Mardi Gras arrives early this year on Feb. 13. This may not mean a lot locally but in the South, especially in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, it means Mardi Gras season — Carnival — is considerably shorter than it has been in recent years. Mardi Gras is always the day before Ash Wednesday, which falls 46 days before Easter, which in turn is based on the first full moon after the spring equinox. The date changes every year.
But the season of Mardi Gras always begins on the same date, Jan. 6, known variously as King’s Day, Twelfth Night and Epiphany. In New Orleans, it’s the day of the first of dozens of Mardi Gras parades, and it is also the day locals start wishing everyone “Happy Mardi Gras.” There are events all over town, prior to the two kick-off parades — Krewe de Jeanne D’Arc, and the Phunny Phorty Phellows — in which 40 guys commandeer the St. Charles streetcar for drinking and general merriment and mayhem.
Bakeries and grocery stores display stacks of King’s Cakes throughout the season and, as the actual day of Mardi Gras itself draws close, the number of parades picks up. It is impossible to see them all, but some of the best — Krewe de Barkus and Krewe de Vieux, to name two favorites — take place well before the final day. These parades are attended mostly by locals and visitors from nearby. It is really only the final parades through the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday itself that are the raucous drunken affairs that TV reports inevitably cover.
News programs typically focus their Mardi Gras coverage on New Orleans, but if you want to explore the true roots of the season, you must head to Mobile, Alabama, where a visit to the Carnival Museum is both delightful and educational. The genesis of America’s Mardi Gras celebrations is in Mobile, with the first one taking place in 1703. The regalia of the 50 families — 25 African-American, 25 Caucasian — that make up what we can call, casually, Mardi Gras royalty are astonishingly gorgeous, with flowing trains made new each year, though often with a section of previous trains worked in to the new design. One train currently on display has 12,000 crystals, each one sewn on by hand, which is required of costumes: No machine sewing!
An interesting tradition of Mardi Gras in Mobile is the throwing of Moon Pies, which has been part of the celebration for nearly a century. Colorful Mardi Gras beads, masks and trinkets fly from the floats of dozens of parades, just as they do in New Orleans, but in Mobile, Moon Pies are essential. They are also popular throughout the Gulf region, wherever Mardi Gras is celebrated.
So, how do we celebrate Mardi Gras locally? You can have your own celebration simply by enjoying breakfast, lunch, beignets and cafe au lait at Healdsburg’s Parish Cafe (60 Mill St.). For the last several years, the Parish has hosted a Mardi Gras fete with live music by the Second Line Band, but they are passing this year, because of the ongoing construction of the Healdsburg roundabout, which is taking place nearly in the restaurant’s front yard.
No one seems to know when construction will be over, but there is good news on the near horizon for anyone who loves Cajun and Creole cuisine as created by Parish’s founder and chef, Rob Lippincott. A second location, in Santa Rosa on Fourth Street near Russian River Brewing Co., will be opening really soon — not in time for Mardi Gras but very likely before the end of Lent.
Look out, Santa Rosa: Beignets, the classic doughnut of New Orleans, is about to get temptingly close.
Visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com and micheleannajordan.com for more tales and recipes of New Orleans. My website includes a slide show of costumes from the Mobile Carnival Museum.
Chef Rob Lippincott makes an outstanding version of shrimp and grits, as delicious as any version I’ve had anywhere. His not-so-secret secret of successful is the shrimp stock he uses.
“You have to have the heads,” he said, “because that is where all the flavor is.”
He uses heads and shells of Louisiana wild Gulf Shrimp, along with the Cajun Holy Trinity of onions, celery and bell pepper, along with tomatoes, to create his voluptuous rendition. This version, for which I take full responsibility, offers the option of using shrimp stock but does not require it, as it can be a stretch for home cooks not familiar with the techniques involved.
Shrimp, Andouille & Grits
Makes 4 to 6 servings
— Simple Grits (recipe follows)
3 andouille or similar spicy sausage, cut into ¼-inch thick half rounds
2 tablespoons butter
4-5 garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced
— Kosher salt
1 pound large shrimp, preferably Gulf shrimp, deveined, peeled, tails on
½ - ¾ cup shrimp stock or homemade chicken stock
— Juice of 1 lemon
— Tabasco sauce or Crystal hot sauce
1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste
¾ teaspoon smoked or hot paprika, preferably Spanish
— Black pepper in a mill
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 green onions, very thinly sliced
First, make the grits, using the main recipe below or any of the variations.
While the grits cook, prepare the shrimp. Put the andouille or other sausage into a large sauté pan set over medium heat and cook, turning once or twice, until they begin to give up some of their fat. Add half the butter, the garlic, sauté 1 minute more and season with salt.
Increase the heat to high, add the shrimp, cook for 1 minute, turn and cook for 1 minute more.
Add the stock and lemon juice and cook until the shrimp turn fully pink, about 2 minutes more for large shrimp.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shrimp to a warmed bowl.
Return the pan to medium heat. Add several shakes of hot sauce and stir in the tomato paste and paprika. Taste, carefully, correct for salt and add several turns of black pepper. Add the remaining butter, swirl the pan until the butter just melts and remove from the heat.
Return the shrimp and any juices that have collected to the pan, and toss quickly.
Ladle grits into soup bowls or plates, top with shrimp, garnish with parsley and green onions and enjoy right away.
Variation: Use bacon instead of sausage. To do so, fry 6 strips of thick bacon crisp, and transfer to absorbent paper to drain; when it is cool enough to handle it, crumble it. Pour off all but a tablespoon of bacon fat and continue as directed above. When returning the shrimp to the sauce, add about two-thirds of the bacon. Omit the green onions and garnish with the remaining bacon.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
— Kosher salt
1 cup coarse white grits or polenta, preferably stone ground
3 tablespoons butter
Pour 5 cups of water into a large heavy saucepan, add 2 teaspoons of salt and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Pour in the grits very slowly, stirring all the while in the same direction. Continue to stir until the water returns to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until the grits are thick and tender, about 30 to 40 minutes.
Taste, correct for salt and pour into a heated serving bowl. Stir in the butter and serve.
With Cheese: Stir 8 ounces (2 cups grated) white cheddar cheese into the grits, along with the butter. Season with several turns of black pepper.
With Bacon & Cheese: Fry several slices (8 ounces) of bacon until crisp, drain on absorbent paper and chop or crumble. Fold half of the bacon into the grits, along with 1 cup (4 ounces) grated white cheddar cheese. Add several turns of black pepper, transfer to a serving bowl and scatter the remaining bacon on top.
With Cream & Cheese: Cook the grits in 4 cups of water. When done, stir in ½ cup heavy cream or half-and-half along with 3 cups (12 ounces) grated cheese of choice. Season with several turns of black pepper.
Michele Anna Jordan hosts Mouthful, Smart Talk About Food, Wine & Farming on KRCB FM on Sunday evenings from 6 to 7. Email her at email@example.com.