Food is one of the things we do really well in south Louisiana. We may have other problems, but we know how to make rich, spicy dishes that taste great and serve as the centerpiece of joyous, festive gatherings.
Unfortunately, many of the Cajun and Creole classics that are the staples of our diet in the Bayou State are laden with fat, salt and cholesterol. It isn’t the ingredients themselves that are necessarily bad for us; rather, it’s the way we prepare them.
We deep-fry in oil, sauté in butter, thicken with fatty rouxs, then stir in the salt, bake with more butter, and top with cheese or cream sauce for good measure.
“I was down in Morgan City recently and we stopped for lunch and the only items on the menu were hamburgers, cheeseburgers and fried shrimp po-boys,” lamented Steve Roch, a registered dietitian and consultant with the Baton Rouge Dietetics Association. “I went with the fried shrimp and tried to order a side salad or fresh fruit, and they practically laughed me out of the restaurant. My only choices were potato chips or french fries.”
We’ve all heard the statistics. Our culinary style and appreciation for parties centered on tailgating, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day has earned us a reputation as a place where les bon temps roulez, and also as a state with some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke in the nation.
“In Louisiana, we share many of the same bad eating habits that all Americans do,” said Cathy Daniel, a local dietician and nutrition consultant. “We overeat and don’t consume enough fresh fruits or vegetables. It’s just worse here because so many of our traditions are centered on food.”
But there are several simple ways to adapt classic Louisiana recipes to make them more healthful - or at least, less unhealthful. You may be familiar with some of these techniques, but it’s always good to be reminded of them.
There are also several classic cookbooks devoted to healthful adaptations of Louisiana classics. They include New Orleanian Roy Guste F. Jr.’s “Louisiana Light: Low-Fat, Low-Calorie, Low-Cholesterol, Low-Salt Cajun and Creole Cookery”; Baton Rouge native Holly Clegg’s “A Trim and Terrific Louisiana Kitchen”; and the Junior League of Baton Rouge’s “River Road III: A Healthy Collection,” which is simple, user friendly and one of my favorite community cookbooks anywhere.
Several of the recipes from that book are featured in this story because they’re really simple, good and considerably lighter than their full-fat counterparts. Over the years, in fact, I’ve made the Shrimp Creole recipe many times and it has become my go-to recipe when I’m making that classic dish.
I like this particular version because it is hearty without being heavy. It is made with a roux, but contains a lot less oil than is typical. You could also make it with the baked roux, or with the help of Tony Chachere’s roux and gravy mix, which is fat free.
It gets some of its body from the addition of salt-free tomato sauce. You can also add a little tomato paste to thicken it more, if desired, and its zest comes from a half a can of Ro-tel tomatoes.
The Crawfish Quesadillas are simple to make, and also tasty, especially if you add extra cilantro. The crawfish tails are rinsed, which washes away a lot of the flavorful fat. You can definitely tell the difference, but I think it’s a worthy trade. You can save still more calories by using reduced-fat cheese.
The Spinach Madeline recipe is also quite addictive. In this version, fat-free evaporated milk stands in for heavy cream, which helps to cut the calorie count in half. It’s an invaluable substitute for dishes that call for cream or half-and-half. Because it’s evaporated, it has a heartier flavor than regular skim milk and does a better job thickening dishes.
Daniel also contributed a couple of her favorite recipes, one of which she has adapted for low-fat diets. She admits that she prefers the full-fat version, but this one, she said, is almost as good.