FOOD: Blandness Be Gone!

Nobody ever accused Creole and Cajun food of being light or dietetic. If we’re perfectly honest, we prefer it drenched in creamy sauces, smothered in roux or crusted in fried batter. However, here it is January – which is sort of like Monday – and it’s suddenly time to diet.

Healthy and low-cal Crab-stuffed Mushrooms.

I got to thinking about the holiday pounds – counting the days before king cakes take over the bakeries and grocery stores – and wondered, “What on earth can we do to remain only nominally obese?”

 Well, it isn’t eating king cake everyday at the office or warming our tummies on cool days with pork fat. As Emeril Lagasse tells his TV audiences, “Pork fat reigns in Louisiana.”

 So, I got out my cookbooks, started flipping through and was pleasantly surprised to find that some of my favorite local dishes aren’t so bad after all.

 Now I’m not talking about “lightening” them; all that means is taking out the butter, substituting tofu for the meat and using apple juice to sweeten the dessert. Nah. Not that route. I mean dishes just as we know them with all their taste and texture intact, but ones that can stand up bravely to those wimpy subs when it comes to being healthful.

 You’d be surprised at the many wonderful dishes that are low in calories and fat and are very good for you. Take our fabulous seafood that requires only spices to rev it up to gourmet status. Boiled crabs and crawfish need no embellishment, save the spicy seasonings in the water in which they are boiled, and shrimp are just great with a traditional cocktail sauce that is inherently low in fat. Raw oyster eaters have it made – ringing in at just 10 calories each.

If low-cal dinner ideas have you stymied, our beloved jambalayas and red beans can be just about as healthful as you can get. The rice and beans are pure nutrition, relying on vegetables and spices for seasoning, and – if chosen properly – the meats that make them so good can be as lean as chicken or fish. Use a good brand of andouille that is 90 percent lean. Try ham chunks stripped of any fat. Tasso is a good choice – like andouille, it’s made from the lean part of the pork shoulder. Either of these dishes can be cooked with only a tablespoon or two of canola oil for sautéing the seasoning vegetables.

When the Italian urge grabs you, make a tomato sauce with lots of bell peppers, onion, celery and garlic and very little olive oil. Kick it up with Italian seasoning and toward the end add shrimp or chicken pieces. The kids will love it over spaghetti.

Next, go to the grill. Watching fat and calories doesn’t have to mean that only chicken breasts are allowed on your plate. What about drunken chicken? All you need besides the chicken is a beer can containing three ounces of beer and one teaspoon each of liquid crab boil and liquid smoke. Set the whole chicken on top of the beer can on the grill over hot coals. The chicken’s legs should be just touching the grill. Cook for one hour and 20 minutes without opening the grill and the result will be a very moist and delicious chicken.

Finally, here are two New Orleans classics that will feed a family or serve as an elegant entrée for guests. For starters, try this stuffed mushroom appetizer, which is amazingly healthy and low-cal.
 
CRAB-STUFFED MUSHROOMS
1 pound whole mushrooms (about 30)
1 pound backfin lump crabmeat
3 tablespoons butter, divided
3 teaspoons lemon juice, divided
3 green onions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leafed parsley
1/4 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

 
Wipe mushrooms with a damp paper towel to clean them. Remove the stems and reserve for another use. Pick through the crabmeat, removing any shell.

 Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in a skillet and add 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice. Dip the bottom of each mushroom into the butter mixture and place in a 10-by-13-inch baking dish. If there’s any left in the skillet, pour it around mushrooms in baking dish. Melt remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter and sauté onion and garlic over medium heat for about two minutes, stirring. Add parsley, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice. Then gently add the crabmeat, being careful not to break it up too much. Stuff mixture into mushroom caps; mounding them over the top with a spoon and your hand. When they are all stuffed and back in the baking pan, sprinkle them lightly with grated cheese. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 20-30 minutes. If they’re not slightly browned on top, run them under the broiler for a minute or two. Serve hot.
 
WHOLE FISH CREOLE
1 3- to 5-pound red snapper, mangrove or redfish, cleaned and scaled but left whole
1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-ounce can diced plum tomatoes
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce Salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons lemon juice

 
Sprinkle Creole seasoning all over fish and into cavity. Place fish in large baking pan and preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a skillet, sauté in oil the bell pepper, onion, celery and garlic until soft. Add tomatoes and tomato sauce, seasonings and lemon juice. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Pour sauce over fish, placing some under the fish and in its cavity. Bake for 30 minutes to one hour (depending on size of fish) or until fish is flaky and white – no longer opaque – at its thickest point. Spoon sauce over fish several times during baking. You may need to add a little water (half cup at a time) to the pan several times during the baking to keep sauce from burning. This makes a good gravy.

To serve, place fish on a serving platter topped with the sauce. Garnish with lemon slices and parsley sprigs. This makes an impressive presentation. Serve over white rice. Serves 4 to 6.

Tujague’s, one of the oldest restaurants in New Orleans, is famous for its boiled beef brisket. The Creoles used many versions of boiled beef including the bouilli – or leftover soup meat. This meat “is usually thrown away by other nationalities than the Creole and French when the pot-au-feu, the consommé or the bouillon has been completed,” says the 1901 Times-Picayune Creole Cook Book. “The Creoles long ago discovered, or, rather, brought over with them from the mother country, France, the delightful possibilities for a good entree that lurked within the generally despised and cast aside bouilli – or soup meat – and these possibilities they improved upon in their own unique and palatable styles of cuisine preparations.” Later, restaurants used the beef brisket to complete the dish, although any cut of beef can be used. Because the brisket has a high fat content, a leaner cut can be substituted when calories are a concern.
 
BOILED BEEF
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 3- to 4-pound beef rump, round or sirloin roast, fat removed
1 large onion, quartered
3 stalks celery, halved
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

 
Heat oil to hot in a heavy Dutch oven. Brown roast on all sides. Add water almost to cover roast and add all other ingredients. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 2 1/2 hours. The meat should be very tender. Serve with horseradish sauce. Serves 4.
 
Note: You can strain stock and use for soup or another dish; or add large chunks of carrots and potatoes in the last half hour of cooking.
 
HORSERADISH SAUCE
3 tablespoons fresh horseradish (in refrigerated jars)
4 tablespoons ketchup
3 tablespoons Creole mustard
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Mix all together and served with boiled beef.

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