Aiii-yeee!!! Tuesday is Mardi Gras, time to get out the hot sauce and hot boudin, and let those Cajun spices lead you and your favorite party guests into the danger zone.
If you like heat, Louisiana’s famed foods — jambalaya, dirty rice, crawfish, shrimp etoufée and garlic-laced andouille, to name a few — offer plenty of room for burn with a repertoire of well-blended hot-pepper sauces, smoky tasso (seasoned pork) and other eye-watering ingredients.
Jude Theriot, a Lake Charles, La., cookbook author and cooking teacher, heads for the cayenne pepper every time he gets in the kitchen.
"(It’s) the main hot seasoning I use in recipes," he says.
But don’t feel compelled to set your guests’ mouths on fire. How hot you want the dish to be is up to you.
"Start with just a dash of cayenne. It’s easy to turn up the heat with more cayenne and a few dashes of Tabasco sauce," he says. "I think of Tabasco sauce as a flavor enhancer. It’s almost like MSG. It does a better job of balancing flavors than adding heat."
But you don’t have to feel compelled to use just Tabasco sauce, either.
"There are over 60 different brands of hot sauces made in Louisiana," Theriot says.
Mardi Gras, which means "Fat Tuesday" in French, marks the end of Carnival, a season of celebration, and the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting. In Louisiana and other Gulf Coast areas, the Carnival season is filled with parties, parades — and food.
"It’s not called Fat Tuesday for no reason," says Theriot. "It’s a day we stuff ourselves with crawfish, oysters, gumbo and a gob of other traditional Louisiana dishes."
Marcelle Bienvenu of St. Martinville, La., author of "Cajun Cooking for Beginners," offers the following must-have ingredients to create great Cajun dishes. (Not to beconfused with Creole dishes, a related but different cuisine.)
Though substitutions can be made for some, try to get authentic ingredients if you’re aiming for the real thing.
Andouille (ahn-DOO-ee). ACajunsmoked sausage made with pork and spices. It is used in flavoring gumbos, stews, jambalayas and some rice dishes.
Boudin (boo-DAHN). ACajunsausage made with bits of pork, rice, seasonings and green onions. It’s eaten for breakfast or as a snack in Louisiana.
Creole mustard. Athick, pungent, spicy, coarse local mustard used on po-boys (submarine-like sandwiches) as well as an ingredient in many dishes. The mustard seeds are marinated before preparation. Course-grained, country-style, whole-seed Dijon-style mustard may be substituted.
Filé (FEE-lay). Made from ground sassafras leaves, it thickens and spices up gumbo. However, filé powder should never be used with okra in a gumbo. You will end up with a stringy mess. Use one or the other for thickening.
Tasso (TAH-soh). Cured pork that has been seasoned with red pepper, garlic, filé powder and herbs, and then smoked. It’s used to spice up beans, stews and other Cajun dishes. The Holy Trinity. The nickname for the mixture of green bell peppers, celery and onion that’s the basis for most Louisiana dishes. To her list, let us add: Cayenne pepper. Made of ground blend of various tropical chilies, with cayenne chilies making up the majority of the condiment.
Tabasco sauce. Made from Tabasco peppers that are barrel-fermented for three years in vinegar and salt. The peppers are the very hot, small red chilies that originated in the Mexican state of Tabasco. Crystal and Louisiana Red Hot. Two good Louisiana pepper sauces that are more mellow than Tabasco, but not as distinctively flavored. With your Cajun pantry stocked, you’re readytocook. Then just add some Mardi-Grasstyle beads, a little Zydeco music and pass the Hurricanes for a hot time.