Cajun Light Cooking

Yes, It's Possible

Eugenia Uhl Photographs

The term “Cajun light” sounds more like the name of a photography exhibit than a description of Acadian cooking. “Light” is not the adjective that comes to mind when speaking of such iconic Cajun foods as boudin, andouille, gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, hogshead cheese, rice dressing, cracklins, syrup cake and bread pudding with whiskey sauce. Cajun cooking is robust country cooking, with bold, assertive flavors and, typically, little or no concern with fat and calories. Butter, lard, vegetable oil and margarine are used in copious quantities in many dishes, and meat is central to the cuisine.

It is possible to lighten many Cajun dishes by reducing fat and calories, but it should be said at the outset that some Cajun foods simply do not lend themselves to adaptation. Of the many varieties of fresh and smoked Cajun pork products, none is more popular and revered than boudin, the highly seasoned pork-and-rice sausage that is a popular treat any time of day or night. Part of the reason for the deliciousness of boudin is that it is well-lubricated with pork fat. Take away the pork fat, and boudin would be but a poor shadow of itself; no one would eat it.
    
Many Cajun dishes start with a roux, which, of course, is flour browned in some form of fat, often vegetable oil, lard or bacon drippings. A very easy way to reduce the fat and caloric content of a dish is to use dry roux, which is browned flour without the oil. Dry roux, often labeled “instant roux,” is widely available in grocery stores and supermarkets. Or you can make your own by browning flour in a cast-iron skillet, either in the oven or on the stove top. Once made, dry roux can be stored indefinitely in a sealed container.
    
When making a dish with dry roux and no added fat, it’s best to change the order of the initial steps in the recipe. Traditionally, you cook the roux first and then add the seasoning vegetables (onion, celery, bell pepper and sometimes garlic) to the roux, followed by the addition of stock or water. With a dry roux, bring the stock or water to a boil, whisk in the dry roux to dissolve and then add the seasoning vegetables. After that, proceed with the recipe in the usual order.
    
As the saying goes, “fat equals flavor,” so whenever you reduce the amount of fat in a recipe, you need to compensate for the resulting loss of flavor. There are many ways to do this. One of the simplest and most effective is to replace water with a flavorful stock or broth. If you have the time to make homemade stock, that is the best option because there really is no substitute for a richly flavored stock. However, there are a variety of chicken, beef, seafood and vegetable stocks and broths on the grocer’s shelf that are more than adequate. Soup bases, also available in chicken, beef and other flavors, are another option; I’ve found the paste versions superior to the powdered varieties. And then there is the bouillon cube, which generations of cooks have relied on as a flavor booster. Any commercial stock or broth can be improved by simmering it with aromatic vegetables, seasonings and white wine or vermouth.
    
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a well-known flavor enhancer that has been around for a century, ever since a Japanese scientist discovered the naturally occurring presence of glutamates in food and went on synthesize and patent MSG as an additive that would boost a food’s flavor appeal. But MSG has acquired a bad rap in this country, with the result that some are reluctant to add it to their food. However, it’s possible to mimic the effect of MSG by using ingredients that are naturally high in glutamates. Meat, poultry, fish and vegetables all contain glutamates, but some ingredients have particularly high levels of the substance, and they can be used to achieve the desired result. Glutamate-rich foods include tomatoes and tomato products, mushrooms (particularly shiitakes), dried seafood (such as dried shrimp), fermented or cured products (such as ham and cheese), soy sauce, fish sauces, Worcestershire sauce and anchovies, among others. Any of those ingredients can be used in a recipe to enhance flavor. Simmering dried shiitake mushrooms in either a homemade or commercial stock will also produce a more flavorful broth.
    
Another simple way to boost flavor is by browning meats, poultry and vegetables. If your goal is to reduce fat and calories, brown your ingredients in the oven or under the broiler instead of cooking them in oil. Once they’re browned, add them to the pot, and you will notice a marked improvement in the finished dish.

The following recipes are made without using added fat and with an eye to reducing calories and boosting flavor.

 

Chicken, Tasso, and Smoked Turkey Sausage Gumbo

The principal changes in this gumbo include using dry roux; boneless, skinless chicken breasts; and turkey sausage. The recipe includes tasso, which is pork that is seasoned and smoked, but the pork is lean and adds a lot of flavor.

8 cups chicken broth or stock
1/4 cup dry roux
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
1/4 pound tasso, chopped
3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 pound smoked turkey sausage, sliced
Creole seasoning to taste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste
1/4 cup chopped green onion tops
1/4 cup chopped parsley

Bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the roux, and whisk to dissolve. Add the garlic, onion, celery, bell pepper, bay leaf, thyme, Worcestershire and soy sauces and tasso. Bring to a boil; reduce heat; and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
    
Meanwhile, preheat the broiler, and season the chicken and sausage liberally with Creole seasoning. Broil, turning once, until browned. Add to the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and hot sauce. Add the chopped onion tops and parsley. Serve with steamed rice. Serves 4 to 6.

 

Crawfish Stew

This recipe can be prepared in short order.

2 cups chicken broth or stock
3 tablespoons dry roux
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
12 ounces crawfish tails
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Creole seasoning to taste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste
2 tablespoons chopped green onion tops
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Bring the chicken stock to a boil, and whisk in the roux to dissolve. Add the garlic, onion, celery, bell pepper, bay leaf and thyme. Bring to a boil; reduce heat; and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add the crawfish tails and lemon juice; season with Creole seasoning, salt, pepper and hot sauce. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add the onion tops and parsley. Serve over steamed rice. Serves 4.

 

Shrimp Creole

Another dish that can be prepared quickly, it contains only vegetables, shrimp and seasonings. For additional flavor, you can add ground, dried shrimp.

2 medium onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 bay leaves
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

In a large, heavy pot, combine the onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers, tomatoes with their juice and bay leaves. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Season with salt, peppers and hot sauce. Add the shrimp, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp turn pink, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the parsley, and adjust seasonings. Serve over steamed rice. Serves 4.

 

Shrimp-and-Mirliton Rice Dressing

Recipes often call for discarding the mirliton seeds, but they are actually quite tasty, with an almond-like flavor.

2 small mirlitons, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup chicken stock or broth
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped
4 tablespoons ground, dried shrimp
3 cups cooked rice
Creole seasoning to taste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Combine the mirlitons, onion and stock in a heavy pot; bring to a boil; reduce heat; cover; and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes; shrimp; and ground, dried shrimp, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the rice, and stir to combine. Season with Creole seasoning, salt, pepper and hot sauce. Add the chopped parsley. Serves about 6.

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