Let us eat and drink, for Wednesday we get serious.
Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, beginning for some Christians the 40-day period of austerity and reflection known as Lent.
So, naturally, Tuesday--Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras--is a day for widespread decadence and debauchery. You can't have 40 days of symbolic suffering, or at least inconvenience, without a big blow-out party to kick it off.
In America, Party Central for Mardi Gras is, of course, New Orleans. New Orleans is Party Central, anyway, but for Mardi Gras it takes on a whole new dimension. One million people or more are expected to come out for the parades, the food, the festivities, the photo ops and maybe even the drinks.
But that is thinking provincially. The biggest Carnival (the celebration before Lent culminating in Mardi Gras) in the world, by far, is in Rio de Janeiro. Millions of people stream into the streets to watch the massive parades with the spectacularly colored floats and the wild costumes, all accompanied by music, dancing and drinking.
Less extravagant, but considerably funnier, is the way Shrove Tuesday is celebrated in the United Kingdom and much of the Commonwealth. There, Mardi Gras is known as Pancake Day, and in Ireland, it's Pancake Tuesday. The impulse is the same as the more decadent celebrations of Mardi Gras--though, as suits the British, more subdued. Pancakes traditionally are the last rich foods they eat before the penitence and self-denial of Lent, one final chance to consume butter or sugar.
And the fun doesn't stop there ("fun" being a relative term when comparing Pancake Day to the indulgences of New Orleans and Rio). Many Pancake Day celebrations include pancake races, in which people run while flipping pancakes in a skillet. That can't be easy. The tradition is said to date back to 1444, when a woman in Olney, England, was making pre-Lenten pancakes when the church bells began to ring. She is said to have run out of the house, wearing an apron and scarf, and carrying a frying pan with a pancake. Inevitably, the races began the very next year, and participants to this day are required to wear aprons and scarves or other funny hats.
If you can't make it to New Orleans this Mardi Gras, or Rio or Olney -- and if you're reading this newspaper today, odds are you can't -- at least you can indulge in a culinary Carnival of your own.
Aside from Mardi Gras, New Orleans is known most for food; it is a dining paradise and home to perhaps the country's most distinctive regional cooking traditions. If we can learn anything from New Orleans cooking, it is this: Other than a couple of basics -- roux and The Trinity -- there is no set recipe or even specific ingredients for New Orleans food. It is nothing if not versatile, a way to clean out your refrigerator while making the city's world-famous specialties. Call it the New Orleans Theory of Food Universality.
But first, roux and The Trinity.
Roux, which is used to flavor and thicken soups, stews, and gravies, is a mixture of flour and fat. The fat, usually butter or oil, is heated over low or medium-low heat, and an equal amount of flour is added. You must stir constantly to keep the roux from burning (if it does, discard it all and start again). Within a few minutes, the combination will take on a color, beginning with ivory, moving through tan and eventually ending up chocolate brown. The different shades have subtly different flavors, but no one color is necessarily right for any given dish; they all add something different.
The Trinity forms the basic layer of underlying taste to most New Orleans cooking. It is a savory combination of sauteed onions, celery, and green bell pepper.
But other ingredients in the city's pantry are generally left up in the air. Take jambalaya, which resembles Spain's paella. It is a stew with rice, which is usually cooked with the rest of the ingredients, along with tomatoes and basically whatever protein you want to put in it. Shrimp, which are plentiful in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, are appropriate, and so are oysters for the same reason. Chicken is always a welcome addition, because jambalaya started as a humble food; ham will add a smoky saltiness, and you can never go wrong with sausage.
What kind of sausage? Again, this is where the New Orleans Theory of Food Universality comes into play. Andouille sausage works particularly well because of its smoky, spicy bite, and jambalaya is supposed to be spicy -- though you can make it as mild as you like, with no ill effects. Chorizo is hotter and earthier, and will give an intriguing Mexican tone to the meal. For our version, we used smoked turkey sausage, to cut back a bit on the fat, and very little hot pepper, so my wife could enjoy it. We put in sausage, shrimp, and chicken, because Mardi Gras is supposed to be about excess, right?
And it just tastes so blissfully good.
Gumbo, when you get down to it, is sort of like a soupy version of jambalaya, but with okra. And, it being New Orleans, you don't even have to use okra. It's served over rice, like jambalaya, but the rice is cooked separately. And you can use sausage, shrimp or chicken in any combination or proportion you choose. It's as spicy as you want to make it, or as they would say in New Orleans, as spicy as you can take it. And although it is usually made with a dark roux, the kitchen police won't arrest you for using a lighter shade.
If you're using a dark roux, make sure you use oil instead of butter to keep it from burning, and don't use olive oil.
No New Orleans-tinged Mardi Gras celebration would be complete without beignets, those delicate little powdered-sugar-coated fripperies that resemble doughnuts, but aren't quite doughnuts. There are two schools of thought regarding beignets: one that calls for them to be made of yeast, and one that does not. The yeast-made beignets are lighter and airier. I prefer the other kind, because they are easier and quicker. More traditionally French, the yeastless beignets are essentially fried pāte a choux dough. But all you really have to know is that they are quicker and easier, and maybe even deliciouser.
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