When you hear it is Mardi Gras time, you probably think of New Orleans and Rio with floats and parades and lots of carnival beads.
But did you know that Mardi Gras is also one of the great Italian holiday traditions? The ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a lot of food, drink and general debauchery. When the Christian religion emerged in ancient Rome, its leaders decided to use the pagan festivals to their advantage rather than try to outlaw them. Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter, starts a period of Lent fasting and abstinence in the Christian church. Knowing that a period of lean eating was coming, the idea of Carnival or Carnevale was born and it was combined with those ancient Roman feasts to create Mardi Gras, literally “Fat Tuesday”. Originally, Carnevale was just one day – the Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday. It was a day when families would cook luxurious, rich food in preparation for the forty days of the Lent.
The tradition was adopted by the French who gave it its present name and added the tradition of dressing up. By the end of the 17th Century, the Mardi Gras festival had come to America. The tradition of Mardi Gras then spread, literally, across the world.
In Italy certain foods are traditional for Carnevale. On the Amalfi Coast and throughout much of southern Italy there’s a migliaccio di polenta made with corn meal, sausages and grated cheese. Naples serves a very rich Lasagne di Carnevale. Throughout much of the Peninsula, however, Carnevale is an occasion for lots of sweet pastries – fried fritters of one kind or another that are quick to make and fun to eat. There are three broad categories made throughout Italy: Lombard’s Chiacchiere, Tuscany’s Cenci and Rome’s Frappe – all sound quite different but look and taste alike.
In America, King Cake and classic Cajun and Creole favorites like Gumbos, Jambalaya, Hurricanes, Beignets, Étouffées, Moon Pies and Fried Po Boy Sandwiches are all traditional Mardi Gras foods. The next few days we will be celebrating Mardi Gras here on the Gulf Coast with lots of parades, parties and much food. The photos above are from the parade on Friday.
Want to celebrate Mardi Gras with delicious food but without all the fat and calories, try some of the makeover recipes below.
BBQ Shrimp with Remoulade
Traditional New Orleans BBQ Shrimp are usually cooked in 1 ½ cups of butter. See original New Orleans’ recipe from Mr. B’s.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 large celery stalk, finely diced
- 1 small bunch scallions, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning
- 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1 large lemon, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
- 1 3/4 pounds extra-large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- Chopped parsley
- Remoulade Sauce, recipe below
In a large heavy skillet, melt the butter over medium high. Add celery, scallion whites and garlic and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add Creole seasoning and cook until fragrant, 1 minute.
Add Worcestershire, lemon and shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are pink and coated with sauce, about 4 minutes. Garnish with scallion greens and parsley.
Serve with Remoulade sauce on the side.
- 1/4 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt
- 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon capers, drained and chopped
- 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sweet relish
- 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce
Combine all the ingredients in a small serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate until serving time.
Creole-Style Black-Eyed Peas
This dish gets its smoky flavor from lean Canadian bacon and ground chipotle pepper.
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups dried black-eyed peas
- 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 cups chopped fresh plum tomatoes
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 1 small green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 6 ounces sliced Canadian bacon, chopped
- 3 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
In a medium saucepan over high heat, add the water and black-eyed peas. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes, cover, remove from heat and let stand for 1 hour.
Drain the water and return the peas in the saucepan. Add the broth, tomatoes, onion, celery, green pepper, Canadian bacon, garlic, mustard, chipotle pepper, Cajun seasoning and bay leaf. Stir together and bring to a boil.
Cover, reduce heat and simmer slowly for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add water, if necessary, to keep the peas covered with liquid. Add salt and pepper to taste..
Remove the bay leaf, pour into a serving bowl and garnish with parsley. Serve over cooked rice, if desired.
Blackened Catfish with Creole Mustard
Creole mustard is a spicy, hot mustard that you can usually find in the grocery stores.
- Olive oil for brushing on the fish
- 1 tablespoon Creole mustard
- 1 tablespoon softened butter
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 4 (4 to 6-ounce) catfish fillets
- 1 medium lemon, cut into 8 wedge
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Place the paprika, cayenne, salt, thyme, black pepper and sugar in a small bowl and stir to evenly combine; set aside.
Brush both sides of the fish lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with the blackening spice mixture. Press on the spices to make them adhere to the fish.
Heat a large nonstick saute pan over medium heat until very hot and add the fish to the dry, hot pan. Cook the fish for 2 minutes.
Remove the fillets from the pan and place the fish, uncooked side down, onto a baking sheet pan. Place the pan in the oven and bake for about 8 minutes or until the fish is cooked.
Mix the mustard and softened butter together. Top each cooked fish with a little mustard butter and serve with lemon.
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 4 stalks celery, cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch pieces
- 1 large onion, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 lb boneless chicken thighs, skin removed and cut into bite-size pieces
- 2 links pre-cooked Cajun-style andouille sausage or sun-dried tomato chicken sausage (about 6 oz), halved lengthwise, cut on the diagonal into 1/2-inch slices
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- One 14 1/2-oz can no salt added diced tomatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 cups long-grain brown rice
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/4 cup finely sliced green onions for garnish
In a large saucepan or Dutch Oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add celery and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 minutes.
Add onion and red pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are almost tender, about 3 minutes.
Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute. Add chicken and cook until browned,
Stir in sausage, broth, 3/4 cup of water, tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme, paprika and cayenne. Stir in rice, increase heat to high and bring to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the rice is tender, about 50 minutes. Add salt and black pepper to taste and garnish with green onions.