Seasons by the Sea: Easing Off in the Big Easy

Pink Snapper
Baking fish with Cajun spices, rather than frying it, is one way to feed friends New Orleans-style food and leave them sated, not bloated. Laura Donnelly

   So I went to the doctor a month ago and got the bad news. All of a sudden I have high blood pressure. My entire life I have had low blood pressure. The blood pressure of a lizard sunning herself on a mesa in New Mexico — chill, baby, chill! The doctor recommended the DASH diet. DASH is a silly acronym I keep forgetting. It’s something like “diet to abolish stupid hypertension.” No, seriously, it’s “dieting approaches to stop hypertension.”
   But that’s not what this story is about. In the midst of this strict new diet, I was scheduled to attend a six-day conference in New Orleans. New Orleans! One of the greatest food cities in America! Land of the fried oysters, beignets, po boys, pralines, muffalettas, hurricanes, Sazeracs, ’n’ grits. Not one of those delectable items is on the DASH diet. How could I navigate the rich, fatty, salty food landscape of that beautiful, rundown city and stick to my diet?
   While still at home I found myself embracing the discipline of DASH. I love brown rice and oatmeal and kale and butternut squash. Quinoa is fun! Nonfat Greek yogurt is a miracle! The DASH diet suggests six to eight servings of grains per day, four to five each of fruits and vegetables, two of dairy, one and a half of meat or fish, and very little fat and sweets. At the restaurant where I work it has been hard to resist the “family meal,” always delicious but most often pasta-centric. On the other hand, I have access to all kinds of fruit and salad fixings. It’s easy to just grab a handful of berries and whip up a smoothie or build a balanced salad full of greens, carrots, and sunflower seeds.
    But New Orleans was looming and I love every salty, deep-fried crustacean and mollusk that city has to offer. Every restaurant I wanted to revisit or explore for the first time offers such naughty dishes such as Mr. B’s barbecued shrimp, a Worcestershire sauce and butter extravaganza, Nola’s andouille sausage bread pudding, and Arnaud’s oysters Bienville, full of cream and Romano cheese.
    The food of New Orleans doesn’t change. This city is as enamored of its Cajun and Creole cuisine as every tourist who visits it. There is no farm-to-table movement, no vegan options at K Paul’s, and if you don’t embrace walking the streets with an adult beverage in your hand at all times of the day, what are you doing here?
    Well, it turns out it wasn’t that hard to be virtuous and pick my way carefully through the land mine of menus. I could order the simplest fish preparations and plenty of vegetable side dishes. In lieu of a Sazerac or milk punch, a glass of sauvignon blanc went quite nicely with the savory spices of traditional N’Awlins cooking. My colleague Ken discovered the coolest, funkiest (and healthiest) restaurant in the entire city. Green Goddess, a tiny spot tucked down an alleyway, with only eight seats and four bar stools, was my savior. It was so good we ate there three times. They serve dishes such as muhammara, a Syrian dip of roasted red peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses served with raw and cooked vegetables, a vegetarian Cuban sandwich filled with collard greens, Indian lentil pancakes, and satsuma shrimp salad with arugula. Of course, they also had a few classics; a pressed crab sandwich, pork belly with red eye gravy, and a rich bruléed apple French toast.
    There was one day, however, when I had to let myself off the leash. I wandered into Cafe du Monde for the fried dough squares known as beignets. You get three to an order, piled high with powdered sugar. I daintily nibbled on one and went my merry way. Next stop, for another irresistible New Orleans classic, Central Grocery for a muffaletta. These sandwiches consist of huge, soft, round loaves filled with Italian meats such as soppressata, mortadella, salami, some provolone cheese, and, most important, an oily pickled mixture called olive salad. I only ate a quarter of the sandwich and was happy to leave the rest.
    As I tried to navigate through this fattening foodie heaven, I realized that there were so many ways I could cook these foods at home without all the fat and frying and salt and sugar. Remoulade? Why not try making it with yogurt and Vegenaise instead of mayonnaise? Blackened redfish dipped in butter? Why not bake it with a whisper of olive oil? Maque choux, that lovely mixture of corn, peppers, onions, and tomatoes swimming in butter and cream? Again, cook it in olive oil.
    I proposed to my colleagues Ken and Nick that, upon our return, I would cook a virtuous, healthy New Orleans-style meal for us all. I combined a variety of fish — red snapper, grouper, and tilefish — and baked them with the classic blackened fish spices. The maque choux, enough for eight people, had no more than two tablespoons of olive oil. The remoulade for the blackened fish was a combination of diced celery, sweet onion, lemon juice, cayenne, and yogurt. The salad, an homage to Green Goddess’s kooky, clever, healthy menu, was a mixture of Asian greens, slices of Asian pear, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and crushed sweet potato chips on top. For dessert, however, I felt the need to adhere to one great New Orleans classic, Commander Palace’s souffléed bread pudding.
    The meal was a great success and I liked knowing that I sent my friends home sated, not bloated. Last but not least, I discovered upon my return that I am probably the only person in history to have come home from a week in New Orleans three pounds lighter and feeling pretty darned good. Like a lizard sunning herself on a rock in the desert.