Having had enough of this North Fork winter, I feel it’s time to take a break by having a few friends for dinner and celebrating “Fat Tuesday,” or Mardi Gras. Having a daughter who attends Tulane University in New Orleans has allowed me to explore the rich culinary offerings of “The Big Easy.” Mardi Gras refers to the tradition of eating rich food before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season begins. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras has become a world-famous event, and it showcases the regional Cajun and Creole cooking that has made the city famous.
The difference between Cajun (or Acadian) and Creole cooking has a great deal to do with their origins. The Acadians migrated from France to Nova Scotia in the 17th century and in 1755 were literally removed from their homes by the British and abandoned along the East Coast. They wandered to many places, but a large group ended up in Louisiana and settled there. They became known as “Cajuns” and developed a style of country cooking that used lard in making dark roux and hot peppers as seasoning for the many seafood and rice dishes.
The Creole people descended from French and Spanish colonists in Louisiana before the territory became part of the United States. Creole cuisine is distinctly French, influenced by Spanish, African, Italian, English and German colonists.
Cajuns put all of their ingredients in one pot, while Creoles like them separate. Cajuns use lard while Creoles prefer butter. The former can be considered more of a country cooking style while the latter more akin to city cooking. Here are a few recipes to start the celebration:
Angels and Devils on Horseback
Shuck 12 oysters and place them on the half shell on a sheet pan. Preheat the broiler. Combine 1/2 cup white wine, 1 teaspoon minced garlic and 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce. Add 12 bay scallops and toss to coat. Marinate for 10 minutes.
Place 4 slices of bacon on a paper towel over a plate and microwave for 3 minutes to blanch the bacon. Cut the bacon into small pieces and set aside. Place 1 scallop next to each oyster and sprinkle the bacon over all. Spoon the marinade over the oysters and broil until bacon is crispy and the scallops are opaque. Serve with additional hot sauce.
Perhaps the most famous of all Louisiana dishes, gumbo derives its name from a West African Bantu tribe’s word for okra, which is “ki ngombo.” It is a happy marriage of cooking techniques and ingredients used by settlers, Africans and Native Americans. It features okra, a vegetable pod that has been prized in Africa since prehistoric times. Slaves brought it to the Americas and called it gumbo, a name that was later extended to denote a stew made with the vegetable. Okra gives the gumbo a rich, earthy flavor, but more importantly thickens the stew as it simmers. It is readily available in the frozen section of grocery stores.
The Cajun version of gumbo uses a dark roux made from lard, andouille sausage and crawfish. Begin by placing a large Dutch oven over medium heat and adding 1/4 cup lard (you can substitute vegetable oil) and 1/4 cup flour. Cook this roux, stirring with a wooden spoon, for about 25 minutes or until it turns the color of chocolate. Add 2 cups chopped onions, 1 cup chopped green bell peppers, and 1 cup diced celery. Cut up 1 pound of andouille sausage and 1 pound of boneless, skinless duck breast into small pieces. Add sausage and duck breast to the roux mixture along with 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning. When vegetables are soft, add 2 quarts chicken broth and simmer, uncovered, for 2 hours.
Season 1 pound of shelled crawfish and 1 pound of shelled and deveined shrimp with 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning and add to the gumbo. Stir in 1 pound of okra (thawed if frozen) and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Check for seasoning and serve over white rice topped with chopped green onions, chopped parsley and filé powder.
Red Beans and Rice
In Louisiana, Monday is red beans and rice day. The beans are often simmered with the ham bone left over from Sunday dinner. The beans are ladled over white steamed rice and garnished with scallions.
Begin by soaking 1/2 pound of dried red beans in cold water overnight. In a heavy soup pot heat 2 tablespoons bacon grease or vegetable oil. Add 1/4 cup tasso (smoked ham butt) and cook for 1 minute. Add 3/4 cup chopped yellow onions, 1/3 cup chopped celery and 1/2 cup chopped green bell peppers. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are soft and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 2 bay leaves, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
Cut 1/4 pound smoked sausage into 1-inch pieces and add to the pot with 3/4 pound smoked ham hocks. It’s important to crack the ham hock to expose the marrow. Cook until sausage and hocks have become brown. Stir in 2 tablespoons minced garlic. Drain the soaked beans and add them along with 5 cups chicken broth. Simmer, covered, for 2 hours or until beans are soft. Discard hock bone (if desired) before serving over white rice.
Cajun Beer Biscuits
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine 2 1/2 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder in a large bowl. Cut up 1 1/4 sticks of butter and add to the dry ingredients. With a pastry blender (or your hands) cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Gradually stir in 1 cup beer and 2 tablespoons minced jalapeno peppers until dry ingredients are moist. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead into a ball. Do not overwork the dough, as it will toughen it. Roll out the dough into a thick rectangle and cut into 12 biscuits. Line a sheet pan with parchment and bake until lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Sprinkle with pepper and serve hot.
Red Velvet Cupcakes
with Cream Cheese Frosting
Sift together 1 1/4 cups flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon cocoa. In a separate bowl whisk together 1/2 cup buttermilk, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon red food coloring, 1/2 teaspoon vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 3/4 cup canola oil. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix thoroughly. Line a muffin tin with 12 paper liners and fill them two-thirds full. Place in a 350-degree oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and cool.
For the frosting, combine 8 ounces softened cream cheese, 1 stick of softened butter and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract in a mixer bowl and beat with a paddle until smooth. Reduce speed and add 2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar. Increase speed and whip frosting until fluffy. Frost the cooled cupcakes and garnish with fresh raspberries.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].