Kaili Harding makes fried green tomatoes

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Kaili Harding coats green tomato slices with a chili-flecked batter before frying them in a skillet.


Tanit Jarusan/tjarusan@dailyherald.com

Kaili Harding creates Southern favorites from her childhood, like these Fried Green Tomatoes, in her Wheaton home.


Tanit Jarusan/tjarusan@dailyherald.com

Kaili Harding coats green tomato slices with a chili-flecked batter before frying them in a skillet.


Tanit Jarusan/tjarusan@dailyherald.com

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Kaili Harding makes fried green tomatoes

Y'all try some vegetarian cooking, Southern style

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print story Published: 9/16/2009 12:01 AM

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In the traditional, small Southern community of Cedar Town, Ga., vegetarianism hasn't really caught fire, so Kaili Harding was just a little different as a kid.

At the age of 13, living next door to a herd of 50 brown-eyed cows, Kaili gave up meat, shocking her 48-member family.

"They always thought you had to put lard, fatback or bacon in everything," says the stay-at-home mother of two now living in Wheaton. "It took a little while for them to realize you could make things taste as good without that."

Aside from her tenderhearted feelings toward animals, Kaili never cared for the taste of meat. Even as a little girl she discarded the beef from her McDonald's cheeseburger and ate the bun and cheese.

She preferred dining at "meat and threes," a popular concept in the South where hole-in-the-wall diners give customers a choice of protein and three vegetable sides.

Kaili ordered four sides instead of meat. "Eating a vegetable plate is common in the South," she says. "My friends here, so many have never had a collard or mustard green or fried okra, you're missing out on so many vegetables."

Not that classic vegetable dishes from the South come with a clean bill of health. Often they're prepared with fatback or bacon grease, and many are fried.

"If you stand still long enough, we'll fry you," says Kaili recalling an old Southern joke.

Kaili calls her style of cooking "new order Southern." She hasn't given up frying, but prefers vegetable and olive oil to lard.

"I do use butter, but in smaller quantities than is common in a lot of Southern cooking," she says.

And she ventures well beyond her regional roots, serving her two young daughters a global feast of Indian, Thai, Japanese, Italian, Mexican and German cooking.

"I may not be able to take my girls around the world, but I can have them experience it through food," says Kaili, who didn't have the opportunity to sample different cuisines when she was growing up. "If they start out eating it, they'll always eat those things."

Sometimes she uses vegetable protein in place of ground beef, or she'll add chicken to a stir-fry for her daughters. But her favorite meal is a big vegetable platter that might include her Fried Green Tomatoes, Black-eyed Pea Salad and Squash Casserole, recipes she shares this week.

For the tomatoes Kaili adds a little cayenne pepper to the corn meal-and-flour breading for a zippy twist on a Southern favorite.

"A lot of people who don't like tomatoes love fried green tomatoes; they have a meaty texture," she says.

The black-eyed peas are dressed with vinaigrette instead of mayonnaise, so it's a great picnic or potluck dish.

The squash "is like nectar of the gods," she promises. "It's a great way to get kids to eat squash."

For authentic Southern presentation, serve any of these vegetarian dishes with "a big hunk of cornbread," a wedge of raw Vidalia onion to eat like an apple, and a frosty glass of sweet tea.

It'll put some drawl in y'all.

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