Mardi Gras (that's French for "Fat Tuesday") is a religious holiday that is believed to have its roots in medieval Europe. Traditionally, it's the last night to indulge in rich, fatty foods before Ash Wednesday, when the ritual fasting of the Lent begins.
While the actual day -- this year it's Tuesday, March 4 -- may be a few weeks away, the festive Carnival season is already ramping up here in Houston. That means now is the perfect time to get your fix of these Mardi Gras classics:
These French pastries made from deep-fried choux paste have been an integral part of Louisiana cuisine since they were brought over by French colonists in the 18th century. They were even declared Louisiana's official state doughnut in 1986. Luckily, you don't have to go all the way to Café du Monde to get a taste of these sweet treats.
Where to get your fix: We love the classic fried puffs at Chez Beignets and Crescent City Beignets, where you can also find the strips pictured above. Hot, crisp and fluffy, the fritters are covered in mountains of powdered sugar.
For something a bit different, try the savory Gulf Coast Beignets at Backstreet Cafe. Filled with hunks of crab, shrimp, andouille sausage and corn, the crisp fritters get a creamy finish from a slather of roasted red pepper rémoulade and bright pop from jicama-studded slaw.
4. Crawfish Étouffée
Étouffée, literally "smothered" or "suffocated," from the French verb étouffer, is a classic Cajun or Creole dish in which a thick, buttery blond roux smothers shellfish. It's thicker than a stew and served over a bed of rice, and crawfish is the most popular version.
Where to get your fix: Get the classic at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, try a succulent shrimp and crawfish version made with Cajun spices at Esther's Cajun Cafe and Soul Food, or go for the gold with a crawfish combo -- complete with fried tails and a nutty, buttery étouffée -- at Joyce's Seafood & Steaks.
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Perhaps one of the most symbolic dishes of Cajun and Creole cooking, gumbo is a staple in homes and restaurants across Louisiana. Typically made with a boldly flavored stock, andouille sausage or shellfish, and the Cajun holy trinity -- onions, bell peppers and celery -- the stew is thickened by a deep, rich roux.
Where to get your fix: You can find gumbo all over town, but we love Danton's dark, smokey and velvety shrimp, oyster and crab gumbo. If a lighter seafood gumbo is your thing, try Good Co. Seafood's thinner but still creamy seafood-packed version. Wild rice, smoked duck and andouille sausage round out the rich gumbo at the beautiful Rainbow Lodge, while Treebeard's shows off classic comfort food at its best with both its chicken-and-sausage and duck gumbos.
And if you have a big appetite, Liberty Kitchen's All-Star Gumbo is the way to go. The massive 31-ounce dish is filled with brisket, smoked chicken, andouille sausage, Maine lobster, jumbo shrimp, plump oysters, lump crab, blackened redfish, Creole potatoes, fried okra, and a dark, spicy roux.
Named after the wide, round bread on which it's made, a muffuletta sandwich is traditionally stuffed with marinated olive salad, mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham and provolone. Popular with Italian immigrants in New Orleans, the dish was first created at the French Quarter's Central Grocery.
Where to get your fix: Head to Galveston's Sonny's Place for a taste of the classic, served grilled or regular. For something a bit different, try Mandola's Deli's olive-topped muffuletta po-boy, made on a long Italian roll; Carter & Cooley's crispy version, made with a tart and briny olive salad, ham, salami, and Swiss and provolone cheese on a panini-pressed foccacia roll; or Hubcap Grill's muffuletta burger, made with housemade olive dressing, Swiss cheese and special sauce.
Though not exactly like the traditional version made famous by Central Grocery, all are equally as satisfying.
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1. King Cake
Of course, the most ubiquitous symbol of the pre-Lenten celebrations of Mardi Gras is the king cake. Taking its name from the biblical three kings, the cake is used to celebrate the visit of the Magi (the Three Wise Men) to the Christ Child (a day known as the Solemnity of Epiphany). Colonists from France and Spain brought this tradition to the Southern U.S., where the cake is now served throughout the Carnival season, which lasts from Epiphany Eve to Fat Tuesday.
In its most classic form, a ring of twisted cinnamon roll-style dough is topped with icing that is colored purple, green and gold (the traditional colors of Mardi Gras) and adorned with a small plastic baby (either on top or inside) that is said to represent Baby Jesus. Whoever gets the piece with the trinket receives special privileges.
Where to get your fix: Find traditional king cake at both Rao's Bakery and Three Brothers Bakery, classic and or raspberry-cream-cheese-filled cakes at The Acadian Bakers in Montrose, or check out Whole Foods for a variety of flavors like praline, citrus and berry.