2023’s Mardi Gras falls on February 21st this year and lends itself to a surprisingly easy Dinner Party menu. Yes, you can do this!
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Easter, by Western Christian tradition, is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, which itself lands anywhere from March 19 to March 21. Easter thus determines the range of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, 46 days prior to Easter. (Not 40 days, because Sundays don’t count toward Lent.) A tradition of multi-day indulgence and reverie prior to the beginning of Lenten fasting is observed in many countries around the world, and yet its unofficial epicenter has long been New Orleans. The culmination of this celebration, on the Tuesday night before Ash Wednesday, is known by several names, most prominently MARDI GRAS.
And so, for a proper Mardi Gras feast, we turn to the multicultural culinary canon of The Big Easy for inspiration. But before we get to the menu, I need to disclose a clever trick I often use to make simple stews seem a lot fancier– abstract out a main ingredient (like, say, the beef in beef stew) and make a sauce from the remaining ingredients. Thus beef stew becomes roast beef with a rich and satisfying sauce, all served over my best mashed potatoes. And for our Mardi Gras gathering, we turn a basic New Orleans gumbo into a sauce for fish. (And, truth be told, this recipe makes a perfectly good stand-alone gumbo.) So, here’s the menu–
Mardi Gras 2023
Tuesday, February 21
Salad of Scorched Broccoli, Red Onions, & Greens w/ Mustard Vinaigrette
New Orleans Catfish Gumbo over Louisiana Rice
Pineapple Au Poivre
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For the salad, blanch broccoli florets and scorch them slightly in pure-grade olive oil. Use your Extra Virgin oil for the dressing, in combination with red wine vinegar, a bit of garlic, a touch of honey, perhaps, and a dab of Dijon. Thinly sliced red onion loses much of its ferocity with a long bath in your vinaigrette. (While there is nothing culturally referential to Mardi Gras about this salad, it complements and sets up the next two items nicely.)
The Gumbo-like sauce can be made a day or two beforehand. This recipe makes enough for 6 people. To make more, double this recipe and freeze what you don’t use. You’ll thank me later.
1 lb. Wild and Chemical-Free Gulf Shrimp, size 16-20
2 Links of Smoked Andouille Sausage, Peeled and Diced
1 Green Pepper, Diced
6 Peppadew Peppers, Minced
2 Medium Yellow Onions, Diced
1 Cup Diced Celery
1 Cup Sliced Okra
6 Cloves of Garlic
1 14 oz. Can Petite Diced Tomatoes
1 Cup Commercial Seafood Stock
Creole Seasoning, to Taste
2 Bay Leaves
Peel and de-vein the shrimp, then slice them into small pieces. Sauté their shells in grape seed oil or pure-grade olive oil until nicely pink and fragrant, then add enough water to simmer a stock. In a heavy pot, sauté the diced sausage in plenty of oil. Add onions, peppers, and celery, and stir for a few minutes before adding the garlic and stirring some more. Add the seafood stock and shrimp stock (maybe 3 cups total liquid) and tomatoes, including their liquid. Add bay leaves and Creole seasoning, and simmer for a few minutes. Add okra and stir for a couple of minutes, then add shrimp and simmer everything until the shrimp is firm and pink. Remove from heat; allow to cool before refrigerating. (NOTE: Even though this is actually a stand-alone gumbo, what makes it behave like a sauce is your knife-work. Dice everything a little smaller than usual, and the flavors will shine just as brightly while yielding the textural spotlight to the catfish.)
When shopping, look for American wild-caught Blue Catfish, which is among the most delicious freshwater fish anywhere. Allow about a third of a pound (5-6 oz.) per person. Catfish fillets are quite easy to prepare– while your long-grain white rice is cooking, you can simply bake them at 350ºF or higher to an internal temperature of 145ºF, or you can scorch them first on your stove-top and then bake them… good either way. (Farm-raised American catfish is perfectly okay, as is imported swai fish, so long as you feel confident about their sourcing.)
To serve, build the plates in this order– a scoop of rice, a little gumbo sauce, add the catfish filet, then top with a little more sauce. Optionally garnish w/ chopped fresh parsley.
A pastry confection known as King Cake is perhaps the dessert most closely associated with Mardi Gras. For our party, however, we’re going to go a little wild. Many years ago I worked with a French Chef who had previously toiled for many years in New Orleans. While doing so, he came up with an especially fun dessert– pineapple flambéed with rum and topped with vanilla ice cream and– get this– a green peppercorn pan sauce. He personally taught me how to make this, and I’m happy to pay it forward–
1 Can of Sliced Pineapple (allowing 1 slice per serving; fresh pineapple is even better)
4 oz. Pineapple Juice (reserved from the can is okay)
1 Stick Unsalted Butter
1 Cup Brown Sugar
2-3 TBSP Brine-Packed Green Peppercorns, Drained
2-3 oz. Myers’s Dark Rum
High-Quality Vanilla Ice Cream
Melt half of the butter in a large sauté or frying pan and brown the pineapple slices on each side. Leave the butter in the pan and set the slices aside. Add to the pan the rest of the butter, the brown sugar, and pineapple juice; boil while gently stirring until the sugar melts and the sauce thickens. Add pineapple slices back into the pan, add peppercorns, and flambé with the rum. Plate the pineapple slices, add a scoop of ice cream to each, and top with the pan sauce.
This menu is so much easier than it sounds because much of it can be made well ahead of time. Remember that the art of the dinner party is making the hard stuff look easy and the easy stuff look hard. As I said at the outset– you can do this.
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Mardi Gras Wine?
Spicy Creole cuisine is difficult to exactly pair with fine wine, but American-made Champagne-style sparkling wine is an easy choice– a combination of bright, food-friendly acidity and, of course, its implicit celebratory spirit. Slightly off-dry Riesling pairs well with spiciness, and a light red served slightly cool– Pinot Noir and Beaujolais come to mind– would also close the deal nicely.
Green Peppercorns, Continued
While preparing this essay I was surprised to learn that green peppercorns have become VERY hard to find. None of my local markets sold them, so I turned to Amazon for help and found THIS. It is worth mentioning again that you need the kind of green peppercorns that are soft and packaged in liquid rather than dried peppercorns. In an upcoming essay we’ll present a recipe for Brandy-Green Peppercorn Cream Sauce for filet mignon.
About Those Shrimp...
The shrimp market is a minefield of fraud, unhealthy practices, and deceitful labeling. This is why I always recommend wild, American-caught white gulf shrimp that is minimally processed, i.e., not full of chemicals, and purchased from a trusted purveyor. I recommend size 16-20 because shrimp any smaller will make a much longer chore of the peeling/de-veining, and any larger-sized shrimp will be prohibitively expensive, especially since you are chopping them up instead of serving them whole. And if you buy them without the shells, you cheat yourself out of a key ingredient (shrimp stock) that is otherwise unavailable.