Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday) celebrations call for delicious, Southern foods filled with shellfish. Although we have no direct link to New Orleans, my father’s family came from the coastal South. His father’s family lived in Charleston, SC and his mother’s in Savannah, GA. The family recipes handed down through the generations rely heavily on ingredients common to the Creole and Cajun cooking of New Orleans: green peppers, onions, rice, and shrimp. During my childhood summers, Grandmother Marjorie used to come and stay with us for a month, and she would cook!
I remember walking home barefoot from our community’s swimming pool wearing a damp bathing suit and wrapped in a soggy towel, then opening the door of our house where the fragrant, heady smells of Grandmother’s special fare, and the air conditioned chill, gave me goose bumps. What treats awaited me? Maybe Salmon Croquettes. You bit through the crispy, cracker crumb crust to the tender, mildly fishy paste inside. Or maybe Shrimp Stew. Ladled over rice like gumbo, the rich, brown gravy, made from a homemade roux and liberally laced with dried rosemary, creamily coated the shrimp floating in it. Or maybe Red Rice. The tangy rice infused with tomatoes, onion, and green pepper bound together a surprising mix of flavored meats: spicy sage sausage, sweet shrimp, and salty franks. Grandmother Marjorie taught these recipes, and many more, to my mother who passed them along to me.
This traditional, family fare, (typical of the low country in the South) connects us across the generations and to those who came before us. I’m so glad my mom took the time to teach me when I became ready to learn. The French call this traditional, home cooking passed down among women “cuisine de femme.” I wish we had a special name for it as well to denote the love and care put into every dish.
Here’s the recipe for the Savannah Red Rice (also sometimes called Spanish Rice), I made for our Mardi Gras celebration at home. I have adapted the original recipe to exclude pork but retain its lively mix of flavors and textures. It’s a perfect one dish meal with a salad. Since bananas are reasonable now, I started off our celebration with banana daiquiris (the recipe follows the one for Red Rice), served the red rice with Shrimp Po’ Boy sandwiches, and finished up with Hot Cross Buns from Kings bakery down the street. These yeasty sweet rolls come studded full of candied fruit and topped with a sugar icing cross. If you feel really ambitious, you can order a King Cake next year from Haydel’s Bakery in New Orleans; it’s their traditional Mardi Gras dessert.
Bon Appetit, and laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll, as they say in New Orleans.)
Savannah Red Rice
(Makes enough to nearly fill a Dutch Oven)
1 lb shrimp
1 lb garlic chicken sausage (or pork sage sausage) sliced ¼” thick
1lb turkey hotdogs (or regular mixed meat hot dogs)
1 green pepper (chopped)
1 c. chopped onion (diced)
3-4 large cloves of garlic (peeled + minced)
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste (I don’t add any)
1tsp Creole spice or Old Bay seasoning
A few squirts of Tobasco sauce (optional)
Garlic flavored oil (or canola oil)
2 c. rice
1-28oz can crushed tomatoes
2-8oz cans tomato sauce
1 c. water
- Generously coat the bottom of a heavy Dutch Oven with the oil, and heat it over a medium high flame until it shimmers. Add in the onion and green pepper, and cook them until the onions become translucent. Then add the garlic, and warm it through for 60 seconds or so (but do NOT let it brown).
- Since the chicken sausages and the franks I bought are fully cooked, add them to the onion mixture and just heat them through (2-3 minutes). The franks may brown, so stir the pot occasionally.
- Pour in the rice, and combine it with the other ingredients.
- Pour in the tomato sauce, the crushed tomatoes, and the water, and stir to combine.
- Heat to a boil, and then turn the heat down as low as possible without turning it off, and let it simmer while covered with a tightly fitted lid.
- The food at the bottom of the pan will tend to burn, so stir (or even scrape) the food from the bottom, and move it to the top every once in a while. (In our family we use a Dutch oven with the heaviest bottom we can find, like a Le Cruset or a steel pot with a cast iron base, to help keep the food at the bottom from burning). Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the rice starts to plump up and the get soft and most of the tomato liquids are absorbed.
- Using a long handled cooking spoon, push the rice aside, and make a sink hole down to the bottom layer of the dish into which you drop a raw shrimp. Repeat this process until the bottom layer of the dish is full with about half of the shrimp. After distributing shrimp on the lower half of the dish, drop them into the top half of the dish. Close the lid, and let the shrimp cook through (about 5 minutes).
- Fluff lightly, and serve.
- 2 ounces light rum
- 1/2 ounce banana liqueur
- 1/2 ounce lime juice
- 1/2 small banana, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup crushed ice
Combine all ingredients in an electric blender and blend at high speed until smooth. Pour into a large saucer champagne or similar glass.
(We doubled this recipe to make enough for 2 people.)
Wishing you every blessing,