Celebrate Mardi Gras at home – or out – with classics

A muffaletta includes meats, cheese and olive salad.
A muffaletta includes meats, cheese and olive salad. The Kansas City Star

If you think Mardi Gras is just another drinking day, you’re missing out. They call it “Fat Tuesday” because of the food.

In New Orleans, Mardi Gras isn’t a one-night party. It’s a monthlong celebration leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent. Outside of the Big Easy, though, it’s usually relegated to an evening of imbibing à la St. Patrick’s Day.

But to celebrate Mardi Gras that way is to miss out on the good eats. And for a small city (less than 350,000 as of the last census), New Orleans has a big appetite. People there love to gather and share food. Despite the city’s French origins, most of the classic cuisine isn’t too fancy, either.

Dishes include rich stews such as gumbo, chock full of Southern ingredients; hearty meat sandwiches such as po’ boys and muffalettas, and seafood-based Cajun favorites over rice such as étouffée. And don’t forget the desserts: gooey bread pudding with bourbon sauce, sugar-dusted beignets and tasty pecan pralines.

The most majestic of Mardi Gras desserts is king cake, similar to a coffee cake, but iced and sugared in celebratory purple, green and yellow. Known as three kings cake in some places, it’s eaten in many countries, starting on the Christian feast day known as Epiphany (Jan. 6), which kicks off carnival season.

Traditionally, the cake includes a dried bean or baby figurine baked into it. Whoever gets the object in their slice of cake is king for the day and has to buy the next cake. The three colors on top represent justice (purple), faith (green) and power (gold).

In Sacramento, we have several culinary Mardi Gras celebrations to enjoy. The Porch, South, the Shack and Old Soul Co. will have special menu items. Freeport Bakery (2966 Freeport Blvd.) is also making a king cake to order in plain ($15.95) or with praline filling ($20.95).

New Orleans native N’Gina Kavookjian of South restaurant (2005 11th St.) will offer a seafood gumbo (about $13) on Mardi Gras, although she says, “Our goal is to always put amazing Southern dishes on our menu.

“A lot of people have a misconception of New Orleans food,” she says. “Our challenge is to re-educate people about Gulf-area food.”

Another transplanted New Orleanian is Charlie Harrison, chef of Old Soul Co. He’ll be making king cake to order ($15 to $25) with a cinnamon roll–based dough and a baby hidden inside. Order it in person only at the alley cafe location (1716 L St.).

They’ll also bake authentic muffaletta bread ($7), which is a round Italian loaf topped with sesame seeds. As is done in New Orleans, they’ll slice it horizontally and pile it with meats, cheeses and “olive salad,” made of chopped olives, peppers and Italian seasonings. You can also order the bread to make the sandwich at home (see the following recipe).

Old Soul will serve slices of muffaletta ($8) on Mardi Gras (Tuesday, Feb. 9 this year) and the weekend prior (Feb. 6-7) at all three of its locations (including 812 21st St. and 3434 Broadway).

At the Porch (1815 K St.), chef/owner Jon Clemons has been cooking up a Mardi Gras feast every year since the restaurant opened in 2011. While they have beignets and gumbo year-round, Clemons will up the ante with fried oyster po’ boys, red beans and rice, crawfish hush puppies and a vegan étouffée with greens ($15 to $25 for choices), now at least through Mardi Gras.

“We will be doing quite a few different Mardi Gras-inspired dishes, rotating as things sell out,” Clemons says. “We’re just trying to raise awareness of the variety of New Orleans foods.”

Music is a huge part of New Orleans culture and especially so for Mardi Gras. From 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 6, the Porch will host a special Mardi Gras celebration with local jazz band the Crescent Katz providing authentic background party tunes.

The Crescent Katz also are set to play the Shack (5201 Folsom Blvd.) from 5 to 9 p.m on Tuesday, Feb. 9. The evening will include a special menu of catfish po’ boys, chicken and andouille gumbo, shrimp étouffee and king cupcakes.

Gumbo from the Porch

Serves 8 to 10

At The Porch, they brine and poach whole chickens for this dish, but you can substitute the shredded meat from two rotisserie chickens or about 6 pounds poached bone-in thighs. Recipe adapted from Chef Jon Clemons.

1 pound unsalted butter

3  1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 pound andouille sausage, cut in medium dice

1 white onion, cut in medium dice

2 stalks celery, cut in medium, dice

1/2 carrot, cut in medium dice

1 red bell pepper, cut in medium dice

1 green bell pepper, cut in medium dice

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons clarified butter

1/4 cup white wine

2 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic

3 cups tomato juice

2 quarts chicken stock

1/2 cup white wine, such as Chardonnay

1 cup whiskey, such as Kentucky bourbon

1  1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons sugar

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons gumbo filé

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 pounds 21-25 shrimp, tail off, raw

8 cups shredded cooked chicken meat (about 2 large chickens)

1 ripe tomato, diced

Cooked white rice, hot

1/2 bunch green onions, chopped

Make the roux: In a heavy pot over low heat, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Cook, stirring frequently, until the roux becomes a dark brown color (this can take a while). Set aside.

In a large pot over medium-low heat, sauté the onions, celery, carrot, bell peppers, sausage, oil, and butter until the vegetables are tender. Deglaze the pot with ¼ cup wine.

Stir in the garlic, tomato juice, stock, wine, bourbon, salt, pepper, Old Bay, tomato paste, sugar, bay leaf, filé, granulated garlic, celery seeds, fresh and dried thyme, allspice, paprika, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco. Bring to simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.

Stir in the parsley, shrimp, chicken, and tomato. Cook for 5 minutes, then quickly whisk in the roux, making sure there are no lumps. Cook for another 5 minutes. Season to taste with more salt, pepper and Tabasco as needed.

Serve gumbo over white rice garnished with the green onions.

South’s spicy shrimp and cheese grits

Serves 4

Make sure you buy coarse grits and not quick-cooking grits. They take longer to cook, but they’re authentically Southern. Recipe courtesy N’Gina Kavookjian, South restaurant.

1 cup manufacturing or heavy whipping cream

3 cups water

1 cup coarse ground grits

3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined, preferably 16/20 size

3 tablespoons blackening spice

Vegetable oil

1  1/2 cups fish stock or white wine

1/2 cup butter

Finely chopped green onions for garnish

For the grits: In a pot, add cream and water and heat until the mix begins to foam. While whisking thoroughly, slowly pour the grits into the cream mix. Continue to whisk for 2 to 3 minutes, until the grits come to a simmer. Lower the heat to a slow simmer and occasionally stir the grits.

Depending on how coarse your grits are, they can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour to fully cook. When the grits have cooked to the consistency of oatmeal, slowly add the cheddar cheese while stirring. Season to taste with salt and pepper; cover and set somewhere warm while preparing the shrimp.

For the shrimp: Remove the shrimp from the packaging and blot dry with paper towels. In a mixing bowl, season the shrimp with the blackening spice. Heat a sauté pan with oil until it is hot. Add the shrimp in an even layer so all shrimp are laying on the hot pan. Turn the shrimp over when they begin to darken on the first side. Once the shrimp have color on both sides, remove them from the pan and set aside. Add the fish stock or white wine to the hot pan and deglaze, scraping up the browned bits. Reduce the stock or wine by 1/2 cup, then add back the cooked shrimp and stir in the butter.

For plating: Scoop hot grits into bowls, place the shrimp over the grits and then ladle the pan sauce over the shrimp. Garnish with the onions.

Old Soul’s muffaletta

Serves 2 to 4

If you can’t find muffaletta bread, substitute a large loaf of Italian bread. Muffalettas are round sandwiches served by the quarter, half or whole at groceries and shops in New Orleans.

Recipe courtesy Charlie Harrison, Old Soul Co.

1 loaf round muffaletta bread, cut in half horizontally

Extra-virgin olive oil

6 slices Genoa salami

6 slices ham

3 slices Swiss cheese

3 slices provolone cheese

1/2 cup olive salad (recipe follows)

Brush the bread with olive oil on both inside pieces. Layer from top to bottom with the salami, ham, and cheeses, ending with the olive salad. Cut into wedges and serve.

Olive salad

5 ounces green Spanish queen olives

3 ounces pitted kalamata olives (1/2 cup)

2 tablespoons drained capers

6 ounces chopped pickled vegetables (like pepperoncini or giardiniera)

2 teaspoons caper liquid from the jar

2  1/2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced shallot

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley

Pinch of crushed red pepper

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Rough chop the olives and capers. Stir everything together in a bowl. Let it marinate overnight.

The Press Bistro’s ‘sac-zerac’

Serves 1

This old-school cocktail is a classic in New Orleans and sells briskly at the Press Bistro year-round. You want just a hint of the anise flavor from the Herbsaint.

1 splash Herbsaint (anise liqueur)

2 ounces rye whiskey

1/4 ounce agave nectar

3 dashes Peychaud’s

1 dash Angostura

1 orange peel twist

Pour a bit of Herbsaint into a rocks glass. Swirl it to coat the inside, then discard the rest. Pour the whiskey, agave and bitters over ice in a mixing glass; stir and strain into the rocks glass. Garnish with the orange twist.