If you are a turkey-on-Christmas, ham-on-Easter kind of person, you may wrack your brain every Carnival season over what to serve at a parade party or how to feed out-of-town guests crashing at your house. Face it, there is but one Carnival food – King Cake. That’s what I’ve told food writers for years when they call to gripe about one more turkey story and ask, by the way, what do people eat on Mardi Gras.
Brisket stuffed with crawfish dressing
To be honest, there is one other, and that’s grits and grillades – the wonderful veal or beef strips simmered in a tasty roux. Unfortunately, younger generations rarely find the time to cook like their Creole forebears did, and store-bought fried chicken, dips from a jar and tortilla chips – lots of tortilla chips – are the usual fare.
I believe that people come to New Orleans to eat, and what out-of-towners want when they come to your house is a pot of gumbo simmering on the stove. Whether seafood- or chicken-based, it tells them they are no longer in Kansas or New York and their taste buds had better get ready for a change. This actually makes things easy for the host, because everyday, traditional southern Louisiana food is the bottom line here, and that goes for parade parties, too.
When a friend of mine from Atlanta, Ga., comes, there are two musts: gumbo and barbecued shrimp. I never fail to cook too much and she always eats leftover shrimp for breakfast the next day. Another friend, who lived here but moved away, requires an oyster poor boy almost as soon as she deplanes. She lives in Hawaii, and you’d think with all the water surrounding the place, she’d have her fill of seafood. Not the case. There’s nothing like a fried Louisiana oyster anywhere else in the world, she says.
Long before I moved to New Orleans or ever saw Rex lead his krewe down St. Charles Avenue, I regularly ate a cake my mother baked called Mardi Gras cake. By no means a King Cake, it was a yellow scratch cake with a butterscotch filling and a foamy caramel-like icing. A bit time-consuming to make, it was an impressive cake and one she made on special occasions. Although I have no idea where the recipe came from, I tend to think she clipped it from a magazine or newspaper because of the name and its intrigue. We lived in Memphis, Tenn., and all of my childhood friends probably still think (unless they moved to New Orleans) that her cake was what people in New Orleans eat on Mardi Gras.
One of my favorite things to take to a parade party is a brisket. For one thing, it feeds a lot of people. Plus everyone seems to love it. Stuff one with crawfish and you’ve got a local angle on a Texas staple.
In my mind, the dilemma of what to eat during Carnival, and more specifically on Mardi Gras, is solved by simple southern Louisiana traditional cooking – gumbo, jambalaya and maybe the occasional crawfish-stuffed brisket.
BRISKET STUFFED WITH CRAWFISH DRESSING
1 beef brisket, 6-8 pounds, trimmed of most – but not all – fat
A mixture of 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning,
1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1 tea spoon garlic powder, divided
2 medium onions, divided
1/2 bell pepper
1 stalk celery
4 green onions
1 pound crawfish tails, coarsely chopped*
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped fine
1 cup Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
With a sharp knife, cut a pocket into the brisket horizontally so that the edges of uncut meat run at least one inch on all three sides. Be sure not to puncture the meat on top or bottom. Using 1 tablespoon of the mixed dried seasoning, sprinkle meat inside and out.
In a food processor, chop one onion until almost mushy. Set aside. Chop remaining onion, bell pepper, celery and green onions until fine and almost shredded. Mix with crawfish tails, garlic, parsley, breadcrumbs, egg and the other tablespoon of seasoning, and stuff into pocket. Close the pocket by sewing it together with cotton kitchen string or linen twine, using a large tapestry needle. Make stitches fairly close together – about one-half inch.
Place brisket in a large baking pan. Sprinkle top with Worcestershire and the remaining cup of onions. Tightly enclose the top of the baking pan with heavy tin foil and bake at 275 degrees for four hours. Check every hour or so to see if the pan is drying out. If so, add about a half-cup of water. (Brisket will probably release a lot of juices. You can pour these off into a bowl, set it in the freezer and remove fat from top.) After four hours, remove foil, raise temperature to 325 degrees and cook for one more hour. When done, let the brisket set for at least 20 minutes before serving. You can deglaze the pan with a little water on top of the stove, add de-fatted juices and pour over the brisket, or serve as gravy on the side. Thicken the gravy, if you wish, with flour or cornstarch. To serve, slice brisket across the grain. Serves 8 to 10.
*Most packaged frozen crawfish tails are now portioned in 12 ounces. You can either use one of these and reduce other ingredients slightly, including size of brisket, or buy two and cut a 4-ounce portion off one by defrosting slightly and returning the rest to the freezer.
CHICKEN AND ANDOUILLE GUMBO
1 chicken, or 7 thighs
Salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and Creole seasoning to taste
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 pound andouille sausage, sliced into rounds
1 cup flour
1 bell pepper
3 stalks celery
1 bunch green onions, white and green parts divided
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Cut chicken into pieces. Rinse well and dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with seasonings.
Heat a tablespoon or two of the oil in a large, heavy pot and brown chicken pieces on all sides until browned. Move chicken to one side, add andouille and brown a few minutes more. Add water to cover, about 5 cups. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. While this is cooking, chop all the vegetables. Remove chicken and andouille from pot and strain stock into a separate container and reserve.
Wipe pot clean and add remaining oil to pot, heat and stir in flour to make a roux. Stir over a medium heat until roux is medium to dark brown. Add onions, bell pepper, celery and white part of green onions and cook until softened. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add strained stock, about two more cups water to reach desired consistency and bay leaves. Also add salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and Creole seasonings to taste. Meanwhile, de-bone and skin chicken pieces, discarding bones and skin. Coarsely chop chicken and add with andouille to pot. Cover and simmer for 30 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasonings. Shortly before removing from fire, add green onion tops and parsley. Serve in bowls over rice. Serves 8.
Note: Oysters may be added to this gumbo, if desired. Add about 2 dozen when adding onion tops and parsley.