One thing I love to do when I travel is find interesting activities to do that will educate me about the culture of the city I'm visiting. I especially love learning about the traditions, celebrations and culinary culture. During my recent trip to New Orleans, I hit the jackpot in all three of these areas.

Outside of my recent trip to Spain, I can't remember the last time I visited a city within the U.S. that has such fire in its belly for food, fun and visitors. I fell in love with New Orleans' emotionally charged southern soul within a few hours of landing at the airport.

During my weekend trip, my traveling buddy and friend, Joanna (from Seven Hills) and I participated in a cooking demonstration at the New Orleans School of Cooking. We had front row seats for two hours of mixing, stirring, story telling and taste testing. We learned how to make some famous New Orleans dishes: Chicken and Smoked Sausage Gumbo, Jambalaya, and arguably my new favorite cookie, Pralines. We were also introduced to a new spice, Joe's Stuff. I highly recommend it if you're into a little adventure in your mouth. If you like beer, I also recommend Abita. It's a beer that was founded in the piney woods of a little town 30 miles north of New Orleans called Abita Springs. Abita can be purchased just about anywhere; if you haven't tried it, I recommend picking it up the next time you're grilling or having folks over for a fall fête. 

 

 

 

What was eye-opening for me was the fact that despite the food is really delicious, it's packed with fattening ingredients. For example, the base of most gumbo recipes is made with a "roux," which basically consists of lard and flour that's fried until you get a hamburger-like consistency. Below you can see the various stages it goes through as it's cooking, hardening, and darkening:

 

 

This food is appreciated by locals and visitors but only sustainable on a very infrequent basis. Don't get me wrong, I'll try most anything once and I enjoy eating as much as the next person, but I was curious to see if there was a way I could still appreciate New Orleans cooking without packing on all of the calories. To my surprise, there are ways to create healthy versions of some of these dishes that still taste good — and in my opinion, taste even better than the traditional recipes.

After class, Chef Michael kept Joanna and me for a private demonstration on how to make Gumbo Z'Herbes (healthy gumbo). Ingredients such as vegetable stock, onions, cabbage, spinach, red pepper, red beans and walnut oil based roux make this a much better version for our tummies and thighs.

 

 

If you're ever in New Orleans, call the NOLA School of Cooking and book a cooking demonstration. It's a great activity for one person or for a group! You'll learn a lot about the culture and the city, and you'll be fed some of the tastiest versions of the city's most celebrated dishes.

Signing Off Finding Fun in Food,
Renee

Renee Woodruff blogs about travel, food and living life to the fullest on Shape.com. Follow her on Twitter or see what she's up to on Facebook!

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