With Fat Tuesday coming up on March 4th, Mardi Gras season is in full swing in New Orleans. If you can't join the costumed revelers watching parades in the streets this week, that's no reason not to celebrate. We've asked a few of our favorite New Orleans tastemakers, including actor Bryan Batt
(who co-owns NOLA design boutique Hazelnut
with partner Tom Cianfichi), interior designer Melissa Miles Rufty
, and decorator Sara Costello
magazine's former creative director, to share their essential entertaining tips and favorite festive recipes so you can throw your own Mardi Gras party at home.
King cakes are a staple at practically every gathering until Ash Wednesday. Most resemble a braided coffee cake with purple, green, and gold icing or sugars sprinkled on top, although they're available with a multitude of flavored stuffings. All king cakes have a little plastic baby hidden somewhere inside, and whoever gets it has to host the next party or bring the next king cake. One of our favorites is the classic French Galette de Rois available at Maurice's
, which features layers of puff pastry with a frangipani flavor, topped with powdered sugar and a gold paper crown.
Although these are more casual events, we always like to use "the good stuff" -- except no crystal on the streets, just "go-cups" that are thrown from maskers on the floats. The centerpiece is usually a big glass punch bowl filled with beads caught from the parades, or a bust draped with even more beads. One year we put Mardi Gras float flowers on the wall of the dining room in our old carriage house -- so much fun!
Tom [Batt's aforementioned partner] is a great cook and makes a killer "Kitchen Sink Gumbo
." Sometimes there is a chill in the air, and nothing warms a good reveler up like a hot bowl of gumbo served from the beautiful Alison Evans
ceramic ware that we love and carry at Hazelnut.
Another staple is fried chicken and/or Po' boys (New Orleans' own wonderful version of a sloppy hero). We cut them into a two- or three-bite size and order up a mix of spicy and mild Popeye's. I love serving on large glass reverse decoupage plates
, which we designed for Hazelnut and feature historic images from Harper's Weekly
's Mardi Gras dating back to the mid 1800s.
Mardi Gras is about celebration, abandon, and fun. One year my late mom dressed as the K&B cashier (a beloved local drug store whose signature color is purple). Tom made her name tag, and we found a purple beehive wig. She was such a hit, people stopped her for photos up and down St. Charles Avenue. It was her last Mardi Gras -- what an exit!
|New Orleans Lucite Tray, $92, Hazelnut
||Alison Evans Sea Urchin Bowls, From $88, Hazelnut
||Laurel Wilder Flambeaux Tray, $158, Hazelnut
Spicy Bloody Marys and cold beer are the official drinks of the season. My party planner pal Jim Perrier crafts superb bloodies for his three-day bacchanal out of these ingredients: Kettle One vodka, Zing Zang Bloody Mary mix, and Worstershire, garnished with extra-long spiced green beans. He serves those on ice, in custom to-go cups, which everyone knows, are street-legal. Meaning: you can catch beads from the sidewalk with one hand and nurse your cocktail with the other.
Jambalaya is critical. Number one, it's filling and will absorb the uncustomarily high levels of alcohol you and your guests are bound to have consumed. Number two, you can prepare it almost a week before your party starts. Number three, it will feed a famished army.
To make a party interesting, fast, my friend decorator Vest Fort swears by the Jell-O shot "Double Vision" cake, a local delicacy whose ingredients include pure grain alcohol, Jell-0, and God knows what else, folded into a king cake. Despite how awful it sounds, it's surprisingly not.
Costumes, masks, and beads are essential. From full Marie Antoinette to a sleek silver body suit, the more elaborate your outfit, the more beads you catch. The Mask Gallery
on Royal Street has the best handmade masks I've ever seen. Beads should be in all different sizes, but the big pearl ones are most coveted.
There is nothing more Mardi Gras than a crawfish boil. Everyone swears their boil recipe is the best. No invitations, newspapers as tablecloths, and passersby welcomed. Be sure to pinch the tails and suck the heads!
If you're not a Bloody Mary fan, start the day with another classic New Orleans hair-of-the-dog tonic, the venerable Milk Punch
. A brandy and cream-based elixir that's so smooth, it will seduce you into thinking it's a good idea to repeat.
As all veteran Gras-goers know, a parade tracker app on your cellphone is a must if you're in New Orleans, so make sure your guests know when and where they can cross the parade route to get to the next party.
Who doesn't love a French Quarter balcony?! I just hosted a Mardi Gras dinner for my daughter's 18th birthday at the historical Arnaud's Restaurant
, which boasts the best balcony in the French Quarter. Twenty girls on a balcony above Bourbon Street = crowds below! I suggest customizing Mardi Gras survival kits for each guests to include: mask, beads, aspirin, cab numbers, parade routes, and chocolate doubloons (coins).
A new favorite is the award-winning king cake made by Sucré
with its whipped cream cheese filling, buttery, yeasted bread, and sparkly icing.
Mardi Gras morning starts pretty early. I like to serve chicory coffee and grits and grillades
. The coffee wakes you up and the grits and grillades stick to your ribs so you are ready for a full day! You can also substitute shrimp and grits.
Photography: Simple Comfort Food, Kitchen Konfidence