Cajun Light Cooking
Yes, It's Possible
Eugenia Uhl Photographs
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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.