The strains of jazz and the vivid colors of purple, green and yellow are once again filling the streets of New Orleans during the carnival season. Mardi Gras, which is next Tuesday, brings an end to the celebrations and ushers in Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.

It is heartwarming to see the Big Easy coming back to life after the devastation of the hurricane season. One thing I've noticed during my travels there is the vibrancy of the city. The hum of New Orleans is completely unlike the bustling energy of New York City. It is more of a slow, steady simmer with heat right under your feet as opposed to the sometimes rapidly boiling pace of New York City. New Orleans has the unique sense of being full of life and entirely laid back all at the same time.

While Mardi Gras might be what most people associate with New Orleans, the food has to come in a close second. Of course, Cajun and Creole cuisine is part of it, but Mardi Gras has its own food traditions. The king cake, for example, is a braided brioche that is decorated with the traditional Mardi Gras colors: gold for power, green for faith and purple for justice. They were traditionally used to name the king or queen of a krewe's ball — the person who found the prize hidden in the confection reigned over the ball. Today, plastic babies are placed into king cakes. The "duties" of the person who finds it can range from supplying the next king cake to doing dishes. In the British Isles, people celebrate Fat Tuesday with pancakes. This tradition came about because flour, fats and eggs were once foods to avoid during Lent, so people took the opportunity to indulge before the 40-day absence.

This year, Mardi Gras is celebrating more than just the end of the carnival season. It is celebrating New Orleans itself. So, join in the festivities. Try one of these recipes, chers, and laissez les bons temps rouler!

King Cake

1/2 cup warm water

2 packages dry yeast

2 tsp. plus 1/2 cup sugar

4 to 5 cups flour

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. ground nutmeg

1 tsp. grated lemon rind

1/2 cup warm milk

1/2 cup melted unsalted butter, cooled

5 egg yolks

1/2 cup finely chopped candied citron

1 pecan half, uncooked dried bean or king cake baby

2 cups sifted powdered sugar

2 T. lemon juice

2 T. water

Purple, green and gold sugar crystals

Preheat the oven 350°. Combine the water, yeast and sugar in a small bowl. Mix well and set aside to a warm place for about 10 minutes. Combine the flour, 1/2 cup sugar, salt, nutmeg, lemon rind and add milk, butter, egg yolks and yeast mixture. Beat until smooth. Turn dough out on a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough remaining flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place dough in a well-greased bowl. Cover dough and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk. Punch dough down and place on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle with the citron and knead until the citron is evenly distributed. Shape the dough into a cylinder, about 30 inches long. Place the cylinder on a buttered baking sheet. Shape into a ring, pinching ends together to seal. Place a well-greased coffee can or shortening can in the center of the ring. Press the baby, pecan half or dried bean into the ring from the bottom. Cover the ring with a towel, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove can. Allow the cake to cool. For the glaze: Combine the ingredients and beat until smooth. To assemble, drizzle cake with the glaze. Sprinkle with sugar crystals, alternating colors.


Sweet Crepes

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 tsp. salt

1 cup milk (preferably whole)

2 eggs

2 T. sugar

1 T. melted butter, plus more for cooking crepes

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Put the flour and salt and in a large mixing bowl. Gradually whisk in the milk. Whisk in the eggs, 1 at a time, and then whisk in the sugar, melted butter and vanilla. Cover and let rest in the refrigerator for about 1 hour. Heat an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Melt a small pat of butter in the pat and swirl around so that it lightly coats the surface. Add 1/3 cup of the batter and move your wrist in a circular pattern to coat the pan with thin even layer of batter. Cook for about 1 minute or until the first side browns lightly, then flip and cook 45 seconds to 1 minute longer. Remove to a plate and repeat with remaining batter. Fill with jam, honey, sugar, chocolate hazelnut spread, peanut butter, bananas — anything sweet that you enjoy from your pantry.


Grillades and Grits

1 (3-lb) chuck roast, cut into 1-inch pieces

Kosher salt, black pepper

Garlic powder

Cooking spray

1/3 cup all-purpose flour, plus 1/4 cup

4 T. bacon grease

4 T. cooking oil

1 large bell pepper, chopped

2 medium onions, chopped

1 cup diced celery

3 large cloves garlic, minced

4 cups beef broth or water

3 bay leaves

1 tsp. dried thyme

2 T. hot sauce

1 T. Worchestershire sauce

1 tsp. dried basil

5 medium or 4 large fresh tomatoes, peeled and quartered

1 (10-oz.) can extra hot stewed tomatoes

1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley leaves

Season beef with kosher salt, black pepper and garlic powder. Dust beef with about 1/3 cup flour and toss lightly. Spray a cast iron Dutch oven with cooking spray. Heat 4 T. of bacon grease and 4 T. of cooking oil. Brown meat in hot fat and remove to a large bowl. Leaving fat, sauté bell pepper, onions, celery and garlic. Brown vegetables and remove to bowl, leaving fat in the pot. Add or take away to total 3 T. of fat to make your roux. Add about 1/4 cup of flour, stirring constantly and slowly until flour is deep brown. Slowly add beef broth or water and stir. Bring to a simmer and add beef and vegetables. Add bay leaves, thyme, hot sauce, Worchestershire sauce, salt, dried basil and stir. Add fresh tomatoes and 1 can extra hot tomatoes. Simmer for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Just before serving, remove bay leaves and stir in 1/2 cup chopped parsley. Serve over your favorite hot buttered grits.


Fiery Cajun Shrimp

2 cups (4 sticks) melted butter

1/4 cup Worchestershire sauce

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 T. ground pepper

2 T. hot sauce

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tsp. salt

5 lb. unpeeled medium shrimp

2 lemons, thinly sliced

French bread, for dipping

Preheat the oven to 400°. Stir together the butter, Worchestershire sauce, lemon juice, pepper, hot sauce, garlic and salt. Pour half this mixture into a large heatproof dish. Layer half the shrimp and half the lemon slices in the dish; then form a second layer with the remaining shrimp and lemon slices, and pour remaining sauce into the dish. Bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until the shrimp are pink, stirring twice. Pour off the sauce into individual serving dishes. Serve the shrimp with plenty of French bread for dipping in the spicy butter sauce.


Oysters Rockefeller

2 dozen large oysters, shucked, with all their liquor and the deeper halves of their shells reserved and scrubbed

1 bottle of clam broth

2 sticks butter, cubed

1 cup flour

1 cup minced onions

3 T. anchovy paste

1 T. chopped garlic

1 1/2 lbs. fresh watercress, washed, patted dry, trimmed, and finely chopped

1 1/2 lbs. fresh spinach, washed, patted dry, trimmed and finely chopped

1/2 cup Herbsaint

Rock salt

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400°. Drain the oysters and liquid through a fine mesh strainer. You should have 3 cups of oyster liquor, if not add enough clam broth to make up for the difference. In a large sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in flour and cook for 4 minutes. Stir in onions and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in anchovy paste, garlic, watercress and spinach. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for 1 minute. Stir in the oyster liquor and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and continue to cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the Herbsaint. Reseason with salt and pepper if needed. Spread the rock salt evenly over a large sheet pan. Arrange the oyster shells on the baking sheet. Place the oysters back in their shells. Season the oysters with salt and pepper. Place a heaping spoonful of the filling on top of each oyster. Using the back of the spoon, gingerly pat the filling into the shell. Sprinkle the top of the oyster with the grated cheese. Place the baking sheet in the oven and cook for about 15 minutes or until the sauce is golden brown and the oysters have curled. Remove from the oven and serve on a large platter. Serve the oysters with fish forks and fresh lemons.


Bananas Foster

4 ripe bananas, peeled

4 T. unsalted butter

1 cup packed light brown sugar

3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 cup banana liqueur

1/2 cup dark rum

1 pint vanilla ice cream

Cut the bananas in half across and then lengthwise. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and cinnamon and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes. Add the bananas and turning, cook on both sides until the bananas start to soften and brown, about 3 minutes. Add the banana liqueur and stir to blend into the caramel sauce. Carefully add the rum and shake the pan back and forth to warm the rum and flame the pan. (Or, off the heat, carefully ignite the pan with a match and return to the heat.) Shake the pan back and forth, basting the bananas, until the flame dies. Divide the ice cream among 4 dessert plates. Gently lift the bananas from the pan and place 4 pieces on each scoop of ice cream. Spoon the sauce over the ice cream and bananas and serve immediately.