Chef John Besh is famous for creating authentic south Louisiana dishes with all the roux and sausage our style of food demands.
With his family’s health in mind, the restaurant owner and television personality works to create more nutritious versions of Cajun and Creole classics.
“We have to make healthy also taste good,” he says.
In some cases, classic recipes could use a few more vegetables, or a little less white rice. Yet, for some fattening — and tasty — dishes, moderation and portion control are key.
“There are ways of creating that balance while keeping our culture and flavor alive,” says the New Orleans restaurateur, who recently came to the Baton Rouge General to spread the message that healthy foods can taste great.
Here’s some of Besh’s favorite tactics for transforming south Louisiana favorites into healthier meals:
Substitute healthy grains for white rice. White rice is the traditional staple of south Louisiana meals, served with nearly every entree.
“I’m a Louisiana boy raised on rice at every meal,” Besh says. “Even if we had potatoes, we had rice.”
But white rice is a refined grain high in carbohydrates and low in fiber, and nutritionists recommend limiting the role of these kinds of grains in your diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate guidelines generally recommend half of all grains consumed should be whole grains, such as brown rice or whole wheat bread.
For his family, Besh cooks many healthier grains, like farro, which has four times the fiber as white rice, and quinoa, a grain with 50 percent more protein per serving than brown rice.
Besh even ladles shrimp etouffee over a farro-quinoa mixture.
“We’re just adding some protein to it and a little more texture, but we’re not taking from the flavor at all,” he says.
Add more vegetables. Many Louisiana favorites like etouffee or gumbo are light on the veggies.
Sometimes Besh will stir in fresh vegetables to favorite Cajun and Creole dishes. In the shrimp etouffee he prepared for the crowd at Baton Rouge General’s “Life’s A Canvas: The Art of Healthy Living” program, he added fresh tomatoes, zucchini, squash and roasted pumpkin.
“What you’re going to end up finding out is you don’t miss out on the flavor,” Besh says. “You get flavor plus a little something extra.”
Leaner proteins. We love our andouille sausage and boudin, but these savory meats are high in fat. Most decent-tasting sausages contain at least 20 percent fat, Besh says, and high-fat meats contain more calories than lean meat.
The American Heart Association says you should get most of your fat through healthy sources such as nuts, vegetable oils and fish.
Instead of abandoning traditional Southern foods, Besh focuses on the healthier side of Gulf Coast cooking, especially lean meats and proteins, like fresh fish. Grilled lean chicken or fresh fish served with fresh herbs and olive oil is heart healthy and still tasty.
“You have something that’s flavorful and nutritious,” Besh says, “and you control the amount of fat.”
Watch your portions. Po-boys the size of your arm and gigantic bowls of dark gumbo have made Louisiana famous for food. And we like to clean our plates.
“Too often, the problem with our food is, when we’re kids, we’re told we have to clean our dish and we’re served mounds of food,” Besh says, “so we’re programmed to eat portions that are far too large.”
In moderation, the rich foods Louisianans love are fine. Instead of eating a full bowl of red beans and rice with sausage, Besh says, opt for a smaller portion and add a big salad. Or eat a small cup of gumbo along with fresh grilled fish and steamed vegetables.