2009-02-19 / News

Let the good times roll for Mardi Gras

By Donna K. Drago

Ever since I visited New Orleans during the chaos that is Mardi Gras, I have enjoyed celebrating the occasion with family and friends. It's a great excuse to throw a party during these long, cold days of winter. As many of you already know, Mardi Gras, translated to "Fat Tuesday," is the final day before the season of Lent, when Christians really let their hair down in preparation for a solemn 40 days of sacrifices and fasting. It's easy to see why people go a little nuts about Mardi Gras, considering the combination of winter doldrums and the Lenten observance.

The biggest festivities are traditionally held the weekend before Fat Tuesday, so a Mardi Gras party could happen anytime from now through Feb. 24.

My New Orleans-inspired menu includes an appetizer of oysters on the half shell, followed by shrimp and sausage gumbo served with dirty rice, a green salad and cornbread. For dessert, I'm making a bread pudding with a warm bourbon sauce. The gumbo and bread pudding recipes follow.

For decorations, I ordered bags of "throws," which are the strands of metallic, colorful beads that are traditionally thrown from the floats in a Mardi Gras parade. I also ordered sequined masks for all my guests—to add a little mystery to the mayhem. These items are available from several sources. Try www.emardigrasbeads. com and www.toomeysmardigras. com for all kinds of crazy supplies. Find a purple, green or gold tablecloth, light some candles and it's a party! I went to www.amazon.com to pick up a couple of CDs of Cajun and Zydeco music to further set the festive mood. Easy Gumbo (Makes 6 main-course servings) 2 lb. bag frozen shrimp (peeled and deveined). 2.5 quarts fish stock 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 2 medium onions, chopped 2 celery ribs, chopped 1 large green bell pepper, chopped 1/2 lb fresh or frozen pork tasso (a Cajun sausage) or substitute Portuguese chourico or linguica cut into 1/2-inch slices.

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (more or less to taste)

10 ounce bag frozen baby okra, ends trimmed, and cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds

1/2cup thinly sliced scallion greens

Stir together oil and flour in a heavy-bottomed pot, then cook over moderately low heat until roux is medium brown, about 20 minutes. Add sausage, onions, celery, and bell pepper to pot and cook, scraping back and forth occasionally, until onion is softened and edges of sausage are browned, about 10 minutes.

Add thawed shrimp, fish stock, okra, salt and cayenne and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes. Top with scallion greens. The gumbo is ready to serve now, but tastes best the next day.

Bread Pudding with Warm Bourbon Sauce

(Makes 6 servings) 4 large eggs 1 cup whole milk 1 cup whipping cream 1/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract Pinch of salt 4 cups day-old cinnamonraisin bread with crusts, torn into 1/2-inch pieces 1/2 cup pecans, toasted, chopped

Butter an 8-inch square baking dish. Whisk first 6 ingredients in medium bowl. Place bread and pecans in prepared ovenproof dish. Pour milk mixture over and let stand 5 minutes. Push down bread into custard. Refrigerate for 2 hours, pushing bread into custard occasionally.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Place baking dish in large metal baking pan. Add about 1-inch of boiling water to baking pan to surround bread pudding. Bake until pudding is puffed and golden brown on top, approximately 50 minutes. Remove dish with bread pudding from water and cool slightly. Cut into squares. Serve bread pudding warm with sauce below.

Bourbon sauce

1/2 stick unsalted butter 1/2 cup sugar 3 tablespoons whipping cream 2 tablespoons bourbon Pinch of salt

Melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in remaining ingredients. Simmer until thickened, whisking often, about 3 minutes. Cool slightly.

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