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A Taste of Mardi Gras

New Leaf Market E-newsletter February 13, 2012

What celebration says "party" more than Mardi Gras? Whether or not you can make it to New Orleans' French Quarter for the floats and festivities, you can still celebrate the occasion with authentic Mardi Gras music, decorations, and—most importantly—food!

Mardi Gras Time
Actually a days-long celebration, the Mardi Gras Carnival starts on Twelfth Night (January 6, the feast of Epiphany) and continues until midnight on the day of Mardi Gras. The date of Mardi Gras—celebrated with formal balls, processions, masks, throwing of beads and coin-like trinkets known as doubloons, and general hoopla—changes each year, depending on the date of Easter. The day before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday) can happen any time between February 3 and March 9. In 2012 it's on February 21; in 2013 it will be on February 12.

Party Prep!
Planning a Mardi Gras celebration is half the fun. Decorate with abandon, using beads, masks, and traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple (representing justice), green (for faith) and gold (for power). Turn on some tunes from the Bayou State, choosing from a rich musical heritage of zydeco, jazz, gospel, blues/soul and Cajun.

Plan to serve traditional Mardi Gras drinks and treats, or even a full, informal meal, complete with desserts.

Mardi Gras Food
Traditional Mardi Gras food draws on local Cajun and Creole cuisine. While these overlap, there are some distinct differences. Cajun food grows out of a strong country food heritage, from the "acadiens" (descendants of French refugees from Acadia, Canada) who lived off the land and its abundant supply of fish, shellfish, and wild game. Many Cajun dishes are one-pot comfort meals. Creole cookery, on the other hand, descends from the rather wealthy 18th-century farmers of European descent and draws on classic French cooking, Spanish spices, and African American staples.

All of which is to say that Louisiana food is truly a melting pot of flavors—extremely flavorful but not too spicy hot. Cooks tend to use what's on hand, and it's often crab, shrimp, catfish, redfish, oysters, sausage, rabbit, chicken, smoked beef (tass) and crawfish. Okra, filé powder (ground sassafras), and various spices (flavorful but not too hot) often make it into the mix, too.

Here are some suggestions for authentic Mardi Gras fare:

Drinks:
* Coffee and chicory—Chicory is a mild, sweet herb that adds body and aroma to coffee. Serve this drink alone or with Beignet (see desserts).
* Mojitos—Use fresh mint to make this rum-based drink, combined with carbonated water and simple syrup. Make a cranberry mojito using cranberry juice.
* Hurricane—This fruity rum punch is traditionally served in a glass that's curved like a hurricane lamp. It usually contains grenadine, orange juice, pineapple juice, rum and fruit juice and is served over crushed ice.
* Sazerac—Originally served at the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans, this cocktail contains whisky, Herbsaint or Pernod, sugar, Peychaud bitters, and lemon twist.
* Mint Juleps—Bourbon, sugar, and fresh mint leaves are served over crushed ice.
* Bloody Mary—Consider serving this vodka and tomato juice concoction (flavored with Tabasco, celery salt, and Worcestershire sauce and garnished with lemon, lime, and a celery stalk) by the pitcher for instant party atmosphere!

Appetizers:
Spicy Cajun roasted shrimp, mini crab cakes with Creole remoulade, blackened chicken strips, andouille sausage slices, sautéed mushrooms, Cajun spiced nuts, crab spinach dip, shrimp and scallop kabobs, shrimp toast, and stuffed crab all make perfect hors d'oeuvres come Mardi Gras!

Sandwiches, Soups, and Main Dishes:
Find everything you need (fresh shrimp, scallops, fin fish, sausage, chicken) in our Meat & Seafood department.
* Bisque—This rich soup is traditionally made with seafood (such as crab, shrimp, oyster) and cream, wine or sherry, and an occasional vegetable and/or chicken meat.
* Etouffee—Thicker than gumbo, etouffee typically includes crawfish, crabmeat, shrimp and/or chicken, onions, green peppers, and celery in a tangy tomato sauce. It's often served over rice.
* Gumbo—This spicy stew of meat or shellfish is served by both Creole and Cajun cooks. Cajun cooks start with a dark roux (a sauce base made from butter or oil and flour that's darkened by cooking over high heat), spices, and shellfish or poultry, while Creole cooks combine shellfish, tomatoes, and a thickener such as okra or filé powder (dried sassafras leaves). Always hearty, gumbo often includes sausage or ham. There's also a meatless gumbo made from greens; it's thickened with a roux and served with rice.
* Jambalaya—Similar to Spanish paella, jambalaya comes from the Spanish "jamon," or ham. Cajun and Creole cooks make it from what's on hand—a mixture of meats (ham, chicken, sausage, pork) and/or seafood (oysters and shrimp), rice, and seasonings. The vegetables and meats are cooked, then the rice is added to the broth and the flavors meld as the rice cooks.
* Muffuletta sandwich—Served on a dense, round, crusty Italian bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, this hero sandwich is often filled with salami, ham, provolone and Emmentaler cheeses, and olive salad, slathered with mustard. Muffuletta sandwiches can also be made with smoked turkey or other meat or poultry.
* Po'Boy—A poor boy is a sub sandwich traditionally made with fried meat or fish. It's served on a baguette or soft roll along with veggies such as caramelized onions, greens, and tomatoes, as well as cheeses, pepper sauce, Cajun seasoning, dressings and/or mayo and mustard.
* Red Beans and Rice—A Creole favorite, red beans and rice can be served with or without andouille sausage or smoked turkey sausage. Red kidney beans are traditional, with onions, garlic, chili peppers, celery, thyme, oregano, marjoram, Tabasco sauce, and ham shank for added flavor. Serve the beans over the rice, with a sprinkling of green onion on top.
* Shrimp Creole—Served over rice, shrimp creole is a lively combo of cooked shrimp, tomatoes, onion, celery, bell peppers, and a hot pepper sauce.

Desserts
* Chocolate Doberge Cake—This very rich, multi-layered cake is the birthday cake in New Orleans. It's traditionally filled with chocolate pudding and lemon pudding and iced with a chocolate ganache or caramel glaze. Doberge cakes are also made with lemon and/or caramel fillings.
* King Cake or Twelfth Night Cake—A special cake (a Danish yeast braid topped with colored sugar) is traditionally baked on Twelfth Night in honor of the three kings who came bearing gifts to the baby Jesus. A small plastic or porcelain baby is baked into the cake, and the person who gets the slice with the baby hosts the next King Cake party. Almost 500,000 king cakes are eaten each year in New Orleans during Carnival season.
* Pralines—Patty-shaped and easy to make, this creamy candy is made from brown sugar, pecans, butter and vanilla.
* Beignet—Similar to funnel cakes, this fried pastry is liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar and often served with chickory coffee. Some Beignets are made with yeast and others without.

There are many, many more traditional Louisiana foods! Look online or in cookbooks for authentic recipes, and stop by your co-op for inspiration and fresh ingredients. And Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez! -- Let the fun begin!

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