It was 1982 that I experienced my first Mardi Gras. Stationed at a small Naval Base on the West Bank area of New Orleans, I was a Navy musician, and for three years lived and worked in New Orleans, an active participant in Mardi Gras and the culture that went along with the New Orleans’ way of life and celebration-parades, music, parties, and over-indulgence in good food and drink!
I fondly remember those years in Louisiana. Being in a Navy Band gave me an opportunity to perform at festivals, events and parades all across the state, meeting Louisianans from all walks of life. They all were fun-loving, warm, and generous, willing to share their stories and spirit with total strangers. And there was a familiarity about their folksiness for me, the Cajun-Acadian humor reminiscent of the Swedish-Norwegian humor I remember as a child. They passed along information, stories and recipes, without ever a thought of writing it down. I often scribbled down a recipe as it was told to me, thankful to capture a bit of the culture as I could.
The food…was incredible! Beignets and chicory coffee. Red beans and rice. Raw oysters and file gumbo. Boiled crawfish with corn and potatoes. Abundant, delicious, and hearty, I doubt that anyone could have gone hungry!
Mardi Gras was no different. Translated from French, the literal translation is “Fat Tuesday” and it marks the day before the Lenten season begins in some religious tradition. Abundance and over-indulgence were everywhere! But I remember the celebrations officially starting a couple of weeks before, and I was introduced to the morning “King Cake.” As it was told to me, it represented the three Wise Men bearing gifts to the Christ Child.
The King Cake is like a giant cinnamon roll ring with frosting and sprinkled with the three colors of Mardi Gras-purple, green, and gold. There was a plastic baby or red bean placed inside, and whoever received that token was to supply the King Cake the next day. Some felt that receiving the token meant you would have good luck or fortune.
I remember getting the baby one time, and trying my hand at baking the next day’s cake. It was disastrous, so my fortune was spent at Gambino’s Bakery (also famous for Doberge cakes), and I walked in to work with a picture-perfect King Cake in hand.
Though I never have mastered baking the delicious cakes and pastries that are associated with New Orleans, my forte has been putting together a good ol’ down-home-style celebration, introducing my friends to the flavors of New Orleans as I remember them.
These recipes were as I remember them, just as they were passed on to me. They come to you with the same Cajun spirit and folksiness that was shared with me two and a half decades ago.
You’ll see a pattern of ingredients in this standard fare. Adjust your amounts, and the size of the skillets, pots and pans you use, to the numbers of people you will be serving. I’ve tried to add some cooking times and ingredient amounts where I can. Remember to make a little extra in case you have an unexpected guest!
First things first.
Red hot Sauce: Hot sauce is right on the table with the salt and pepper. There may be hundreds of choices out there, but my personal favorite is the Original Louisiana Hot Sauce manufactured by Bruce Foods (http://louisianapepper.com). It has a red dot on its label.
Rice: Make sure you start by cooking up plenty of long-grain white rice, because so many of the dishes you will find on the lunch or dinner table in a home in Louisiana are served over a bed of white rice.
And now for the recipes…
Red Beans and Rice
Sort and wash small red beans (or kidney beans) and soak overnight, discarding the soaking liquid. In a big pot, sauté finely chopped onion, garlic, celery and green pepper in a little bit of oil. Add the soaked beans, a hambone, bay leaf, salt, thyme, and a little cayenne pepper. If you don’t have a hambone, diced ham, or a good smoky kielbasa-type sausage can be used. Cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover and cook until the beans are cooked but not mushy, about 2 to 3 hours. In the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking, mash up some of the beans using the back of a large wooden spoon against the inside of the pot, stirring them in so they get creamy and thicken the beans. Serve with white rice and hot sauce.
I’ve learned that gumbo can be made with many different kinds of meat, and is thickened with okra, filé, or a roux. So much of that depended on who was cooking it and what kind of meat was cooked. I’ve used okra with seafood gumbo, and filé with a meat gumbo. Because I’ve moved around and cannot always find okra or file, I usually start with a roux as my thickening agent. I’ve settled on a combination gumbo that has been a big hit in my circle of friends.
The roux: In a large stockpot, heat one stick of butter or ½ oil over medium low heat. Add as much all-purpose flour as you have butter (about ½ cup), gradually stirring it in, and continue cooking and stirring until the roux is dark brown.
Slowly mix 5 to 6 cups of chicken stock to the roux, blending into the roux. I’ve also used a combination of vegetable, beef, and chicken broth.
The vegetables: In a separate skillet, heat up a small amount of oil, and cook over medium heat a chopped onion, chopped green pepper, a few chopped celery stalks with leaves, and three cloves of crushed garlic until all are tender.
Assembling the gumbo: To the roux-broth mixture, add a large can of stewed tomatoes, about a pound of chicken thighs (I use boneless and skinless to reduce the fat), a pound of smoked sausage sliced into ½ inch round slices, a bit of salt and black pepper, and about ½ cup chopped, fresh parsley leaves, and a tablespoon each of fresh thyme and sage (I use half that amount if using dried, but prefer taste of the fresh), and the sautéed vegetables.
Add two to three cans of beer or water and heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low and simmer for nearly an hour uncovered. Skim off any excess fat.
Add a pound of medium-sized shelled and de-veined shrimp and cook uncovered for an additional 4 to 7 minutes, or until the shrimp turn pink. Serve with white rice.
In a large skillet, add butter or olive oil, crushed garlic, chopped onions, celery and green bell peppers and sauté until the onions are tender and sweet. Reduce the heat and add canned tomatoes (I prefer whole roma tomatoes in juice), or tomato sauce and water, crushed red pepper, a couple of bay leaves, and salt to taste. Simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes. Then add shelled, raw shrimp and bring to a boil, adding water if needed. Reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer for about 10 or 15 more minutes until the shrimp are tender and pink. Serve over rice.
Jambalaya always reminded me of gumbo, but with the rice cooked in the broth with the meat and vegetables. I like making Jambalaya with chicken thighs and smoked sausage, but I’ve eaten it with seafood, pork, rabbit, or leftover prime rib and gravy. The basic instructions are to brown the meat in fat first, saute the vegetables, then add stock, spices, rice and water, and cook until the rice is done. I’ve even known some people to cook this in a rice cooker!
Brown boneless, skinless chicken thighs and sliced sausage (or other meats) in oil or butter in a large pot. Remove from pot, tear up the chicken into smaller pieces, and set aside. Add a little more fat to the pot and saute chopped onions, green onions, garlic, green bell pepper, celery and parsley and cook until onions are softened. Add a can of chicken broth, and a large spoonful of Worcestershire sauce, a bay leaf, along with salt, black pepper, cayenne, thyme, and basil to taste, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Then add the meat, and one cup of uncooked white long-grain rice. If there isn’t enough water to cover the mixture, add just enough to do so, bring to a low boil, cover and turn down the heat and cook until the rice is done. Do NOT stir the pot!
I’ve never been much of a cream of mushroom soup fan, but I went to a church potluck dinner in Houma, Louisiana where someone had made this etouffee with the mushroom soup, and cooked leftover diced chicken. You could certainly substitute cooked crawfish tails, or cooked shrimp for other types of etouffee.
Melt butter and saute onions, green pepper, celery and crushed garlic over medium heat. Add a can of chicken broth and a can of cream of mushroom soup, and stir into the vegetable mix. Add a healthy spoonful of Cajun seasoning (salt-free), and cayenne pepper to taste. Turn down to medium low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add a pound of cooked, diced chicken, crawfish or shrimp. Stir in chopped, fresh parsley and green onions. Heat until hot and serve over white rice.
With these few simple recipes, all that you will need are a few Mardi Gras decorations and beads in the traditional festive colors, and a New Orleans-style jazz CD playing in the background on the stereo. You’ll have a Mardi Gras party abundant with food, family and friends nearly as authentic as if your family name were Boudreaux!
And as far as the King Cake, go ahead and splurge on one from Gambino’s (http://www.gambinos.com)! It will be the perfect touch to your Mardi Gras celebration!