They're cooking up vats of gumbo right now in New Orleans, they've sold countless King Cakes and made a profusion of pralines. They've been partying since the Saints won the Superbowl and it all reaches critical mass tomorrow, Mardi Gras.
French for Fat Tuesday, it's not just cheap beads and anonymous orgying (not that there's anything wrong with that). Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, when Catholics begin the Lenten 40 days of penance, prayer and cleansing before Easter. Traditionally, Mardi Gras was a night of eating rich food, the better to endure the lean days of Lent. New Orleans embraced the concept with typical passion. It seems like half the regional recipes start with a cup of heavy cream (not that there's anything wrong with that, either). Somehow, the custom evolved into partying, drinking and eating dirty rice -- none of which is exactly sanctioned by the Catholic Church.
Clearly, New Orleans has its own way of doing things. The locals live by the city's motto, laissez les bon temps rouller -- let the good times roll -- and it comes through in their cooking. Like every region, New Orleans has its own cuisine shaped by what grows there, but also by the people who live there.
New Orleans newbies Brangelina and their babes may have brought the paparazzi, but the centuries-old city's spicy mix of Cajun, Creole and French took the abundant local ingredients, including rice, chilis, greens, okra, mirliton (chayote) and gulf-fresh seafood, and created its cuisine. These people make food that cooks, and they're proud of it. You can't get a fast food burger at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, but you can get New Orleans specialties like red beans and rice, crowder peas and okra and sandwiches from muffalettas to banh mi, a culinary contibution from the Vietnamese.
Food helped unite the city after Hurricane Katrina wiped it out five years ago. Local chef John Besh lost his home and his restaurants but dished out red beans and rice to refugees and relief workers. New Orleans native Richard McCarthy rebuilt Crescent City Farmers Market, now a city-wide, three-day market with local growers and vendors grossing $9 million a year. Katrina also did in the homes and gardens in the city's Vietnamese community, so they created what is now a flourishing 28-acre community garden to grow bitter melon, Malabar spinach and other crops they brought from Asia. They're adding their own layer of culture, tradition and taste to the city. They party at Mardi Gras but yesterday they also celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese new year.
What New Orleans grows, what it cooks comes from love and what Besh calls "an act of stewardship." Everyone's got a personal stake in this.
Food goes beyond the plate. There's its traditions, how its sourced, its romance and history, the powerful associations it evokes. You can't eat these things and yet they deepen your experience and appreciation of your food. They add their own spice. They make you care. So you can forgive the Mardi Gras madness in the French Quarter tomorrow, because you know everything will be made lovingly, locally, traditionally and liberally seasoned with joy. Food at its source tastes of the spirit of a place and in New Orleans, that means laissez les bon temps rouller.
Down and Dirty Rice
Traditionally what makes dirty rice dirty is the addition of fowl gizzards. Um, no thanks. Chopped eggplant, a Louisiana crop, takes the place of organ meat in this super-satisfying veggie version It's spicy in itself, but you can make it that way. That's what Tabasco is for.
1-1/2 cup rice (white or brown)
5 cups water or vegetable broth, divided use
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium eggplant, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 tomato, chopped (or 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes)
2 teaspoons paprika
1 handful fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried)
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
juice of 1 lemon
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
optional -- 1 cup edamame
Pour 3 cups of water or broth into a large pot. Place over high heat and bring liquid to boil. Add rice and bay leaf and give a quick stir. Cover and reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes (brown rice may need an additional 10 minutes) or until rice is tender and all liquid is absorbed. Remove bay leaf and set aside.
May be done a day or two ahead and stored well-covered in refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic, onion and eggplant. Saute, stirring for 5 minutes, or until vegetables soften. Add chopped celery, green pepper, tomato, paprika and thyme. Continue cooking another 5 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in rice and remaining 2 cups of water or broth.
Reduce heat to medium and cook another 10 minutes until mixture is moist but all liquid is absorbed.
Stir in salt, pepper, lemon juice and chopped parsley, and for a pop of protein and bright green color, fold in optional edamame.
Serves 6 to 8. Keeps several days in the fridge, flavor improves over time.