Mardi Gras food is generally a lot like the party season's theme: bold, hot and spicy

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

That constant rhythmic thunder you hear in the distance isn't from the Daytona International Speedway. It's Mardi Gras revelers gearing up for their own version of a homestretch.The festivities in the Southeast culminate on Tuesday -- Mardi Gras is always the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.Mardi Gras food is generally a lot like the party season's theme: bold, hot and spicy. Here's a primer for home cooks trying to capture the flavor of the Big Easy this week.

Gumbo is a stew like Creole specialty that can have many ingredients, including okra, tomatoes and meats, sausages or shellfish. The common denominator for all gumbos is a cooked roux (pronounced roo), a mixture of flour and fat that's slow-cooked to impart a rich, distinctive flavor. Jambalaya combines cooked rice with ingredients similar to gumbo.

A beignet (ben-YAY) is a small yeast pastry treat whose culinary mantra must be "bet you can't eat just one." The small pillowlike concoctions are deep-fried and generously dusted with powdered sugar. In New Orleans, the tourist mecca for beignet lovers is Cafe du Monde.

Chicory coffee is a boldly flavored wake-up brew from roasted and ground roots of the chicory plant. It's widely available in Central Florida at larger supermarkets, many Asian shops, gourmet stores and World Market.

The muffuletta sandwich originated in 1906 at Central Grocery in New Orleans. It consists of a large, round loaf of Italian bread that is split and filled with layers of sliced deli cheese and meats and then topped with a chopped olive salad.

King cakes are large braided yeast cakes that resemble ornate coffeecakes. They are garnished with bold yellow, green and purple sugars. Baked inside the dough is a trinket, and whoever receives the piece with the prize inside is named king of the feast. In New Orleans, small plastic baby dolls are the popular trinket, and whoever receives the piece with the baby is supposed to host the next Mardi Gras party.

Crawfish boils are a rumba of ingredients. Crawfish are sold by fish and seafood purveyors and larger supermarkets. The shellfish are cooked in the same manner as shrimp and turn a bright red when done. The key is the seasonings that are added to the boiling water. Look for Tabasco or Zatarain's brand mixes.

To wash all of this down, you probably will be tempted to try a potent hurricane drink. But, in light of recent events, perhaps a gentle sea breeze libation would be more welcome this year. Pour 1 1/2 ounces vodka over ice into a glass. Add 4 ounces cranberry juice and 1 ounce grapefruit juice. Stir and garnish with lime.

As New Orleans, one of America's most significant culinary hubs continues to rebuild, it's certainly a great time to laissez les bon temps rouler across the Southeast.

How many ways can you say party? Take a look

Carnival. From the Latin for "farewell to flesh." A season of celebration that starts on Jan. 6 and runs through Mardi Gras. Celebrated in New Orleans since 1743.

Mardi Gras. French for "Fat Tuesday." The final day of Carnival before the start of Lent.

Ash Wednesday. Beginning of Lent, several weeks of fasting before Easter.

Krewes (krOOS). Private clubs that put on parades and parties for Mardi Gras.

Throws. Usually beads tossed to parade-goers by krewe members but can include other trinkets.

Rex. Carnival king, usually from an old New Orleans family. Chosen by members of the Rex Organization.

King cake. Oval pastry resembling coffeecake, sprinkled with purple, green and gold sugar or icing, eaten during Carnival. A plastic baby, meant to represent the Christ child, is embedded in the cake. The person who finds the baby is crowned king and buys the next cake.

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