recipe, in which patties are spiced with chili powder, cayenne, cinnamon, smoked paprika, and a little brown sugar, even includes how to fry up some onions to include on the side—a real Southern treat.
Pro Tip: Gerard writes that these burgers would be just as tasty using lettuce cups as buns.
Cajun Instant Pot Chili
Chili is a no-brainer in a Southern household, and in many ways is the cousin of the New Orleans specialty, jambalaya. So this Cajun-style Instant Pot chili by Food Faith Fitness is a match made in comfort food heaven; it's full of Andouille sausage, shrimp, ground chicken or turkey, and peppers.
Pro Tip: Don't forget a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt for garnish.
Bourbon Peach BBQ Baked Beans
Bean preferences differ depending on where you are in the region; Mississippi and Alabama use a lot of black-eyed peas while Georgia and northern Florida will fill you up with pinto beans. Given the peaches (and bourbon!), this baked beans recipe from Half Baked Harvest seems to gravitate toward the East Coast, but everyone everywhere needs to try this winning combination of flavors.
Pro Tip: Garnish with fresh basil.
One Pot Chicken Burrito Bowls
Corn, beans, and rice are staples across the South, having been borrowed in different contexts from Cuban, Cajun, and native cuisine. This one-pot burrito chicken and rice recipe from How Sweet Eats will encourage second helpings and ease cleanup.
Pro Tip: If you want leftovers, keep toppings like cheese, cilantro, and onions separate.
Sweet Corn Chimichurri Butter Shrimp With Polenta
The origins of this sweet corn chimichurri butter shrimp with polenta recipe from Half Baked Harvest come from many different directions but coalesce into a distinctly comforting meal. For example, polenta is considered Italian, but by definition is just boiled grains, of which the South has plenty.
Pro Tip: This recipe takes less than 30 minutes to make, making it an easy weeknight meal.
Buttermilk Chicken Biscuit
While we cannot prove that it is a common occurrence, some Southern children have been known to use buttermilk with their cereal. The rich cream also makes for a great biscuit, and inserting hot fried chicken in the middle like in this Half Baked Harvest recipe (which also includes a habanero peach sauce and honey butter) only seems logical.
Pro Tip: The habanero peach sauce can keep in the fridge for up to several weeks.
Vegan Southern Collard Greens
Chopped and slow-cooked collard greens star in Sweet Potato Soul's vegan Southern collard greens recipe. It also calls for garlic, tomato, tamari (or soy sauce). Simmer for 30 minutes, or longer.
Pro Tip: "If you like your collards to have a "pot gravy" or broth, add about 1/4-1/2 cup of water to the cooking greens, and season with 1 tablespoon more tamari," writes Jenné Claiborne of Sweet Potato Soul.
Southern Bite's pineapple slaw comes together in 25 minutes, and all you need are pineapple tidbits, slaw mix, green bell pepper, and red onion. Dress them in mayo, apple cider vinegar, pineapple juice, cilantro and poppy seeds and you've got yourself a refreshing salad for five.
Pro Tip: Southern Bite recommends serving this slaw as an ideal foil for grilled meats.
Sweet Potato Black-Eyed Pea Curry
For a warm, spiced Southern dish, make Sweet Potato Soul's recipe for sweet potato black-eyed pea curry. Coconut milk lends vegan-friendly creaminess, while spices like garam masala, cumin, and coriander add dimension to the curry.
Pro Tip: Sweet Potato Soul's recipe directions include an Instant Pot version if you're pressed for time.
Hattie B's Nashville Hot Chicken
When things are described as “hot” in the South, they contain spices that may overwhelm your taste buds, depending on your typical palate. This take on a traditional Tennessee fried chicken recipe from Salt & Wind, and adapted from Fried & True by Lee Brian Schrager with Adeena Sussman will give you the crunch and flavor one expects from moist hot chicken.
Pro Tip: Garnish with pickles to temper the chicken's spice.
Creamy Cajun Chicken Penne Pot
Chicken and bell peppers join a cream-based sauce and Cajun seasoning in How Sweet Eats's creamy Cajun chicken penne pot recipe, which was adapted from The Pioneer Woman. Toss chicken with a generous helping of Cajun seasoning, and coat with flour before frying. Veggies are cooked last.
Pro Tip: Garnish with parsley and serve immediately.
Pesto Cheddar Heirloom Tomato Tart
Since tomato tarts are sometimes referenced as a cousin to the classic Southern tomato pie (which has been popular since the 1830s), we think it deserves a spot on this list. Try this recipe from Darling Down South for a pesto cheddar heirloom tomato tart; it's topped with tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and basil.
Pro Tip: Let tart cool completely (approximately 15–20 minutes) before dividing into pieces.
Brown Eyed Baker's ambrosia salad recipe is inspired by her Grandmother's recipe, and features mandarin oranges, pineapple, coconut, and marshmallows. The sweet treat reportedly has roots in the South, according to Epicurious. One of the earliest recipes showed up in a cookbook in 1867.
Pro Tip: This recipe will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Vegan Peach Pie
Georgia native Jenné Claiborne of Sweet Potato Soul offers a vegan-friendly peach pie that's made with plant butter instead of dairy. You'll also need flour, sugar, spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and a squeeze of lemon.
Pro Tip: As an option, brush the top of the pie crust with non-dairy milk as an "egg" wash.