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Frankly, I don’t really care who did it first. I selfishly just focus on who does it better … for me. New Orleans is the Mardi Gras on everyone’s mind. Everyone, that is, outside of the Southeastern United States. It’s an amazing city, one with better food than most. It’s filthy one minute, extremely clean the next. It’s dangerous, sexy, friendly and scary. It tears down your inhibitions, and I love it.
But I don’t go there for Mardi Gras.
New Orleans is for me to enjoy on my own terms, free from parades, big events and holidays. The lines to the restroom and the traffic are bad enough on a regular Tuesday, let alone the fattest Tuesday of the year. I love you, New Orleans, but I want you (as much as can be) all to myself. For Carnival season, Mobile is the place to be.
We borrow so much from our sister city on the other side of the river that I’d like to think of Mobile as having a knack for cherry-picking. Of course, this mainly comes in the form of food and drink. But while you’re here (as a resident or a visitor), you should take advantage of our strengths and traditions, most notably that of our Joe Cain Day celebration.
Yes, Mobile has an obligation to “let it all hang out” on the night before Ash Wednesday, but it’s more of a “let what’s left in the tank hang out.” Mardi and Lundi Gras are school holidays in this town, but really they are more for recovery for some. It’s that Sunday (this year it’s Feb. 27) that Mobilians show you what we are made of as we pay tribute to our most important party chairman, Joseph Stillwell Cain.
The typical Joe Cain house party is one of open doors, porches, patios and lots of dishes to absorb the incredible amount of alcohol most will consume. Your average person will booze-up whatever it is he or she wants, but it’s up to the party host to make certain there is a good base coat to help her keep it down.
The typical Joe Cain party should have grits and grillades. This is a dish we borrowed from NOLA, but it has a strong foothold in our city. Cheap meat cutlets, usually beef, are pan-fried and braised in a tomato-based gravy until they are spork-tender and served over quality grits. More than 3/4 of the menus it seems in this town have shrimp and grits featured on the entrée section. Grillades (pronounced GREE-odds) are heartier. A great example would be from Bay Gourmet at 853 Dauphin St. They have them to go should you be scared to attempt it yourself.
Frito-chili pie is a traveling parade-goer’s dream. Simply pour a scoop of chili in a small bag of Fritos and top with cheese, sour cream and onions. You’ll appreciate the mobility if you can find someone to hold your beer.
West Indies salad is a Mobile original since 1947, so we can’t leave it out. Crab meat with onions and canola oil is about the lightest thing you’ll find on our parade menu. You can still get the original at Bayley’s Seafood, 10805 Dauphin Island Pkwy., but keep in mind they’re closed Sunday and Monday. Don’t forget the saltines.
Mardi Gras Orzo
For some of the best orzo in the city, we must turn to Vlad at Mediterranean Sandwich Co. We are big fans, but I make a Mardi Gras-friendly version with shrimp that fits right in with any celebration. Notice the colors, but focus on the flavor.
My family encourages me to make this one. As far as Mardi Gras foods go, this isn’t that heavy despite the cream, butter and cheese. I treat it as a side, but it could hold up as a main. Adding sausage to this makes it feel a little more pasta-jambalaya than I care for, but chopped bacon is an OK addition. I’ve had great results with tasso. Just don’t overdo it.
1 cup orzo pasta, cooked al dente (reserving one cup of the pasta water)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 cup butter (half a stick)
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 turns from a pepper mill
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound peeled and deveined Gulf shrimp
Cajun seasoning to taste
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley
4 chopped green onions
Juice of half a lemon
Prepare orzo according to package and drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta water. While it’s cooking, bring oil to temp in a large, heavy skillet (with a lid) over medium heat. Add butter. Once butter is melted, sweat the onions and bell pepper until soft and shiny, about 3 minutes, and add garlic for 1 minute. If adding any sausage or meat, now is the time.
Toss in the white wine, allowing it to cook down for a couple of minutes.
Add drained pasta to the vegetables and toss to coat. Add cream and stir well.
Season the shrimp generously with Cajun seasoning and add to hot pasta, stirring for 2 minutes. Once the shrimp are pink, taste pasta and adjust seasonings. If it feels too dry, add pasta water a little at a time. It shouldn’t be soupy. Sprinkle the cheese and cover, decreasing heat to low for 5 minutes. Add parsley and green onions, drizzle with lemon juice. Serve sooner than later.
Double this recipe if you’re having a larger party. Don’t skimp on the cheese, just keep it to the harder white ones. Asiago, Romano or blends are fine, too.
I love eating this in those tiny disposable cups, and I’m not afraid to mess up my color scheme with a shot of hot sauce (Louisiana Red Dot or Crystal, preferred).
My party, my food, my Mobile Mardi Gras.
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