And on this day of seemingly non-stop celebrating, partying, parades, pageantry and excess, Marian Cairns, Southern Living magazine's test kitchen specialist, explained plenty of things you probably didn't realize about the day's fare, and shared some delicious recipes.
Though Mardi Gras is celebrated in Roman Catholic countries worldwide, no place does it like New Orleans, which draws tourists from around the world seeking to soak in and indulge in its Cajun and Creole cultural influences.
A week of festivities culminates on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent and the sacrifices that come with it for Catholics. Fat Tuesday is a day to indulge in excess and enjoy its many foods, sounds, drinks and sources of fun before being forced to give them up.
New Orleans has been celebrating Fat Tuesday since French Settlers arrived in the 1700s, and continues the tradition to this day.
On The Early Show, Cairns offered a simple tutorial on Mardi Gras, the King Cake, and the differences among Gumbo, Etouffe, and Jambalaya. She also demonstrated the prepping of a cocktail invented in New Orleans, called a Sazerac.
Jambalaya: is a one-pot sausage and seafood stew; kind of a jazzed-up Louisiana take on paella.
Jambalaya and Gumbo are cousins. The difference is that, in jambalaya, the rice is cooked into the recipe and gumbo, which is more like a stew, is served over rice. Jambalaya can be made with or without tomatoes; Cairns' recipe uses tomatoes.
Étoufée is a richer, saucier recipe that starts with the a roux Every Louisiana cook knows first you make a roux. Roux is used to thicken everything -- it's the foundation of all of the classic mother sauces, a 50/50 combo of flour and oil or butter. The key is to stir it -- it goes from blonde to chocolate, and the darker it gets, the more flavor it imparts it the recipe. Étoufée traditionally includes shrimp, crawfish, lump crab meat, and is served over rice. You can dip your bread in it if you like.
Sazerac cocktail: Most people think of the Hurricane when they think of Mardi Gras, but in fact, the official drink of New Orleans is the Sazerac. Legend has it that the Sazerac was New Orleans' first cocktail (in fact in 2008, an amendment was passed making it the official cocktail of the city). Classic ingredients are Peychaud's Bitters, Herbsaint (an anise flavored, absinthe substitute), and rye whiskey (which is distilled from rye grain) -- it has a rich flavor that's similar to Bourbon (but Bourbon is distilled with AT LEAST 51 percent corn).
And for dessert, Cairns had the traditional king cake. There's a little "baby" baked into the cake and, tradition has it, whoever gets the baby is responsible for hosting the party next year.
Cajun as opposed to Creole
These culinary cousins are all about traditional Louisiana cooking.
Cajun is thought of as more "country" cooking, while Creole encompasses a more refined "city" food though, today, both borrow from each other and blur the lines into one giant "gumbo pot" that creates our country's richest and most diverse regional cuisine.
Creole traditionally refers to a more sophisticated melding of French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences (i.e. crab meat, richer more refined sauces), while Cajun, which also draws heavily on Fresh and Spanish influences, includes cooking traditions from the rural communities west and south of New Orleans, folks who were, in many cases, living off the land (i.e. crawfish, Tasso ham).
The beauty is, gumbo, jambalaya, and étoufée, can fall into both categories since, over the years, they all borrowed from one another (i.e. crawfish in the étoufée instead of crab meat; jambalaya with tomatoes is more Creole, while jambalaya without tomatoes is more Cajun.)
For Cairns' recipes, go to Page 2.