Serpas cooking up Mardi Gras staples

For New Orleans natives like Scott Serpas, of Serpas Restaurant in the Old Fourth Ward, Mardi Gras is almost a national holiday. “Mardi Gras,” French for “fat Tuesday,” is traditionally the last chance for merry making before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. This year, Mardi Gras falls on March 4.

“Mardi Gras is a big part of my life, always has been. Of course, in New Orleans, we’re always looking for a good excuse to party,” said Serpas. The New Orleans Mardi Gras season involves weeks of lavish parades and balls before the final parties on Fat Tuesday night.

“All through grammar school and high school, we’d get together to watch the parades. It’s amazing to see the artistry of the people who create those floats. And, of course, it’s fun to watch the people riding them and catch the trinkets and beads,” said Serpas.

All that celebrating means lots of good eating. Gumbo, jambalaya, muffalettas, red beans and rice, etouffee and king cake are all traditional Mardi Gras dishes.

“I remember my mom and dad making seafood gumbo. I grew up on it. Everybody has their own version. Mine is influenced by Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans. I use whole blue crabs, and I don’t like it too thick or too thin. The most important thing is to make it a day before you want to serve. It’s got to sit in the refrigerator so the flavors have a chance to meld together. Top it with Bay Leaf Rice and chopped scallions. Delicious,” said Serpas.

Muffulettas are another tradition from Serpas’ childhood. “I remember going to Central Grocery and having muffulettas there time and time again. I can close my eyes and remember the smell. All those Italian meats, the bread crusty but moist, and the olive salad. It’s a wonderful combination,” he said.

Louisiana crawfish season, from mid-February to May, coincides with Mardi Gras. Serpas shared the recipe for crawfish hand pies, which feature the trinity of Cajun and Creole cooking – bell peppers, celery and onion or scallions. “In crawfish pies, I like to use scallions because onion might be too strong. You make the filling ahead of time, then fill individual pies and deep fry them. Serve it with a cold beer alongside and some pepper jelly to balance that savory filling,” he said.

“Louisiana crawfish has the most fat content and flavor. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it and a little goes a long way. In season, we make crawfish fettuccini, crawfish etouffee and crawfish bisque and hold crawfish boils each spring,” said Serpas.

For those who can’t get to New Orleans to celebrate, Serpas is offering his own Mardi Gras event on Tuesday, March 4, 5:30-10:30 p.m. He’ll be serving classic New Orleans dishes including muffuletta, jambalaya, gumbo and red beans and rice. A second line street-style jazz band will be playing through the evening, and there’ll be plenty of Abita beer available. There’s a $10 cover charge. For details, visit www.serpas.squarespace.com or Serpas’ Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/serpasrestaurant.

Topper: These traditional Mardi Gras recipes from Scott Serpas of Serpas Restaurant in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood all benefit from being prepared ahead of time.

Serpas’ Crawfish Hand Pies

Hands on: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes plus cooling and resting time

Makes: 12

At the restaurant, these hand pies are served with a sauce made from Creole mustard, mayonnaise, lemon juice, capers, grated onion and parsley. They also come with a small dish of pepper jelly and an herb salad of Anaheim chili, pickled onion, celery leaves and parsley.

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 green bell pepper

1/2 red bell pepper

1/2 cup 1/4-inch diced tomatoes

3 scallions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 tablespoon tomato paste

3 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out dough

1 1/2 pounds Louisiana crawfish tail meat, drained, roughly chopped

1/4 cup minced parsley

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons liquid crab boil

Kosher salt

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

6 tablespoons shortening

1/2 cup ice cold water, or as needed

Canola oil, for frying

1 egg

1 tablespoon water

In a heavy bottom sauce pot over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons butter. Add green bell pepper, red bell pepper, tomatoes, scallions and garlic and cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in tomato paste, reduce heat to low and cook 15 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons flour until thoroughly combined. Add crawfish tails, parsley, thyme and crab boil and taste for seasoning. Cook on low heat another 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool completely.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine remaining 3 cups flour, sugar and 2 teaspoons salt. Add shortening and remaining 8 tablespoons butter and pulse briefly, just until butter is cut into pea-size pieces. Remove mixture from food processor and add just enough cold water so that dough begins to come together. Use the heel of your hand to smear the dough across the work surface. Fold the dough onto itself and continue to smear and fold until all flour is incorporated and dough forms a ball. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

When ready to make pies, make egg wash by whisking together egg and 1 tablespoon water. Set aside.

Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out 1/8-inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Cut dough into 5-inch circles and place 1/3 cup filling just off the center of each. Brush edge of circle with egg wash and fold over to form a half circle. Crimp edges with a fork. Arrange pie on a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining circles, rolling any dough scraps to form additional pies. When all pies are made, refrigerate at least one hour.

When ready to cook pies, in a cast iron Dutch oven, heat 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees.

Remove pies from refrigerator. Adding no more than 3 pies at a time, carefully lower pies into hot oil and cook 3 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Set on a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining pies. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Per serving: 383 calories (percent of calories from fat, 56), 13 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 24 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 113 milligrams cholesterol, 57 milligrams sodium.

Serpas’ Seafood File Gumbo

Hands on: 2 hours

Total time: 3 hours

Makes: 21 cups

A good gumbo takes time to prepare, but the delicious results are well worth the effort. If you’re working alone, have all your vegetables chopped and the seasonings ready before you begin the roux. But the best idea is to cook with a friend who can do the chopping while you’re stirring the roux, cutting the hands on time in half.

Serpas says gumbo is best when it’s made at least a day ahead. We cut the original recipe in half, but if you’re having a large Mardi Gras party, double everything.

Serpas uses raw frozen whole crabs he finds at the Buford Highway Farmers Market. The crabs have been cleaned and are ready to quarter and cook.

File powder, also called gumbo file and a necessary part of any Louisiana gumbo, is made from ground sassafras leaves and serves as a thickener in the dish. File powder is available at some grocery stores and at specialty spice shops.

6 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons canola oil

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 pound blue crabs, cleaned and quartered

3/4 pound sliced okra (about 2 1/2 cups)

1 cup 1/4-inch diced celery (about 2 small ribs)

1 yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)

1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)

1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder

1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 1/2 teaspoons file powder

3/4 teaspoon cayenne

2 bay leaves

12 cups chicken stock, hot

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tomato, cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 tablespoons cup Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 pounds large shrimp (21/25 per pound), peeled and deveined

1/2 pound cleaned crab meat

1 scallion, sliced thin

Bay Leaf Rice (see recipe)

In a heavy bottomed stockpot, make a roux by melting butter over medium heat. Add oil and whisk to combine. Slowly whisk in flour and turn heat to medium-low. Continue to whisk the mixture and cook until mixture is the dark brown color of fudge. This can take 30 minutes or more. It’s important to stay with the mixture, particularly as it begins to darken, as it can quickly go from just right to burned.

As soon as the roux is ready, put crabs in the pot and stir for 1 minute. Add okra, celery, onion, green pepper, red pepper, tomato paste, salt, thyme, pepper, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, file powder, cayenne and bay leaves. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add chicken stock and garlic and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, add diced tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce and taste for seasoning. Cook mixture 45 minutes. Take gumbo off heat, allow to cool and refrigerate for at least one day before serving.

When ready to serve, preheat oven to 250 degrees. Have heatproof serving bowls ready.

In a large stockpot, reheat gumbo and add shrimp. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to a simmer. While gumbo is coming to a boil, divide crab meat between serving bowls and place in oven to heat for 1 minute. Remove bowls from oven, pour gumbo over crab meat. Garnish with Bay Leaf Rice and scallions.

Per 1-cup serving, without Bay Leaf Rice: 136 calories (percent of calories from fat, 33), 19 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 6 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 77 milligrams cholesterol, 616 milligrams sodium.

Serpas’ Bay Leaf Rice

Hands on: 5 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Makes: 6 cups

Serpas uses Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice in this dish.

3 cups water

2 cups long grain rice, rinsed in cold water and drained

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

In a heavy bottom saucepan, combine water, rice, butter, bay leaves and salt. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat so mixture is simmering. Cook rice until all moisture is gone, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cover pot. Let rice rest 5 minutes. Discard bay leaves before serving.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 61 calories (percent of calories from fat, 14), 1 gram protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 1 gram fat (trace saturated fat), 1 milligram cholesterol, 135 milligrams sodium.

Serpas’ Muffuletta

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Makes: 16 quarter sandwiches

Remove the meats, cheese and olive salad from the refrigerator 30 minutes before ready to make these sandwiches.

4 (8-ounce) rounds Italian bread with seeds

Olive oil

1 pound smoked ham, thinly sliced

1 pound Genoa salami, thinly sliced

1/2 pound mortadella, thinly sliced

3 cups Serpas’ Olive Salad (see recipe)

2 pounds provolone, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees or turn on broiler. Put two baking sheets in oven to heat up. Have a heavy cast iron skillet or Dutch oven ready.

Cut bread rounds in half horizontally and brush both cut sides with olive oil. Divide ham, salami and mortadella between three bottom halves. Top with olive salad, divided between sandwiches. Top with provolone, divided between sandwiches. Replace the loaf tops.

Remove baking sheets from oven. Arrange sandwiches on one baking sheet and top with second baking sheet. Return to oven and put cast iron skillet or Dutch oven on top of top baking sheet to weight down sandwiches. Bake just until cheese begins to melt, about 5 minutes. Remove weight and remove pans from oven. Use a serrated knife to cut sandwiches into quarters and serve immediately.

Per quarter-sandwich serving, without Olive Salad: 520 calories (percent of calories from fat, 52), 31 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 29 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 82 milligrams cholesterol, 1,681 milligrams sodium.

Per quarter-sandwich serving, with Olive Salad: 607 calories (percent of calories from fat, 57), 31 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 38 grams fat (16 grams saturated), 82 milligrams cholesterol, 1,776 milligrams sodium.

Serpas’ Olive Salad

Hands on: 40 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Makes: 8 cups

Olive salad should be made at least 1 day ahead and refrigerated. It’s even better if it sits for several days, and will keep about two weeks in the refrigerator. Extra olive salad can be used in green salads, served with an antipasto plate or on top of grilled or poached fish.

1 cup cauliflower florets

2 medium carrots, sliced into thin rounds

3 cups pitted and roughly chopped green olives

4 light yellow inner ribs celery, thinly sliced

1 roasted red pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1/4 cup drained capers

1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano

6 large garlic cloves, minced

15 leaves Italian parsley, minced

1 1/4 cups olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup brine from olives

3 teaspoons black pepper

1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes

In a small saucepan, bring 3 cups water to a boil. Add cauliflower and carrots and cook 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Place vegetables in a stainless steel or glass bowl.

Stir in olives, celery, roasted pepper. onion, capers, oregano, garlic and parsley. Stir together until well combined. Add olive oil, vinegar, olive brine, black pepper and chili flakes. Mix until well combined, then refrigerate for at least 1 day.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 99 calories (percent of calories from fat, 89), trace protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 10 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 128 milligrams sodium.

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