The kettle was whistling like a theremin in the opening sequence of some science fiction show, ready for my morning pour-over that would hopefully shake off the haze of last night’s Barefoot Ball at a house on Washington Square. There are enough clues in that long-winded sentence that any Mobilian reading it could determine this story is about Mardi Gras.
Prepared or not, our claim to Carnival fame is here and I’ve already caught two shoulders’ worth of beads, one football, oatmeal cream pies and a small case of the sniffles. But the one parade I have attended couldn’t come close to the house party I was invited to last weekend known as the Barefoot Ball. Leaving shoes at the door, revelers entered the abode in tails, gowns, costumes, suits and cocktail dresses all for the sake of drinking, dancing and eating our way through a few hours.
This was definitely a Port City gathering. I was ecstatic to get the invitation, and can say although I knew at least a dozen people there, I spent most of my time with new faces either on the porch, where the fresh air met the rain, or in, you guessed it, the kitchen where the food was. Of course the dining room was turned into a makeshift dance floor complete with lights and a DJ. The kitchen was definitely my place.
King Cake, you ask? Of course there was King Cake, two kinds, actually. We love any excuse to eat King Cake (for those who don’t know, it’s really more bread than cake) after the first parade hits the streets. I was consulted prior to the party as to where the cake should be purchased and was given the choice between two places west of here. My suggestion was to walk the 50 yards to Cream & Sugar and pick up the one they carry from Sucre out of New Orleans. This example was fine as frog’s hair. There was another version from Atlanta Bread Co. that should not be excluded.
For me, King Cakes are all about the cream cheese with strawberry filling or the amaretto, my longtime favorite being from the Lighthouse Bakery on Dauphin Island. The other day my son Lucas coerced me into purchasing a praline version from Greer’s. This was shipped in from Cartozzo’s Bakery out of Kenner, Louisiana, and is 32 ounces of joy. It’s a departure from the King Cake norm but a great suggestion when you wish to break the monotony of the usual choices.
In a chafing dish on the kitchen island a fair amount of shrimp and grits had my name on them. This is the dish that duped this generation. Born in the kitchens of the poor, shrimp and grits were the cheapest way to feed any family with a net and a nickel’s worth of hominy. Now shrimp and grits are usually one of the most expensive dishes in the fanciest of Southern restaurants.
Of the many ways to do shrimp and grits, I break it down into two categories. There can be shrimp mixed in with the grits, as was the case at the Barefoot Ball, or the shrimp can be cooked with a lot of vegetables in a thin “gravy” as a topping for the grits. Both have their place. Either way, you can fetch $20-$30 per plate for a half dozen shrimp and some trinity.
At this party I loved the pig in a poke tray. Cocktail wieners were wrapped in phyllo dough with an egg wash inside and out and baked to fluffiness but the kicker was the sauce. A side of some sort of reduction that had a tinge of barbecue flavor (maybe from mustard and brown sugar) elevated the pigs from their lowly spot on the social scale to a much classier status.
One of the highlights of the Barefoot Ball was the tray of sliced apple canapés. Slivers of Granny Smith apples were topped with Gouda and a perfect slice of bacon for an easy treat that combines the healthy with the unhealthy. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. A piece of bacon a day keeps you wanting to see another tomorrow. The cheese gives you calcium.
Grits for any occasion
Here’s a surefire grits recipe complete with cheese. It’s made with finer-ground quick grits as opposed to the speckled stone ground and can be done in about five minutes. This recipe will use havarti cheese but smoked Gouda works well, too. I love the cheese grits under shrimp, but some of you may want the grits plain in that scenario. Grits for shrimp need to be creamy, though.
1 cup of quick grits
4 cups of water
1 cup of whole milk
4 tablespoons butter
8 ounces of sliced havarti cheese
In a heavy pot with a decent lid, bring the salted water to a boil. Add the quick grits and stir with a whisk. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Stir often, about every 45 seconds or so. This releases the starch and the grits become very sticky.
At the five-minute mark, whisk in the milk (I sometimes use heavy cream depending on my mood) and continue to stir. This loosens the grits considerably but adds that creamy factor and makes room for the cheese. Add butter and stir until melted. Follow this with the havarti slices and fresh ground black pepper to taste.
These are my breakfast grits and always welcome peppers, onions, garlic and sausage. Throw a few shrimp in that mix and you’re in business. With or without shrimp, grits will be a part of any Oakleigh Garden District party.
For any of you in town for Mardi Gras, do your best to weasel your way into an OGD celebration and hang out near the kitchen. Always expect King Cake, grits, some kind of pork, charcuterie, Jell-O shots and a signature cocktail. If you can handle that, then you are welcome to party with us Mobile style!