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Cooking Up Some Meatless Mardi Gras Magic

By John DiGilio in Food on Feb 21, 2012 10:00PM

2012__2_DiGilio_Mardi_Gras_beads.jpg Hold onto your beads, folks! Mardi Gras is here again and it is time to celebrate. New Orleans, the home of this holiday and its attendant bacchanalia, is known for many a decadent thing. From stiff drinks to rich, delicious cooking, the Crescent City knows how to throw a party. The sumptuous Creole and Cajun dishes for which the city’s cuisine is renowned tend to be brimming with spices and meats. However, one does not have to be a carnivore to savor the flavors of Mardi Gras. With a little veggie know-how, even the meat-free among us can laissez les bon temps rouler!

Traditional Cajun and Creole cooking tends to call for meat and lots of it. A hearty pot of jambalaya, for example, can have three different kinds cooked right in: Andouille sausage, shrimp, and chicken. The same savory sausage is historically a key ingredient in the famous red beans and rice dish, as well as in many of the different styles of gumbo. From the sounds (or shall we say tastes) of it, Mardi Gras is a meat eater’s dream come true. But fret not, vegetarian and vegan friends. Thanks to the miracles of modern, healthy cooking, the taste of the Big Easy is within your bite reach as well. Here are some suggestions:

Stock Options: Many Creole and Cajun recipes call for a strongly flavored stock of chicken, seafood, or some other meat. You can switch this out for vegetable stock or mushroom stock. Whether you make your own or buy it pre-prepared, be sure to take the flavor up a notch with additional seasonings like bay leaves, sage, and cumin. New Orleans-style dishes are bold. So do not hold back.

Switch the Sausage (and other meats): There are a full array of vegetarian meat alternatives that can be used in place of the sausage, chicken, and seafood that most southern recipes require. From flavorful seitan and tempeh products to those made from vegetable protein. They do not need to cook as long as actual meat and they are much healthier for you. If fake meats aren’t your thing, you can eliminate them all together. Again, it is all about spices. Try adding a little liquid smoke or vegan Worcestershire sauce to your cooking.

Call in the Holy Trinity: We are not waxing religious here, at least not in the spiritual sense. Though cooking is a religious experience for some, we are talking about three of the most important ingredients in Louisiana cooking: onions, green bell peppers, and celery. They are in almost every major dish in the region and lay the foundation for a truly tasty creation. Go heavier on these three ingredients to make up for the missing meat. The goal is great taste and a full belly!

Fat Tuesday can be fun and tasty for everyone. It just takes a little creativity in the kitchen when it comes to jazzing up Mardi Gras meals for meat-free eaters. Yet, if there is one thing that our friends in New Orleans knew all too well, it is that variety is the spice of life and it is spice that gives life such delicious variety. So a grand Mardi Gras to all! Here’s a recipe worth parading for:

Bourbon Street Red Beans and Rice*


1 cup dried red beans
2-3 cups reduced-sodium vegetable broth
1 cup each: chopped onion, green bell pepper, celery
1/2 - 1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
1 teaspoon each: dried thyme, dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon each: dried sage, ground cumin
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon each: red pepper sauce, cayenne pepper
4-6 drops liquid smoke
Salt, to taste
4 cups cooked rice, warm

1. Cover beans with 2 inches water in large sauce pan; heat to boiling and boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 1 hour; drain and return to sauce pan.
2. Add 2 cups broth to beans and heat to boiling; simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except red pepper sauce, cayenne pepper, liquid smoke, salt and rice; simmer, covered, until beans are tender, 30 to 45 minutes, adding more broth if necessary (beans should be moist but without excess liquid). Discard bay leaves. Stir in red pepper sauce, cayenne pepper, and liquid smoke; season to taste with salt. Serve over rice. [Makes 4 servings.]

*Reprinted with permission from Vegan 101, edited by Kate DeVivo, Agate Surrey, November 2011.

Photo by Wikid77.