Cooking for Carnival

Eugenia Uhl Photograph

My introduction to Mardi Gras parties was years ago at a beautiful home along the Thoth parade route. Every year, the hostess served grillades and grits. The experience endeared me to this traditional New Orleans dish and I’ve been making it ever since.

The Creoles had several ways of preparing grillades. One was simply frying pieces of beef round briefly in lard, then adding tomatoes, onions, garlic, flour and vinegar. The other was breading the round of veal in egg wash and breadcrumbs and browning quickly in a hot skillet.

Few restaurants serve grillades today, but when they do, the veal round is the likely choice, making the dish quick to cook but also very expensive. One of the old Creole tricks was pounding a tougher beefsteak, then simmering it until fork-tender. That is my choice to serve a crowd for Carnival. Another twist is adding fresh mushrooms to the pot, expanding the quantity and adding succulent flavor. You never know how many people will come to a parade party so it doesn’t hurt to make extra.

A salad, of course, is the perfect accompaniment, but I’ve added another Creole specialty to the menu because our food is what makes us unique. Caribbean cooks use plantains more than we do, yet the islands’ influence has made them a part of our cuisine, too. Bananas and plantains can be used almost interchangeably in recipes although cooking softens bananas far more than the firmer plantains. Riper plantains, with peels beginning to turn dark, should be chosen because they reach tenderness more quickly than the yellow ones, which look much like bananas.

Frying is the norm; however, to make this easy for a crowd, I’ve devised a baking method that rivals in taste the messier, last-minute frying.

For dessert, a recipe I’ve never published because I don’t know its origin. It is so old, however, that I’ll call it my mother’s. She baked it every year when I was growing up in Memphis, Tenn., and it’s delicious. “The Mardi Gras Party Cake,” she always called it. The cake takes a while to make, so I would suggest baking it a day before a party – also a good time to prepare the grillades. Cook the grits and plantains shortly before guests arrive.
 
GRILLADES AND GRITS
2 beef round steaks, about 3
  to 3 1/2 pounds total
2 Tablespoons plus 1/2 cup
      vegetable oil
1/2 cup flour
1 large or 2 medium onions, 
      chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
6 green onions, white and
      green parts divided,
      chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced
      tomatoes
3 cups homemade or canned
      beef stock
1/2 cup red wine
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
      sauce
1 teaspoon dried thyme
      leaves
Salt, freshly ground pepper
      and Creole seasoning to taste
8 ounces fresh mushrooms
3 Tablespoons chopped fresh
      flat-leaf parsley
6 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups quick grits
3 Tablespoons butter


Cut steaks into pieces about 1-by-2 inches. Season with salt, pepper and Creole seasoning. Heat 2 Tablespoons oil in a large, heavy pot and brown meat on both sides over medium heat. Remove to a plate. Add 1/2-cup oil to the pot and flour, making a roux, stirring constantly over medium heat until mixture is the color of chocolate. Add onions, bell pepper, celery and the white part of green onions to roux and sauté until soft. Add garlic and sauté a minute more. Add tomatoes, beef stock, wine, Worcestershire and seasonings and return meat to the pot. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 2 1/2 hours or until meat is tender. Add mushrooms and green onion tops and simmer for 15 minutes more. Check to adjust seasonings if necessary. Remove from heat and stir in parsley.

Serve over grits.

To cook grits, bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir in grits, reduce heat, cover and cook until water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Gently stir in butter.

Serves 8 to 10.

BAKED PLANTAINS
3 plantains
1/2 stick butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar


Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Peel plantains and slice them 1/4-inch thick on the diagonal. Place slices on a large cookie sheet and brush liberally with butter on both sides. Bake until tender when pierced, about 20 to 30 minutes, turning them a time or two. Remove from oven and sprinkle with sugar.

Serves 8 to 10.

MARDI GRAS PARTY CAKE
2/3 cup butterscotch morsels
1/4 cup water
2 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose
      flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup shortening (half butter
      may be used)
3 unbeaten eggs
1 cup buttermilk


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease well and lightly flour two 9-inch cake pans. Melt butterscotch morsels in water in saucepan. Cool.

Sift flour with salt, soda and baking powder and set aside.

In a mixer on low speed, add sugar gradually to shortening, creaming well. Blend in eggs; beat well after each. Add melted butterscotch and mix well. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Blend well after each addition. Turn into two 9-inch baking pans. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Cool and spread filling between layers and on top to within 1/2-inch of edge. Frost sides and edges on top with Sea Foam Frosting or whipped cream. Makes two 9-inch layers.

Butterscotch filling:
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 evaporated milk
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup butterscotch morsels
1 beaten egg yolk
2 Tablespoons butter
1 cup flaked coconut
1 cup pecans or walnuts,
      chopped

Combine sugar and cornstarch in a 2-quart saucepan. Stir in evaporated milk, water, butterscotch morsels and egg yolk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick. Remove from heat. Add butter, coconut and nuts. Cool.

Sea Foam Frosting:
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup firmly packed brown
      sugar
1/3 cup water
1 Tablespoon corn syrup
1 egg white
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar


In a saucepan, combine sugar, brown sugar, water and corn syrup. Cook until a little syrup dropped in cold water forms a soft ball. Meanwhile, beat egg white with cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Add syrup to egg white in slow, steady stream, beating constantly until thick enough to spread.

Note: Whipped cream may be substituted for the Sea Foam Frosting. If baked a day ahead, add whipped cream on day of serving.
 

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