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Crawfish...And All That Jazz Traveling road show brings foods of the bayou to eager folks up north

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eh, mon ami, just wait till you taste this feast! There'll be creamy crawfish Monica, sizzling red beans and rice, jumping hot jambalaya, traditional Southern fried chicken and spicy Cajun chicken wings, alligator sausage, pralines and cafe au lait -- in fact, all the things that make the traditional foods of New Orleans so popular, and it's all right here at home.

On Saturday, Festival New Orleans rolls into Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia with music, crafts and food. There'll be three stages of continuous sounds, crafts people selling beads and jewelry, voodoo dolls and other Louisiana crafts, plus half a dozen food vendors, all creating the sights and smells and sounds of New Orleans.

While the list of performers includes such favorites as Beausoliel, Buckwheat Zydeco, Evangeline and the Zion Harmonizers, performers must share the spotlight with the dishes served up by authentic New Orleans vendors.

"As soon as the gates open, people just rush to the food vendors," said Rene Vaucresson, of Vaucresson Sausage Co. in New Orleans. "I really believe people are coming here for the food as well as the music." Mr. Vaucresson will be offering alligator sausage on a stick, and Cafe du Monde cafe au lait, and beignets, traditional New Orleans-style doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar.

The event is somewhat unusual for Merriweather Post Pavilion, in combining food, crafts and music. "What we try to present is something for everyone," says Jean Parker, general manager of the pavilion. "This event is very family-oriented. It's music of all different styles and very elaborate food areas -- people can get a flavor of what an actual New Orleans jazz festival is like, right here in Columbia, Md."

"This is authentic New Orleans food -- that's what makes this event unique," says Pete Hilzum, of Kajun Kettle Foods of New Orleans. His specialty, called crawfish Monica, a blend of crawfish tails in a creamy, spicy sauce served over pasta, was developed to serve at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where visitors gobble up as many as 43,000 plates full during the course of the event. Chef Mark Arnone will be preparing crawfish Monica in Columbia, along with chicken and sausage jambalaya.

Like Mr. Vaucresson, Mr. Hilzum became involved in Festival New Orleans because of a connection with the 25-year-old jazz

and heritage fest in New Orleans, a 14-day event held the last week in April that draws 300,000 people for jazz, food and fun.

Festival New Orleans, in its debut season, is a way to "take this show on the road," Mr. Hilzum says, as a living, traveling sample of the popular, long-running jazz fest.

If the popularity of Cajun-style restaurants and Cajun foods is any indication, Festival New Orleans is reaching a receptive audience.

Mr. Vaucresson says almost everywhere he's been on the tour -- stops have included Richmond, Syracuse and Dallas -- there are Cajun restaurants.

Among recent cookbooks bringing Louisiana cooking home are "Lee Bailey's New Orleans," (Clarkson N. Potter, 1993, $30) and Emeril's New New Orleans Cooking," by Emeril Lagasse and Jessie Tisch (William Morrow, 1993, $23).

In the Baltimore area, most folks get their Cajun experience at Sisson's restaurant, 36 E. Cross St. in Federal Hill, where Cajun-Creole food has been on the menu since 1985. "I'm surprised really, at the amount of blackened redfish we still sell out of here," said Bill Aydlett, executive chef. That dish was first popularized by Mr. Prudhomme, who made "blackened" a household word in the '80s. But other Cajun-style dishes from chicken etouffee (smothered) to jambalaya remain perennial favorites among Sisson's diners, Mr. Aydlett says.

"I think people wish they could cook like that" at home, he says, adding garlic and spices with a free hand. But, if they're tentative with the spice jar at home, he says, when they eat out, "people really go after those spices."

Mr. Lagasse, who grew up in Fall River, Mass., a town of strong Portuguese and French-Canadian influence, writes of "the mystique" of New Orleans food, and explains the difference between Cajun ("robust food of the Acadian farmers and fishermen") and Creole (a more refined, cosmopolitan cuisine" brought to New Orleans by early European immigrants).

In his own cooking, Mr. Lagasse draws on the traditions and ingredients of both styles and updates them with such other influences as Oriental, Portuguese or New Mexican.

Tradition will prevail at Festival New Orleans. Ernest Jones, a New Orleans caterer, will be serving red beans and rice, Southern fried chicken and spicy Cajun chicken wings. "People really want to know, is this New Orleans food? They want to know, is it a gimmick? And then they come back and they say, 'This is it.' "

Other vendors, and their specialties, are: John Ed Laborde, crawfish etouffee and crawfish bread; Danny Toups, crawfish pie and catfish "po' boy" sandwiches; and Sheila Estevez, ice tea and pink lemonade.

With more than a dozen cities on the tour, and stops at as many as three cities a weekend, participants can find the event grueling, says Sally Cobb, food and crafts director of the festival. "It's a crash course in how to vend on the road," she says, recalling it took a couple of stops before tour members realized they needed single, huge "road boxes" for their equipment, instead of dozens of small boxes that caused problems for people loading and unloading. Still, she says, the vendors are "honored" to be in on the creation of something that seems likely to become a major annual event, putting a little spice into the lives of people living north of crawfish country.

"Northern food is OK, but it's a little bland," Mr. Vaucresson says. But once people sample the festival's Cajun delights, they become fans, he says. "People just love the food."

There are still plenty of tickets left to Festival New Orleans, which takes place from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, on Little Patuxent Parkway just south of Columbia Mall. Admission is $20 for either pavilion or lawn seating, with children 12 and under free.

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If you can't get to the festival, or do go and then long to create some Cajun flavors at home, here are some recipes you can try. The first is from "The Tabasco Cookbook," by Paul McIlhenny with Barbara Hunter (Clarkson N. Potter, 1993, $14), for a traditional dish "favored by Cajuns and Creoles alike." The authors say the name comes from the French word for ham, jambon, and the word for rice in an African dialect, alaya.

Eula Mae's jambalaya

Serves 6 to 8

1 3-pound chicken, boned and skinned, or 1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless breasts and thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 pound cooked ham, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

2 large onions, chopped

1 medium green pepper, seeded and chopped

1 cup celery, chopped

4 garlic cloves, peeled

3 cups chicken broth

1 16-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and juice reserved, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup chopped green onions

2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 teaspoon Tabasco pepper sauce

2 cups rice, rinsed and drained

Sprinkle the chicken cubes with the salt and red and black peppers. Add the oil to a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, and cook the chicken, stirring, until browned on all sides, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the chicken to a bowl. Add the ham to the pot and saute for about 5 minutes, or until lightly browned, then add it to the chicken. Put the onions, green pepper, celery and garlic in the pot and saute for about 5 dTC minutes, scraping the bottom to incorporate all the browned bits. Add the chicken and ham, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken broth and reserved tomato juice to the pot, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes.

Mash the cooked garlic against the side of the pan and stir back into the mixture. Add the tomatoes, parsley, green onions, shrimp and Tabasco and adjust the seasoning to taste. Add the rice. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, lower the heat and, stirring occasionally, simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes, until the rice is tender and fluffy and the liquid is absorbed.

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The next recipe, for a traditional Cajun dish pronounced "mock SHOO," is from Emeril Lagasse's "Emeril's New New Orleans Cooking." If you can't find "tasso," or Cajun spiced ham, use any spiced cooked ham.

Tasso maque choux

Makes about 2 cups

2 tablespoon olive oil

3 ounces ( 1/3 cup) diced tasso (or other spiced ham)

1 1/2 cups fresh corn, scraped from the cob (about 2 ears)

1/3 cup chopped onions

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1 turn freshly ground pepper

1 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup minced red bell peppers

1/3 cup chopped green onions

Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the ham and saute for 30 seconds. Add the corn and cook, shaking and flipping the skillet several times, for about 1 minute.

Add the onions and saute for 30 seconds. Add the garlic, salt and pepper and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the cream, red peppers and green onions and simmer until heated through, for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

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