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Big, Easy Fun

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I was afraid of Mardi Gras, actually, my first time. I drove down for the festivities with a group of friends from New York in February 1983, and though I was unquestionably a girl who liked a party, Mardi Gras sounded like enough party to be scary.

Apparently, I overcame my fears. I ended up towing a U-Haul back down to the Crescent City two months after I reluctantly left, and moving in with a bartender I'd met and fallen in love with and whom I eventually married. Even though he and I relocated from our little slave-quarter apartment on Royal Street and Ursulines Avenue to Austin, Texas, not long afterward, we returned to New Orleans for Mardi Gras for many years.

But sure, it's true: Mardi Gras can be more party than you can handle, and it's not only the intervening decades that have blurred the memories of my first one into bright smears of color and light, with the taste of shrimp and the smell of oysters hovering around them. I think the memories were more or less in that state the morning after.

But as I began to learn on that trip and came to fully appreciate later on, Mardi Gras is much more than the boozy revelry that takes over the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday. These days, I never go near the Quarter during a carnival visit and I leave on Monday afternoon.

My favorite part of Mardi Gras is the weekend before it, when the krewes of Iris, Endymion and Bacchus put on some of the most beautiful and elaborate parades you'll ever see. (A krewe is a social club that sponsors both private and public carnival events, such as balls and parades.)

My favorite place to be is the Mid-City or Uptown neighborhoods, where people who live along the parade routes open their homes to friends and friends of friends for bathroom breaks and gumbo stops, where children line the sidewalks on shoulders or ladders, ready to catch glittery plastic beads from the costumed float riders.

For the children of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is not just a day off from school. It's like Disney World arriving at the front door, only more so. As soon as I had kids, I would never have dreamed of going to Mardi Gras without them.

In addition to the crucial ritual of parade-going, my Mardi Gras visits follow another very important schedule -- that of dining opportunities. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive and delectable eating in this country or anywhere else, and it is found everywhere from the fanciest restaurant to the most run-down takeout shack. Any visit to New Orleans, they say, is measured in meals, not in days: You have to stay long enough to eat all the foods you've been craving. At least you have to try.

Of course, no so-called Cajun restaurant or home recipe is ever really going to make an oyster po-boy like you get at Uglesich or Weaver's, "dressed" with lettuce and tomato on soft French bread. The boiled crawfish you buy in bulging brown grocery bags at any New Orleans seafood market, piled in with ears of corn, new potatoes and onions, is not going to be matched by the delicate little pile of crustaceans on your plate at the New Orleans-style restaurant in Philly or Baltimore. The midnight beignet at Cafe du Monde is definitely not just a powdered-sugar doughnut, and no out-of-town muffuletta is going to sport the sesame loaf or the olive salad used at Central Grocery on Decatur Street.

I won't even start on the mind-blowing haute cuisine variations found at fine restaurants like Emeril's, Brigtsen's, Bayona and K-Paul's. It's not just the food that makes these places stand out. It's the good cheer and gusto surrounding the whole dining experience, no matter how haute you go.

OK, so you're going to have to go to New Orleans. But in the meantime, the good news is that some New Orleans food can be had at home, even by those as far away as we are. You can start by ordering a king cake, a circular, sometimes filled, coffeecake frosted in Mardi Gras colors of green, gold and purple. You can get them online from the very same bakeries where aficionados pick them up in the Big Easy. Most vendors throw in some beads and doubloons -- shiny aluminum coins with krewe insignia -- as well.

The purple, green and gold symbolize justice, faith and power, says Pableaux Johnson, a New Orleans-based food and travel writer. That's funny, because I thought they stood for unabashed cheesiness.

During Mardis Gras, Johnson fixes his famous chicken-and-sausage gumbo, whips up a batch of Bloody Marys and waits for friends to arrive at his house, which lies on the uptown parade route. He makes the hot soup, he says, because it's rarely warm and sunny during Mardi Gras. It's more likely in the low 40s, wet and bone-chillingly cold, with a pale-gray sky over it all. "Gumbo weather," Johnson calls it with relish.

Well, we Northerners may not have parades or balls but we sure as heck have gumbo weather. Take the chill off with Pableaux's gumbo or with red beans and rice, traditionally eaten on Mondays in New Orleans but a delicious and quick one-pot meal on any day.

Another favorite is oyster-and-artichoke soup. This is the soup I dreamed of every time I drove the 532 miles from Austin to New Orleans. Upon my arrival, I would head straight to Mandina's on Canal Street to get it. When I found out I could make a decent facsimile at home, I was rapturous. Note that if you can prepare this the day or the morning before you serve it, refrigerate, then reheat to serve, it's even more flavorful. Even people who say they don't eat oysters -- such as children! -- will go wild for this, I swear.

And no Mardis Gras would be complete without barbecued shrimp. This was the first dish I ever ate with my beloved bartender when we wandered into a long-gone French Quarter seafood restaurant called Scotty's, I think. (If I was sure, it wouldn't be Mardi Gras, would it?) I was shocked to see a bowl of shrimp with heads and legs attached, floating in what looked like a bowl of melted butter. They call this barbecue?

But whatever you call it, this delicious, spicy treat became a permanent addition to my home repertoire after I found a recipe for it in a New Orleans Junior League cookbook. No heads on my shrimp, and somewhat less fat in the sauce. It's a messy, finger-licking dish, excellent for first dates because you can tell a lot about people by the way they deal with it.

So if you can't make it to the Big Easy this year, put some Professor Longhair or Neville Brothers on your stereo, pop some beers, and dress up the kids and have them parade through the house throwing necklaces.

See if people aren't scared of you, too.

King cake

You may be a little taken aback when you first set eyes on this lumpy coffeecake ring garishly iced in bright purple, green and gold. But once you've bitten into the buttery pastry, often filled with fruit or cream, you'll be glad you did.

King cakes were originally a treat served on Twelfth Night in January to kick off the carnival season, but now they are eaten right up through Fat Tuesday. Traditionally, a little plastic baby doll is hidden inside the cake, and the person who gets it in his slice has to buy the next cake, or have the next party.

These days, New Orleans bakeries supply the baby on the side for you to stick in yourself, apparently to avoid lawsuits from those who swallow it. They also usually include some lagniappe (that's Creole for free bonus): Mardi Gras beads, doubloons and decorated plastic cups to help your party get started.

You'll find mail-order king cakes at $25 and up at any of these Web sites:

Gambinosbakery.com

Mardigras-inabox.com

Kingcake.com

The meaning of carnival

Even a Mardi Gras veteran like myself can learn a thing or two about this rich tradition, and there's no one better to learn it from than travel writer Pableaux Johnson.

He gives a thumbnail sketch of the holiday in his Lonely Planet guide World Food: New Orleans, a delightful little book that will whet your appetite and keep you checking the Southwest Airlines Web site for low fares on the nonstop from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"If you think the world needs a shakeup, that kings should dance with street kids and the rich should throw their wealth to the masses," he writes, "or even if you want to eat babies and steal greased pigs, then don your party regalia, or get naked, and head for Mardi Gras." Yeah, baby.

Johnson explains that carnevale is Latin for farewell to meat, highlighting the fact that Fat Tuesday falls before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a time when Catholics traditionally give up meat and/or other indulgences.

In Louisiana, this one last day of celebration and decadence has expanded to a whole season, beginning on Twelfth Night in January and ramping up to the notorious Tuesday itself, which can fall any time from early February to early March because it is tied to the lunar calendar. Oh, those crazy Cajuns.

- Marion Winik

Oyster-and-Artichoke Soup

Serves 4

5 tablespoons butter

1 bunch green onions, chopped

2 large stalks celery, chopped

3 cloves garlic, pressed

one 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, cut in quarters

1 1/2 tablespoons flour

1 can chicken broth

pinch cayenne

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1 pint oysters, drained and chopped (reserve liquor)

1/4 cup vermouth

1 cup milk

1 cup half-and-half

Melt the butter and saute the green onions, celery and garlic until soft. Add the artichokes. Sprinkle the mixture with the flour and stir to coat the vegetables well, but do not let the flour brown.

Gradually add the broth, stirring constantly. Add the cayenne, salt, Worcestershire sauce and thyme. Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

Add the oysters, oyster liquor and vermouth and simmer 10 minutes more. Do not allow to boil. Stir in the milk and half-and-half.

Before serving, heat the soup slowly over low heat.

Per serving: 428 calories; 21 grams protein; 25 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 27 grams carbohydrate; 5 grams fiber; 140 milligrams cholesterol; 1,714 milligrams sodium

Barbecued Shrimp

Serves 4 to 6

1 stick butter

2/3 cup olive oil

1/2 cup Worcestershire

2 tablespoons black pepper

2 lemons, sliced

1 to 2 tablespoons Louisiana pepper sauce (or to taste)

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

3 cloves garlic, pressed

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

2 pounds large shrimp, unpeeled

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a big pot that can go in the oven, heat butter and oil. Add all other ingredients except shrimp and simmer 7 minutes.

Add shrimp and cook over medium heat for 8 minutes, or until shrimp are pink. Place in oven for 10 minutes, stirring once. Serve in soup bowls with French bread to sop up the sauce.

Per serving: 735 calories; 37 grams protein; 61 grams fat; 17 grams saturated fat; 12 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 396 milligrams cholesterol

Pableaux Johnson's Chicken-and-Sausage Gumbo

Makes 4 to 6 servings

3/4 cup vegetable oil

3/4 cup flour

1 1/2 cups chopped onions

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped bell peppers

1 pound smoked sausage (andouille or kielbasa, cut crosswise into 1/2 -inch slices)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

3 bay leaves

6 cups water

1 medium-sized chicken, cut into frying pieces

1 teaspoon All Purpose Cajun Seasoning

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1 tablespoon file powder (optional)

First, make a chocolate-brown roux. Heat oil in heavy-bottomed pot (or cast-iron skillet) over low heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually add flour, mixing with whisk or wooden spoon until each addition is well integrated.

When all flour has been added, constantly stir over low heat until flour gradually changes color, from pasty beige to peanut-butter color to chocolate brown. The process should take approximately 20 to 25 minutes. Don't bring the heat over medium during the process.

If black, burned flecks appear in the roux, throw the burned roux out and start over. (Exercise caution during the roux-making process, because splashes of the viscous substance both stick and burn any exposed skin.)

Add the onions, celery and bell peppers and continue to stir for 2 to 3 minutes, or until wilted. Add the sausage, salt, cayenne and bay leaves. Continue to stir for 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the water. Stir until the roux mixture and water are well combined. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.

Season the chicken with the spice mix and add to the pot. Simmer for 2 hours.

Skim off any fat that rises to the surface. Remove from the heat. Stir in the parsley, green onions and file powder.

Remove the bay leaves and serve in deep bowls (with rice).

Per serving: 915 calories; 51 grams protein; 69 grams fat; 17 grams saturated fat; 20 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 172 milligrams cholesterol; 1,628 milligrams sodium

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