In the news: Mise en Place Owner Melissa Merchandani

Mardi Gras Meals by Melissa Mirchandani: Former New Orleans resident offers a menu that evokes city's flavors.

Winston-Salem Journal

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February 14, 2007

Byline: Michael Hastings

Feb. 14--Melissa Mirchandani moved from New Orleans in 1993, but she still hasn't quite got Mardi Gras out of her system. "When I came up here, for two years it was almost like my body was physically revved up for it," she said. "After a few years, it wasn't so bad. Now it's just one big lump thing of missing New Orleans."

Mirchandani, a catering chef, grew up in New Orleans, and that upbringing still informs the cooking for her business, Mise en Place Catering, which she started in 1999.

Though she cooks all kinds of food, she's always happy to whip up some gumbo or jambalaya.

"A lot of people want gumbo. And the new thing is jambalaya with pasta instead of rice," she said.

Mardi Gras, which will be Tuesday this year, is actually the end of weeks of a Carnival celebration that begins Jan. 6, the Twelfth Night after Christmas. Its roots are in pagan celebrations that churches eventually sought to control by placing limits on them, specifically requiring that they end the day before Ash Wednesday.

Mardi Gras, Mirchandani said, is mostly about the music and the parades. "But everywhere you go are the king cakes, the muffalettas, the gumbo, the traditional New Orleans food."

King cakes are the one food specific to Mardi Gras. "It's almost like a cinnamon yeast-dough coffee cake that they braid into an oval ring."

The cake also has a trinket, typically a small plastic baby, hidden inside it. The person who gets the baby when the cake is served is often named king or queen of the party. They are required to bring a king cake to the next day's party.

This cake tradition is popular at schools. "The teacher might bring the first one," Mirchandani said, "and then the kid who gets the baby has to bring the next one."

King cakes come in a lot of styles. Some have fillings, such as cream cheese, praline or fruit. "The filled cakes came later on," Mirchandani said. "It seems like everything got bigger in the '80s."

Cakes are typically iced with the traditional Carnival colors: purple, gold and green. Sometimes colored sugar is sprinkled on top instead of icing.

So many cakes are consumed during Carnival that most people buy them. Haydel's, a popular New Orleans bakery, does business online at haydelbakery.com. It ships cakes by next-day air. The cakes are big, offering 30 or more 1-inch slices, but they aren't cheap. The cost is about $40, including shipping. Other sources include GambinosBakery.com, kingcake.com and neworleansgrocer.com.

Besides king cakes, a Mardi Gras party might include any kind of Cajun or Creole food. Street vendors sell a lot of saltwater taffy, and the famously potent Hurricane alcoholic drinks are poured like so much soda.

For a Mardi Gras party, Mirchandani suggested a menu of oysters on the half shell, turkey gumbo, shrimp and tasso jambalaya, and muffalettas.

Oysters are a logical choice, because it's the middle of the harvest season, and oysters are one of the Gulf Coast's biggest seafood businesses.

Lousianians eat many kinds of gumbo. "I'm just doing turkey because that's what I've got. That's how cooks are," Mirchandani said.

Her recipe calls for turkey and optional duck, which she threw in on the spur of the moment last week. She said that slices of andouille, a spicy Cajun sausage, could also be added.

Her jambalaya is of the new-fashioned variety. It substitutes pasta for rice. "It's an old dog with a new trick," she said.

Just like with the rice in traditional jambalaya, the pasta is added uncooked, then simmered with shrimp, tomatoes and other ingredients until the mixture becomes thick.

A key ingredient in the jambalaya is tasso. It's sometimes called tasso ham, though it isn't ham but a spicy Cajun cured meat. It can be hard to find outside Louisiana, but kielbasa or Italian sausage can be substituted.

Over the years, Mirchandani has developed her own version of muffalettas, the Italian-Cajun hero-style sandwich with meats and cheese on an Italian roll with a distinctive olive salad.

She uses deli ham and Genoa salami, and usually substitutes Swiss cheese for the traditional provolone. "I don't put carrots and celery (in the olive salad) because my kids don't like them," she said. "Sometimes I'll add roasted garlic. And I use (chopped) Mt. Olive petite kosher dills, instead of cornichons, because they can be so expensive."

She also uses Kaiser rolls instead of the usual boules. These make smaller sandwiches than traditional muffalettas, which is a good thing. They are usually too much for one person for eat.

Making this menu won't recreate the atmosphere of Mardi Gras, but it certainly will evoke the flavor of New Orleans.

For Mirchandani, it evokes memories of Mardi Gras unspoiled by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

"Mardi Gras is about being in the streets, with the music, the beat," she said. "The whole city shuts down. You really have to look at the schedule for the parades before you go anywhere. You can go to the grocery store and not be able to get home for two hours because they shut down the streets.

"I miss Mardi Gras. I didn't realize how much of it goes into your whole demeanor, your whole attitude."

That's not unlike the city of New Orleans itself. "Just last night I was saying, 'I miss hanging out in the (French)Quarter, drinking a glass of wine, watching the people,'" Mirchandani said.

"I don't think I'll ever get it out of my system."