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.
How to Make 15 Mardi Gras Treats and Drinks for Less
Gumbo, from the West African word for "okra," is probably the city's most famous food. Additional classic ingredients include fil� 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 an acceptable substitute. Gumbos, including a version at Bon Appetit, call on the holy trinity of Bayou cooking -- celery, onion, and green pepper.
There's really no way to get around using shrimp in this recipe -- it's the star. Tyler Florence's ultimate shrimp and grits creation from the Food Network calls for 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, as Florence suggests, makes a huge difference to taste and texture.
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 then 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. Horseradish, mustard, and cayenne give a recipe from Emeril Legasse its heat.
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. New Orleans chef John Besh cooks up an easy three-step recipe that requires several hours of cooking time but not a lot of effort. Although his instructions are silent on the matter, some cooks prefer to soak dried beans overnight because it helps them cook faster. Use dried beans as opposed to canned for much improved texture and more savings.
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 Emeril's po' boys with meatballs made of ground veal, beef, and pork, smothered in beer gravy, and topped with provolone cheese are equally satisfying.
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 recipe from Simply Recipes 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.
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 recipe from Food Network 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).
An enormous sandwich that feeds a crowd, muffuletta is made of a large round loaf that's hard to find outside New Orleans. Serious Eats suggests using focaccia, 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, and 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.
Jambalaya is another well-known New Orleans stew, this one cooked with the rice rather than poured over it. There are different versions of this 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. A version posted on RealCajunRecipes.com also calls for smoked sausage and ham. For a budget-friendly party dish, choose the most economical mix of meats.
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, bananas foster make a hugely impressive display when 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. Martha Stewart doesn't set the rum afire but uses it to flavor the caramel sauce, so the alcohol burns off just the same. Cheap rum is easy to find.
King cakes are eaten in New Orleans in the weeks between Epiphany (Jan. 6) 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. The cake is 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 from King Arthur Flour that includes everything needed -- but not, some reviewers complain, the baby.
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, as interpreted by Epicurious, includes pricey ingredients such as Peychaud's bitters and absinthe. For a cheaper version, substitute Angostura bitters ($5 at Walmart) 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.) Use an inexpensive rye whiskey, such as Old Rittenhouse (about $25), rather than a higher-end rye such as Knob Creek (about $45).
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. A Liquor.com video mixes up a ramos gin fizz with Tanqueray gin. The gin fades into the background in this cocktail, so there's no need to spend a lot on a premium brand. Budget options include Seagram's Extra Dry (about $12) and Gilbey's Special Dry Gin (about $14).
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 New Orleans Online might not be easy to find. Pineapple juice is a substitute, although not ideal. The cooks at Epicurious suggest 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 on Liquor.com 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. A 750-milliliter bottle of EJ brandy sells for $12 or so.