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Crawfish, king cakes at the center of any Mardi Gras party

Glen Helmstetter's Mardi Gras isn't about shiny beads and sequined masks. His Mardi Gras isn't about floats and parades, either.

For the New Orleans native, Mardi Gras is a pinnacle day meant for celebrating with family and friends. And, of course, at the center of his celebration is a cornucopia of Creole and Cajun food.

"You have to have jambalaya. You have to have red beans and rice," he said. "You have to, have to, have crawfish."

As the owner and managing partner of Copeland's of New Orleans Restaurant and Bar in Atlanta, Helmstetter is ready to bring the flavors of the Bayou to the metro area for Tuesday's Mardi Gras. Expect dishes of flavorful boiled crawfish, po'boys, shrimp and jambalaya to be served, as well as Cajun specialties, like a more exotic entree of panned alligator.

"If you've never had alligator, you need to try it," he said. "It's pretty tremendous."

While modern Mardi Gras celebrations center on wild parties and lively drinks, traditionally it was a carnival rooted in religion, as the last hoorah before the beginning of the Lent season. Mardi Gras is celebrated each year on the day before Ash Wednesday.

"Mardi Gras was the big culmination of festivities that happened before Lent began, when you are supposed to give up your vice," Helmstetter said. "Now, though, it is meant more just as a good time, with family, parties, friends and food."

Whether you're hosting a lavish gala or just a small Mardi Gras-themed gathering, there are two things every celebration must have: king cakes and crawfish dishes.

"Without king cakes and crawfish dishes, Mardi Gras won't be Mardi Gras," Helmstetter said.

Less of a flour-based cake and more like a pastry, circular king cakes characteristically have a tiny plastic baby hidden within. Whomever bites down and finds the baby must buy the next round of cakes, Helmstetter said. King cakes can be bought a local grocery stores during Mardi Gras season, as well as online.

A staple of the Louisiana coast, crawfish resemble tiny lobsters and taste similar to shrimp. They can be used in a variety of dishes and are sold at seafood markets and grocery retailers.

In an effort to support the industries of New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Whole Foods Market is using these celebration staples as a way to generate funds for the Gulf's rebuilding effort.

For the second year, the grocery retailer will donate $1 for every king cake and $1 for each pound of Creole crawfish fritters sold to the White Boot Brigade, a project of Loyola University's Market Umbrella campaign, which works with New Orleans-area shrimpers to bring their product to market. Additionally, $2 for every Mardi Gras flower bouquet will be given to the brigade. The promotion continues through Feb. 25.

"The response last year was so great, we brought it back again," said Russ Benblatt, a spokesman for Whole Foods, noting that $5,000 was raised in 2006. "After Katrina struck, the shrimping industry lost a lot of business because of the influx of distributors and we lost that local flavor. This campaign is working to bring the business back to the local shrimping market of New Orleans. Mardi Gras is all about celebration, and what better way to do that than help our neighbor?"

Seafood Gumbo

3⁄4 cup margarine

2 cups chopped onions

2 cups chopped celery

2 cups chopped green bell peppers

3 tablespoons gumbo file (file powder), optional

1 tablespoon hot sauce

1 teaspoon minced garlic

11⁄2 teaspoons cayenne

11⁄2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 teaspoon white pepper

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme

1⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 bay leaf, crumbled

11⁄4 cups canned tomato sauce

5 cups seafood stock

1⁄2 pound medium peeled shrimp or crawfish

11⁄2 cups raw packed crabmeat (picked over to remove any bits of shell), about 1⁄2 pound

1 dozen shucked oysters (about 1⁄2 pound)

11⁄3 cups hot cooked white rice

In a heavy 4-quart stock pot, melt the margarine over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and bell peppers. Increase heat to high and stir in the gumbo file (if using), hot sauce, garlic, cayenne, paprika, salt, white and black peppers, thyme, oregano and bay leaf.

Cook for 6 minutes, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium and stir in the tomato sauce. Cook another 5 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen the bits that stick. This sticking is normal and heightens the flavor.

Add the seafood stock and bring the gumbo to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 45 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the shrimp or crawfish, crabmeat and oysters. Cover the pot and turn off the heat. Leave the pot covered just until the seafood is poached, about 6 to 10 minutes.

To serve, mound 1⁄3 cup rice in the middle of each serving bowl. Spoon 1 cup of gumbo over the top.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: Paul Prudhomme's "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen," Morrow Cookbooks, 1984

Crawfish Etouffee

1 pound crawfish tails

Water

1⁄2 tablespoon flour

Cayenne pepper to taste

1 medium onion, chopped fine

1 stick butter

1 tablespoon bell pepper, chopped fine

Green onion tops, chopped

Parsley, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Cayenne pepper to taste

2 cloves garlic, chopped fine

Melt butter in skillet. Add flour and salt until blended. Add chopped onion, chopped bell pepper and garlic, and cook until tender. Add water to cover dish and cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add crawfish tails and cover. Let this cook about 15 to 20 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally. Add salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste, green onion tops and parsley. Simmer covered a while until seasonings blend. Serve over rice.

Makes approximately 12 to 14 1-cup servings

Source: Louisiana Crawfish Company,

www.lacrawfish.com

Louisiana Crawfish Boil

1 gallon water

2 to 3 tablespoons spicy shrimp boil or Old Bay Seasoning

1 bay leaf

4 medium boiling potatoes, cut in quarters

4 ears of corn, shucked and broken in half

1 pound Andouille smoked sausage, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 lemons, cut in half

6 pounds crawfish, frozen or live

Fill a large stockpot with 1 gallon water. Add seasoning and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Add potatoes and boil for about 5 minutes. Add corn and Andouille and boil for another 5 to 7 minutes. Check potatoes and cook further as needed until almost tender. Add lemons and crawfish and boil for 3 to 4 minutes just until crawfish are cooked or heated through. Drain in a colander and serve on newspaper in the middle of the table.

Makes 15 servings

Source: Whole Foods Market, www.wholefoods.com