I recently returned home from New Orleans, where my husband, Bill, and I celebrated Mardi Gras with my sister-in-law Michele Abbott from Knoxville, Tenn., and got in a great visit with my niece Lauren Mitchell, who is a second-year student at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Over the past 16 years of marriage to my Raging Cajun husband, I have had the pleasure of visiting the Big Easy dozens of times but never during Mardi Gras.
New Orleans is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and the city and her people are a strong and resilient match.
We had such a fabulous time, and were able to go to eight different Mardi Gras parades and lots of other festivities during our stay. We returned home with a laundry basket overflowing with Mardi Gras beads, cups, dubloons, trinkets and other “throws” tossed by the riders on the Mardi Gras floats — each parade having as many as 30 floats and hundreds of riders.
Creole and Cajun cuisines are prominent in the city. Even the air is infused with a potpourri of roux-based gumbos, butter-and-brown-sugar pecan pralines, chicory-laced Louisiana coffee and beignets (those heavenly French doughnuts piled high with a mountain of powdered sugar), and such great lunchtime eats as muffulettas and po’ boy sandwiches.
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New York may be known as the City That Never Sleeps, but New Orleans should be known as the City That Never Stops ... eating. And why would you want to with such great offerings ’round the clock?!
Today I’ll be sharing some of my favorite Mardi Gras crowd-pleasing recipes. And since my recipes are created to feed a small crowd, you can simply halve the recipes to feed smaller gatherings.
Sweet and Spicy Chicken Etouffée is a great example of New Orleans cuisine. The flavors are layered and carefully balanced, creating a symphony of a dining experience.
If you prefer a less spicy dish, simply use less cayenne and black pepper. Etouffée literally translates to “smother or suffocate” as it covers a layer of perfectly cooked white rice. I prefer to serve Louisiana “popcorn” rice, but any Basmati or Tex-mati will do nicely as well.
The Big Easy Wine Cooler is a lighter alternative to those more potent concoctions — big on flavor, but not on alcohol. Creole Red Beans Wohlford is a dish I’m very proud to share, as I promise they’ll be the very best you’ve ever eaten. And for dessert, try my Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding with Hot Buttered Rum Sauce.
Mardi Gras may be over for this year, but the flavors will linger in my memories as well as my kitchen until once again Bill and I return to New Orleans, a navigational pull as mighty as the muddy Mississippi River that frames the beautiful Crescent City.
I love you New Orleans — your city and especially your people.
SWEET & SPICY CHICKEN ETOUFFÉE
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
8 boneless and skinless chicken breast halves
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
2/3 cup butter
4 cups diced onion
2 cups diced celery
2 cups diced bell pepper
3 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
Makes eight to 12 servings
Prepare marinade by blending together first five ingredients. Place chicken in a gallon-size zip-top freezer bag. Pour marinade over chicken. Seal bag shut, removing as much air as possible. Let marinate at room temperature for one hour only. (Note: It is acceptable to marinate at room temperature for no more than one hour as long as you will be cooking the dish immediately. If you need to marinate and prepare later, simply marinate in the refrigerator for one hour, then remove chicken from marinade. Store marinade in the refrigerator because it will be used in the sauce for the etouffée.) Dredge chicken breasts in flour (reserve any unused flour as it will be used in the sauce). In a large Dutch oven, combine butter and oil. Heat over medium-high heat. Cook four chicken breasts at a time in hot oil/butter, turning once when half-way through cooking. Repeat with remaining chicken. Transfer to a platter to keep warm, covering loosely with foil. In drippings, add any remaining flour. Cook, stirring often for several minutes. Add onion, celery, and bell pepper to pan, stirring to cook for just a couple of minutes until wilted. Add chicken stock, reserved marinade and brown sugar. Bring to rolling boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Chop chicken and add to the pot and heat through. Serve over rice.
BIG EASY WINE COOLER
1 (750 ml.) bottle chardonnay, chilled
1 (12 ounce) can frozen pineapple juice concentrate, thawed
1 (6 ounce) can frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
1 (6 ounce) can frozen limeade concentrate, thawed
1 (2 liter) bottle gingerale or lemon-lime soda, chilled
Maraschino cherries, optional garnish
Pineapple wedges, optional garnish
Lime wedges, optional garnish
Makes one gallon.
In a half gallon pitcher, combine wine and thawed juice concentrates. Blend well. Just before serving, combine the wine/juice mixture and the soda in a punch bowl. Add cherries, pineapple chunks, and lime slices for garnish. Serve over ice.
CREOLE RED BEANS WOHLFORD
1 pound dried kidney beans
6 cups chicken broth
1 pound andouille sausage (or spicy smoked sausage), thinly sliced
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup flour
2 cups medium diced onions
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Serves six to eight as a starter course or four to six as an entree.
Place kidney beans in a colander and rinse well, sorting through the beans and removing any debris. Place beans in a large saucepan and add enough cold water to come several inches above the beans. Let stand at room temperature for at least eight hours. Drain well. Return beans to same pan and add chicken broth. Cook over high heat until broth comes to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally until beans are very tender, at least three hours. Using a potato masher, mash about one-third of the beans. Set aside. While the beans are cooking, in a Dutch oven over medium heat, cook sausage until nicely browned and cooked through. Remove sausage from pan and set aside. In Dutch oven, add both oils to the sausage drippings, still cooking over medium heat. Dump in flour and stir to blend well. There should not be any lumps. Continue to cook the flour in the fat, stirring constantly, until a dark tan roux is achieved. The aroma should be very “nutty”. Add the onions all at once and stir into the roux to arrest the cooking. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid. Cook for at least five minutes. Remove lid and add the garlic. Stir well. Cover with the lid and cook for two to three minutes. Add the beans and their cooking liquid to the vegetables and roux. Stir well to blend. Add the previously cooked sausage the pot. Stir to blend. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least five minutes or up to 30 minutes before serving. Ladle into bowls over hot white rice. Pass the hot sauce and thinly sliced green onions as flavorings for those who want to take it up a notch.
CINNAMON ROLL BREAD PUDDING WITH HOT BUTTERED RUM SAUCE
FOR BREAD PUDDING:
3 cups half-and-half
2 1/4 cups sugar, divided
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
1 pound stale (store-bought) Iced Cinnamon Rolls, torn into bite size pieces
FOR RUM SAUCE:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup rum
3 tablespoons corn starch
1 1/2 cups water
Makes 12 servings.
Bread Pudding: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease a 13x9x2-inch baking dish. Heat half & half to boiling, then remove from heat. Whisk together two cups sugar and eggs. Add hot half & half gradually. Blend until smooth. Stir in vanilla and salt. Melt butter. Drizzle over cinnamon roll pieces. Toss cinnamon rolls in melted butter. Add to the liquid mixture and stir to combine. Let stand at least five minutes. Transfer the mixture to prepared pan. Cover tightly with foil. Bake one hour. Remove foil and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Continue to bake 15-20 minutes longer, until set in center. Serve warm with Buttered Rum Sauce and/or freshly whipped cream. Leftovers reheat beautifully.
Sauce: Prepare sauce during the last 15 minutes of baking time for the bread pudding. Bring first three ingredients to a boil over medium heat. Boil gently for five minutes. Place cornstarch in a small mixing bowl. Whisk in cold water until smooth. Add to boiling sauce, whisking constantly, cooking until sauce has thickened and is clear. Serve over hot bread pudding.