Here’s the good news: You don’t have to be in New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. As a holiday dedicated to indulgence of all kinds, Mardi Gras is much more a state of mind than a date on the calendar or a location on the map. Arriving as it does right in the bleakest days of winter, Mardi Gras gives everyone permission to let loose and enjoy life just a little bit more. As the famous Crescent City saying goes, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll).
Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans traditionally get underway on January 6 (Feast of the Epiphany), and they conclude on the day before Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 1st this year (46 days before Easter). Even though the holiday is celebrated all over the world, New Orleans’ culinary traditions inform drinking and dining options. A lifelong New Orleans resident, Poppy Tooker is the host and executive producer of the weekly NPR-affiliated radio show Louisiana Eats! She offers several do’s (and one big don’t) for authentic Mardi Gras menus.
King cake rules
“We serve our first King Cakes on January 6, and we eat it all through the season,” Tooker says. “It’s a brioche dough formed into a crescent shape. When I was a child, they were plain dough, maybe with a sprinkling of cinnamon, but these days, they’re over the top, and they’re often frosted with white icing and sprinkles in traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold.”
Tooker says standout cakes are offered by Cochon Butcher, whose most popular version is the Elvis King Cake, filled with marshmallows, peanut butter, bananas and bacon. Another lavish King Cake is served at Domenica, where chef John Besh serves a version filled with salted caramel, bananas, pecans, mascarpone cheese and caramel latte, covered with a praline glaze and edible gold leaf. Traditionally, a small token is baked into the dough, usually a bean or plastic baby. The person who finds the prize is responsible for buying the next King Cake.
“Mardi Gras dishes are always perfect for feeding large groups, so they’ll adapt well in a restaurant setting,” Tooker says. Think about jambalaya and gumbo, which adapt well to large portions. For dessert specials, you might consider King Cake or bread pudding, or try a fancy flambéed dish like Bananas Foster.” Whatever you do, however, pay attention to what is traditionally included—and excluded—in these classic dishes. “Once, I was in a restaurant in Wisconsin, and they put carrots in their gumbo,” Tooker recalls. “Shocking! It simply isn’t done!” Why? Tooker explains that carrots don’t grow well in the below-sea-level New Orleans climate, but peppers thrive. “The Holy Trinity of the Creole Cook is celery, bell pepper and onion,” she says.
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