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Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday".  The name comes from the ancient custom of parading a fat ox through Paris on this day.  The ox was to remind the people that they were not allowed to eat meat during Lent. Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras moves.  It can be anywhere between February 3rd. and March 9th.  The date depends on when Easter falls. Traditionally, it is the last day for Catholics to indulge—and often overindulge—before Ash Wednesday starts the sober weeks of fasting that come with Lent. 

Mardi Gras began long before Europeans set foot in the New World. In mid February the ancient Romans celebrated the Lupercalia, a circus like festival not entirely unlike the Mardi Gras we are familiar with today. When Rome embraced Christianity, the early Church leaders decided it was better to incorporate certain aspects of pagan rituals into the new faith rather than attempt to abolish them altogether. Carnival became a period of abandon and merriment that preceded the penance of Lent, thus giving a Christian interpretation to the ancient custom.

Mardi Gras came to America in 1699 with the French explorer, Iberville. Mardi Gras had been celebrated in Paris since the Middle Ages, where it was a major holiday. Iberville sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, from where he launched an expedition up the Mississippi River. On March 3, 1699, Iberville set up a camp on the west bank of the river about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. This was the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France, so in honor of this important day, Iberville named the site, Point du Mardi Gras.

During the late 1700's, pre-Lenten masked balls and festivals were common in New Orleans, while it was under French rule. However, when New Orleans came under Spanish rule, the custom was banned. In 1803 New Orleans came under the U.S. flag. The prohibition against masked festivals continued until 1823, when the Creole populace convinced the governor to permit masked balls. In 1827 street masking was again legalized. During the early 1800's public celebrations of Mardi Gras centered around maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. The first documented parade occurred in 1837. Unfortunately, Mardi Gras gained a negative reputation because of violent behavior attributed to maskers during the 1840's and 1850's. The situation became so bad that the press began calling for an end to the celebration.

In 1857 six New Orleanians saved Mardi Gras by forming the Comus organization. These six men were former members of an organization which had put on New Year's Eve parades in Mobile, Alabama since 1831. The Comus organization added beauty to Mardi Gras and demonstrated that it could be a safe and festive event. Comus was the first organization to use the term krewe to describe itself. Comus also started the customs of having a secret Carnival society, having a parade with a unifying theme, floats and of having a ball after the parade. Comus was also the first organization to name itself after a mythological character. The celebration of Mardi Gras was interrupted by the Civil War, but in 1866 Comus returned. In 1870 the Twelfth Night Revelers made their appearance. In 1871 they began the custom of presenting a young woman with a golden bean hidden in a cake. This young woman was the first queen of Mardi Gras. This was also the origin of the King Cake tradition.

In 1872 the krewe of Rex made their debut and began the tradition of the "King of Carnival." Rex also introduced purple, gold and green as the official colors of Mardi Gras. Rex was the first krewe to hold an organized daytime parade and introduced "If Ever I Cease To Love" as the Mardi Gras anthem. One of the high points of Rex is the arrival of the Rex King on a riverboat.

Ten years later in 1882, the Krewe of Proteus made its debut with a parade themed after Egyptian mythology. In 1890 the first marching club, The Jefferson City Buzzards, was organized. In 1894, the Original Illinois Club was formed as the first black Mardi Gras organization. In 1896 Les Mysterieuses appeared as the first female organization.

With the rise of mass produced automobiles, truck riders became part of the Mardi Gras scene. In 1835 they organized themselves into the Elkes Krewe. The Krewe of Hermes appeared in 1937 and the Knights of Babylon in 1939. Mardi Gras prospered during the 1940's, although it was canceled during the war years. In 1949 Louis Armstrong was King of the Zulu parade and was pictured on the cover of Time Magazine. 

In 1950 the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited New Orleans during Mardi Gras. They honored the New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition by bowing to the kings of Rex and Comus at the Comus ball. The Korean War put a damper on festivities in 1951, but several krewes joined forces to parade as the Krewe of Patria on Mardi Gras day. The Fifties also saw the replacement of mule drawn floats with ones drawn by tractors and the formation of several new krewes including Zeus.

In the 1960’s Zulu came under pressure from portions of the black community, who thought the krewe presented an undignified image. The king resigned and the parade was almost cancelled but Zulu survived and was a main attraction by 1969. The Sixties ended with the debut of Bacchus. Bacchus aimed to bring national attention to Mardi Gras with gigantic floats and a Hollywood celebrity (Danny Kaye) riding as its king. Bacchus replaced the traditional ball with a supper to which tickets could be purchased by visitors and locals. The 1970's saw the debut of 18 new krewes and the demise of 18 others. More than a dozen krewes followed the lead of Bacchus by placing celebrities in their parades. In the 1980's Mardi Gras gained 27 new parades. It is now to the point where a parade or two takes place everyday from the start of Mardi Gras until "Fat Tuesday". This year, 2013, Mardi Gras and Superbowl Sunday are taking place simultaneously in New Orleans.  One big party!

Louisiana is the only state in which Mardi Gras is a legal holiday. However, elaborate carnival festivities draw crowds in other parts of the United States during the Mardi Gras season as well, including Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle. Each region has its own events and traditions, but in each region, schools are closed and parades and balls are held as a way of celebrating this occasion.

Across the globe, pre-Lenten festivals continue to take place in many countries with significant Roman Catholic populations. Brazil's week long Carnival festivities feature a vibrant mixture of European, African and native traditions. In Canada, Quebec City hosts the Quebec Winter Carnival. In Italy, tourists flock to Venice's Carnevale, which dates back to the 13th. century and is famous for its masquerade balls. Known as Karneval, Fastnacht or Fasching, the German celebration includes parades, costume balls and a tradition that empowers women to cut off men's ties. For Denmark's Fastevlan, children dress up and gather candy in a similar manner to Halloween–although the parallel ends when they ritually flog their parents on Easter Sunday morning.

The Food Of Mardi Gras

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Since it's Mardi Gras time in New Orleans and the rest of the northern Gulf Coast, that means an excuse to down as many muffulettas, oysters, bowls of etouffee and gumbo and glasses of brandy milk punch as we can eat or drink. It's also a time for New Orleans' residents (and many fans) to celebrate the resilient spirit of a city that refused to give up, despite a series of tragedies that threatened to destroy their way of life forever. New Orleanians love to talk...and argue...and educate...and opine about food. It's who they are, and what has kept them going.

In this famed good-time city, food is king during Mardi Gras. King cake, a ring-shaped pastry glazed with purple, gold, and green icing with a tiny plastic baby representing the infant Jesus nestled inside, is the most iconic Mardi Gras delicacy, but Cajun and Creole flavors rule. Red beans and rice, fried chicken and jambalaya also top the list of popular foods.

Gumbo is the most common food associated with the region. It is a thick soup with meat, seafood, vegetables and a heavy dose of spices, typically served over rice. It comes in two varieties, seafood (which is crawfish and shrimp) and chicken/sausage.

Étouffée is a seafood (usually crawfish) stew that is also served over rice. Though it has a great deal in common with gumbo, it is much thicker usually and generally more precise in standards. Where gumbo is like a soup, Étouffée is usually more like a topping for the rice with sauce.

Po-Boy sandwiches are served on french bread and typically feature fried seafood items such a shrimp, catfish, etc. However, there are turkey and ham Po-Boys.

Beignets are like a sweet doughnut, but the beignet is square shaped and without a hole.The word beignet (pronounced bey-YAY) comes from the early Celtic word bigne meaning "to raise." It is also French for "fritter." Beignets, a New Orleans specialty, are fried, raised pieces of yeast dough, usually about 2 inches in diameter or 2 inches square. After being fried, they are sprinkled with sugar or coated with various icings.

Beignets

Recipes For Mardi Gras

I am including recipes in this post for many of the favorite New Orleans dishes that you will find on the table for Mardi Gras celebrations.  However, if you are a follower of this blog, you will know that I have lightened these often fattening recipes, without sacrificing flavor or traditional tastes.

Oven-Fried Green Tomatoes With Lightened Remoulade

Makes 8 servings

Ingredients:

  • 4 large green tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 cups Japanese breadcrumbs (panko) mixed 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • Remoulade, recipe below

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut tomatoes into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Sprinkle both sides of tomatoes evenly with 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.

2. Place a wire rack coated with vegetable cooking spray in a parchment paper-lined 15- x 10-inch jelly-roll pan.

3. Pour buttermilk into a shallow dish or pie plate. Stir together panko, Creole seasoning, and paprika in another shallow dish or pie plate.

4. Dredge tomatoes in flour. Dip tomatoes in buttermilk, and dredge in panko-cornmeal mixture. Lightly coat tomatoes on each side with cooking spray; arrange on wire rack.

5. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until golden brown, turning once after 10 minutes. Serve with Lightened Remoulade.

Lightened Remoulade

Makes about 1 cup

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup light mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup Creole mustard
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped bread-and-butter pickles 
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon creole seasoning
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper

Stir together all ingredients. Chill

Southern Seafood Gumbo                                          

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 celery ribs with leaves, chopped
  • 1 medium green pepper, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bottle (46 ounces) spicy, low sodium V8 juice or tomato juice
  • 1 can (14-1/2 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 package (16 ounces) frozen okra
  • 1 pound catfish fillets or redfish, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
  • 3/4 pound uncooked medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1/2 lb. fresh or pasteurized lump crabmeat (about 1-1/2 cups), picked over for shells, or frozen and thawed
  • 3 cups cooked long grain rice
  • Louisiana-style hot sauce, to taste

Directions:

In a Dutch oven, saute the onion, celery and green pepper in oil until tender. Add garlic; cook 1 minute longer. Stir in the V8 juice, tomatoes and cayenne; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

Stir in okra and catfish; cook 8 minutes longer. Add the shrimp and crab; cook 7 minutes longer or until shrimp turn pink. Add hot sauce, salt, and pepper to taste. Pass additional hot sauce at the table. Place rice in individual serving bowls; top with gumbo. Yield: 12 servings.

Red Beans and Rice

Ingredients:                                                                                                                                               

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped green pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/3 cup minced fresh cilantro
  • 3 cans (16 ounces each) red beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 3 cups hot cooked rice

Directions

In a large nonstick skillet, saute the onion, green pepper and garlic in oil until tender. Add cilantro; cook and stir until wilted, about 1 minute. Stir in the beans, salt, cumin and pepper. Cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Serve over rice. Yield: 6 servings.

Creole Chicken

Ingredients:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (4 ounces each)
  • 1 teaspoon canola oil
  • 1 can (14-1/2 ounces) stewed tomatoes, cut up
  • 1/3 cup julienned green pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped celery
  • 1/4 cup sliced onion
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup hot cooked rice

Directions:

In a small nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray, cook chicken in oil over medium heat for 5-6 minutes on each side or a meat thermometer reads 165° Remove and keep warm.

In the same skillet, combine the tomatoes, green pepper, celery, onion, chili powder, thyme and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender. Return chicken to pan; heat through. Serve with rice. Yield: 2 servings.

Country Corn Bread

Ingredients:                                                                                                                                                                                    

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) reduced-fat plain yogurt
  • 1/4 cup canola oil

Directions:

In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking soda and salt. Whisk together the egg, yogurt and oil. Stir into the dry ingredients just until combined.

Transfer to an 8-in. square baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375° for 20-25 minutes or until top is lightly browned and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Serve warm. Yield: 9 servings.

King Cake
One of the most popular foods during Mardi Gras is the king cake, consumed by the carload and traditionally sold in bakeries, grocery stores and delis from January 6 to Ash Wednesday. Locals and visitors alike eat king cake for breakfast, coffee break and dessert. The tradition of king cake dates back to the Middle Ages when a popular devotion during Christmas centered on the Three Wise Men (or Kings) who followed the North Star to find Christ. The twelfth night after the birth of Christ marks the end of Christmas and the celebration of Epiphany. Thus, Twelfth Night in some cultures became a time for pageants and giving special presents to children. Along with gifts came the celebratory cake, or king cake. Today's king cake is a confection made of braided sweet yeast dough, laced with cinnamon. It is always iced in the Mardi Gras colors of purple (justice), green (faith) and gold (power). Hidden in each king cake is a tiny plastic baby. The person who finds the baby must buy the next king cake or host the next party. Contemporary king cakes are often filled with cream cheese or fruit fillings, such as apple and strawberry. However, my recipe included here is the traditional one.
 

Traditional King Cake

Yield: Makes 2 cakes (about 18 servings each)

  • 1 (16-ounce) container light sour cream
  • 1/3 cup sugar or equivalent sugar alternative, such as Truvia for Baking
  • 1/4 cup butter or Smart Balance Butter Blend
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 (1/4-ounce) envelopes active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 6 to 6 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened or Smart Balance Butter Blend
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • Creamy Glaze, recipe below
  • Purple, green and gold-tinted sparkling sugar sprinkles

Directions:

Cook first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until butter melts. Set aside, and cool mixture to 100° to 110°.

Stir together yeast, 1/2 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon sugar in a 1-cup glass measuring cup; let stand 5 minutes.

Beat sour cream mixture, yeast mixture, eggs and 2 cups flour at medium speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer until smooth. Reduce speed to low and gradually add enough remaining flour (4 to 4 1/2 cups) until a soft dough forms.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface or use the mixer's dough hook; knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place in a well-greased bowl, turning to grease the top.

Cover and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts, 1 hour or until dough is doubled in bulk.

Punch down dough and divide in half. Roll each portion into a 22- x 12-inch rectangle. Divide softened butter and spread evenly on each rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border. Stir together 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle evenly over butter on each rectangle.

Roll up each dough rectangle, jelly-roll fashion, starting at 1 long side. Place one dough roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bring ends of roll together to form an oval ring, moistening and pinching edges together to seal. Repeat with second dough roll.

Cover and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts, 20 to 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.

Bake at 375° F for 14 to 16 minutes or until golden. Slightly cool cakes on pans on wire racks (about 10 minutes). Drizzle Creamy Glaze evenly over warm cakes; sprinkle with colored sugars, alternating colors and forming bands (see photo). Let cool completely.

Cream Cheese-Filled King Cake: Prepare each 22- x 12-inch dough rectangle as directed. Omit 1/4 cup softened butter and 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon. Increase 1/2 cup sugar to 3/4 cup sugar. Beat 3/4 cup sugar; 2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened; 1 large egg; and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Divide in half. Spread cream cheese mixture evenly on each dough rectangle, leaving 1-inch borders. Proceed with recipe as directed above.

Creamy Glaze

Makes 1 1/2 cups

  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons milk

Stir together the powdered sugar, vanilla and 2 tablespoons milk, adding additional milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until a thick spreading frosting is formed.

  

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