Not everyone can get to New Orleans for Mardi Gras -- and not everyone wants to. That doesn't mean a Mardi Gras party, featuring pre-Lenten classic recipes and cocktails, is off the table. Many traditional Cajun and Creole eats are based on ingredients that are plentiful and cheap in the Big Easy but scarce and pricey elsewhere, so substitutions are on order. The following recipes can help make a Fat Tuesday party both affordable and authentic.
Gumbo, from the West African word for "okra," is probably the city's most famous food. They call on the holy trinity of Bayou cooking -- celery, onion, and green pepper, and additional classic ingredients include filé powder (ground sassafras leaves) and a roux of fat and flour. The rest is up for grabs, depending on what's in the kitchen. A chicken and sausage gumbo is usually made with andouille sausage, a spicy French smoked meat. If andouille is hard to find or too expensive, any smoked sausage (such as kielbasa) is acceptable.
Recipe: Bon Appétit
There's really no way to get around using shrimp in this recipe -- it's the star, a whole 2 pounds to feed four. It's possible to reduce the amount of shrimp and boost the amount of sausage without damaging the dish. The rest of the ingredients, including milk, heavy cream, white cornmeal, onion, and chicken stock, are fairly inexpensive. Avoid using quick-cooking grits despite the convenience; stone ground cornmeal makes a huge difference to taste and texture.
Recipe: Tyler Florence
Catfish is very inexpensive in season, usually late spring to summer. If it's hard to come by at Mardi Gras time, tilapia is an effective alternate; for four people, use four fillets. First, dry with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Dredge each in one-half cup flour, dip into a beaten egg, and coat with a mix of one-half cup flour and one-half cup cornmeal kicked up with a hit of cayenne. Set aside for a few minutes to allow the breading to adhere. Fill a heavy pan with canola oil halfway up the sides. Heat until rippling, and fry the fillets until golden. Remoulade, a dipping sauce, makes this dish special. There are several variations, the most common being tomato- or mayonnaise-based. Try one with horseradish, mustard, and cayenne providing some heat.
Recipe: Emeril Lagasse
This down-home dish is filling and super cheap, and a big pot lasts a long time. Smoked ham hocks, often priced at less than $2 a pound, provide the underlying flavor and bulk up the protein count. The dish can require several hours of cooking time, but usually not a lot of effort: Dried beans give much improved texture and more savings than canned; some cooks prefer to soak the dried beans overnight because it helps them cook faster.
During a streetcar strike in New Orleans in 1929, two brothers, both streetcar operators, vowed to feed the hungry and "poor" strikers. They filled French bread with ham, cheese, lettuce, pickles, and mayonnaise and gave away the sandwiches. In the years since, po' boys have been filled with any number of things, most notably oysters. These bivalves are expensive, but po' boys with meatballs made of ground veal, beef, and pork, smothered in beer gravy and topped with provolone cheese are equally satisfying.
Recipe: Emeril Lagasse
Some people love okra and many can't abide it. Fans of the slimy (when cooked) vegetable will enjoy this tasty and filling Creole-style side dish. A stewed okra and tomatoes dish starts with the trinity of onions, celery, and peppers browned in bacon fat. Canned tomatoes and frozen okra make this one-pot side a cinch to prepare, and the addition of cinnamon and cloves adds a touch of spice and depth.
Recipe: Simply Recipes
Étouffée is a stew that, like gumbo, can accommodate a lot of ingredient manipulation. It's typically made with crawfish or some other seafood, but adding chicken to the mix shaves the cost. A shrimp and chicken étouffée uses 1 pound of shrimp for eight servings. The French word étouffée means smothered, which here refers to the gravy, a rich roux made with the drippings from andouille sausage (or a cheaper smoked variety).
Recipe: Food Network
An enormous sandwich that feeds a crowd, muffuletta is made of a large round loaf that's hard to find outside New Orleans. Focaccia's a possibility, but a more frugal sandwich uses a hearty loaf of French or Italian bread. Slice the loaf in half lengthwise and pile on salami, mortadella, capicola, and provolone, then top with olive salad, peppers, capers, and oil and vinegar. This sandwich requires time to rest, so wrap in plastic and let it sit for an hour or so before serving.
Recipe: Serious Eats
Jambalaya is another well-known New Orleans stew, this one cooked with the rice rather than poured over it. There are different versions of the dish depending on its origins -- Creole jambalaya contains tomatoes, and the Cajun version does not. The protein in the dish consists primarily of chicken thighs, but the dish can also include smoked sausage and ham. For a budget-friendly party dish, choose the most economical mix of meats.
Recipe: Real Cajun Recipes
New Orleans was the port of entry for bananas into the United States, so it's not surprising this is where the dessert originated. Ordered in a restaurant such as , at Brennan's, where it was invented, bananas foster make an impressive display as the rum, the second prime ingredient and also an import, is ignited at the table. After the flames die out, the banana-liquor combination is served over vanilla ice cream. Cheap rum is easy to find when making the dish at home.
Recipe: Brennan's Restaurant
King cakes are eaten in New Orleans in the weeks between Epiphany and Lent. The green (signifying faith), purple (signifying justice), and gold (signifying power) used in the frosting are the official Mardi Gras colors. King cake is named for the three kings of Christmas and baked with a plastic baby representing Jesus tucked inside. Tradition says whoever eats a slice with the baby throws the next party or buys the next cake, a rich yeast dough shaped in a circle with one of a number of fillings. Instead of ordering an authentic king cake from a New Orleans purveyor for $50 or more, consider a $20 kit that includes everything -- except the baby, that is.
Kit and recipe: King Arthur Flour
Like a light, puffy doughnut without a hole, beignets are New Orleans' signature pastry. They can be made from scratch with ingredients that are mostly on hand, but it's a time-consuming process, since the yeast needs to rise. Bread flour can be used rather than all-purpose, and evaporated milk, though a "just add water" mix can be ordered right from the source, Café du Monde, for less than $4. Don't forget to dust the beignets with plenty of confectioners' sugar and, for authenticity, wash them down with a cup of café au lait laced with chicory.
Recipe: Southern Living
Mardi Gras wouldn't be the same without infusions of alcohol, and the Sazerac, America's first cocktail, was invented in a French Quarter bar. The real thing includes pricey ingredients such as Peychaud's bitters and absinthe; for a cheaper version, substitute Angostura bitters ($5 in Walmarts) for Peychaud's and an anise-flavored drink made from wormwood, such as anisette or Pernod, for super-expensive absinthe. (A bit of finely ground anise seed also provides the licorice flavor, without the same poisonous kick.) Feel free to use an inexpensive rye whiskey.
This foamy white drink, which also traces its origins to the Big Easy, contains a lot of ingredients that aren't alcoholic, including egg white, lemon, lime, cream, orange flower water, simple syrup, and club soda. Since the gin fades into the background in this cocktail, there's no need to spend a lot on a premium brand.
There are many different versions of the hurricane, and all are sweet with fruit juices. Some contain a mixture of gin, vodka, and rum, but the classic New Orleans version contains two kinds of rum, light and dark; budget-priced rum is totally acceptable. The passion fruit juice suggested by a recipe at NewOrleansOnline.com might not be easy to find, and pineapple juice is an alternative, although not ideal. Try a substitute made of 1 tablespoon passion fruit sorbet mixed with 1 teaspoon grenadine.
For revelers in need of something to coat their stomachs the morning after a Mardi Gras blow-out, brandy milk punch is the hair-of-the-dog breakfast drink of choice. The recipe for this popular Louisiana holiday staple calls for 1 cup of brandy for four people. Powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and a soothing 3 cups of milk render the quality of the brandy almost inconsequential, so feel free to buy cheap.