The time-honored tradition of partying the Tuesday before Lent often evokes New Orleans and its noisy, colorful tableaus of excess. But Mardi Gras is celebrated throughout the South with as much gung-ho hedonism, local pride, love of food and sense of history.
Mobile, Ala., claims to be home to the United States’ first Mardi Gras, in 1703. Galveston, Texas, boasts that its 100-plus-year-old celebration is the country’s largest outside New Orleans and Mobile, hosting more than 30 concerts and 20 parades. Charleston, S.C., says it has the East Coast’s only official Mardi Gras “krewe” (a group that parades together year after year) and offers a full complement of food, parades and cultural activities on nearby Folly Beach.
The holiday has its roots in millennia-old pagan Roman festivals that European Catholicism later shaped into a last hurrah before the self-denial of Lent. The American celebrations of Mardi Gras—and the foods associated with them—bring even more influences into the mix, from Native Americans, colonial settlers and slaves. Gumbo is a prime example, combining culinary practices and ingredients from West Africa with the French technique of making roux and the Choctaw contribution of gumbo filé, a thickener of dried sassafras.
The dish is most closely associated with Louisiana and its Creole-Cajun foodways, but variations abound across the South. Shrimp, crawfish, sausage and chicken are all traditional proteins, and the soup may be thickened with roux, gumbo filé, okra or a combination. Some versions have tomato, some don’t. Some are thick and rich, some delicate and herb-driven.
In America’s Lowcountry corridor, a 200-mile stretch of islands and coastline in South Carolina and Georgia, gumbo is heavily influenced by the region’s Gullah Geechee Nation, a West and Central African diaspora community. Here, the okra-based gumbo, also called okra soup, generally includes tomato, onion and spices.
At the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–winning Magnolias restaurant in Charleston, just outside Lowcountry, executive chef Kelly Franz has created a pidgin version of her own. In a nod to the holiday’s Gallic side, duck confit takes center stage in Franz’s Duck Confit and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, which incorporates a New Orleans–inspired roux, Charleston’s tomatoes, and both okra and filé thickeners.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot of people make it without the okra, but I love okra,” Franz says, noting that the ingredient is important in both French Creole and Charleston cuisines. “I definitely wouldn’t leave it out of a gumbo.” As for the filé, she says, it has unmistakable eucalyptuslike aromatics that she can’t imagine a gumbo without. “You can smell it from 10 feet away: ‘Oh, somebody’s making gumbo.’”
The resulting soup has a velvety texture and a hauntingly deep, dark character. For a Mardi Gras party, this is not only a crowd-pleaser, it’s a make-ahead godsend: Gumbo gets better with age, and this one can be made up to five days ahead. All the intermediate steps can also be done in advance—the roux, the confit and, if you’re going for extra credit, making duck stock from the bones, fat and skin. (But if that’s not for you, never fear; packaged chicken stock is just a grocery store away.)
So how to achieve this stew’s depth and complexity? “The most important aspect is the dark roux and that nutty flavor,” Franz says. If you’re a roux newbie, it’s a skill worth having in your toolbox for thickening soups and sauces. First, flour is whisked into an equal amount of fat. “It should glaze the full pan and lay out evenly,” Franz counsels. From there, the science and visual cues will be familiar to anyone who’s made caramel sauce: Relatively low heat gently toasts the flour granules, darkening the mixture slowly and evenly. But unlike caramel, roux must be stirred constantly to avoid burning.
The finished roux should be dark amber, which will take some time. A classic trick is to place a penny on the stove next to your pan as a reference for the target color. “You can kind of go cross-eyed staring and stirring the thing,” says WineSpectator.com assistant managing editor and native Louisianan Robert Taylor. “When the roux is the same color as the penny, it’s done.” Inexact? Maybe. But somehow it still helps: “It’s one of those Southern mom things.”
This year for Mardi Gras, Magnolias beverage director Bill Netherland will be pairing the piping-hot stew with Oregon producer Eyrie's Pinot Gris Dundee Hills 2015. While the hearty combination of duck and sausage in a tomato base might prompt a lot of us to reach for a light red (and that could work here too), Netherland contends that the juicy Willamette Valley white is more refreshing after a bite of rich stew. “The spice of the gumbo, I feel, needs the ripeness and perhaps a little residual sugar of this Pinot Gris,” he adds.
The unexpected pairing achieves a wholly charming balance. It seems that even after thousands of years of change, Mardi Gras still invites reinvention.
For the Duck Confit and Andouille Sausage Gumbo:
To make the Duck Confit and Andouille Sausage Gumbo:
1. Preheat oven to 300° F. Pat the duck legs dry. Place skin side up in a roasting pan (use two pans if necessary) and pour the cup of bacon fat and vegetable oil over. Cover pan with aluminum foil, and roast in oven for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until duck legs are fall-off-the-bone tender. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest until cool enough to handle. Using two forks, remove all duck meat from the bones and skin. Set meat aside. (You can make duck stock with the bones, skin and reserved fat and use it in this recipe if you’d like; recipe follows). Make ahead: Duck meat will keep for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
2. Set a large sauté pan or cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat. Add the butter and 1/2 cup vegetable oil, and let the butter melt completely. When the fat is hot, vigorously whisk in the flour a little at a time until well-incorporated. Continue to cook, whisking slowly but constantly. After about 15 minutes, the roux will turn blond and begin to smell of roasting almonds. Continue cooking, stirring with a wooden spoon to ensure you’re scraping the very bottom of the pan, for an additional 15 to 45 minutes until roux is dark amber. Be sure to reach the end of the spoon into the pan’s rounded edges to keep any bits from burning. If it appears to be cooking too quickly at any point, remove from heat, whisk briskly for a few minutes, and turn heat down before returning pan to heat. When roux is done, remove from heat and whisk for a few minutes more, then transfer to a bowl. Make ahead: Roux will keep for up to 2 months in the refrigerator.
3. In a 4-quart pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add andouille and okra and stir until okra is caramelized and sausage is rendered, 5 to 8 minutes. Add diced pepper and onion and cook until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 1 minute.
4. Wearing oven mitts to prevent burning yourself, slowly whisk the roux into the 4-quart pot. Mix well before whisking in the chicken or duck stock. Bring the liquid to a low boil, stirring often, before adding the remaining ingredients, including the reserved duck meat. Turn the heat to low and let simmer until thickened to your liking, 30 minutes or more, stirring occasionally. Adjust hot sauce, salt and pepper to taste. Remove bay leaf halves. Serve with rice or cornbread. Serves 10. Make ahead: Gumbo will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator.
For the Duck Stock:
To make the Duck Stock:
In a large, deep pot, combine all ingredients. Cover pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Cook, uncovered, until reduced by half, to total 8 cups in volume, 2 to 3 hours. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding solids. Transfer to the refrigerator and let chill overnight. When ready to use, scrape off the accumulated fat and reserve for another use. Make ahead: Stock will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator or up to 4 months in the freezer.
The following list is a selection of very good Pinot Gris–based white wines from recently rated releases from Oregon, Alsace and Italy, as well as outstanding and very good light reds from France and Spain. Additional recently rated wines can be found here in our Wine Ratings Search.
ACROBAT Pinot Gris Oregon 2016
Floral cantaloupe aromas open to creamy, easygoing pear and spice flavors in this white. Drink now. 90,000 cases made. From Oregon.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY VINEYARDS Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2016
Peach and honeysuckle aromas lead to pretty nectarine and spice flavors. Drink now. 26,000 cases made. From Oregon.
ELK COVE Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2016
Easygoing and lively, with supple lime, pear and mineral notes. Drink now. 16,841 cases made. From Oregon.
HUGEL Alsace Gentil 2016
This light-bodied white jangles with tangy acidity, offering a stony underpinning to the lively mix of Honeycrisp apple, white cherry, basil and pickled ginger. Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling and others. Drink now through 2019. 30,000 cases made. From France.
CANTINA NALS MARGREID Pinot Grigio Alto Adige 2016
This light-bodied white is mouthwatering, with snappy acidity, showing a pleasing mix of Asian pear, lemon sorbet, honeysuckle, stone and pickled ginger. Well-balanced. Drink now through 2019. 6,800 cases made. From Italy.
RAINSTORM Pinot Gris Oregon 2015
Floral lime and nectarine aromas lead to crisp and perky peach flavors. Drink now. 2,500 cases made. From Oregon.
ELENA WALCH Pinot Grigio Alto Adige 2016
This elegant white is light- to medium-bodied and creamy, framing flavors of ripe pear, spring blossom, slivered almond and honey with delicate acidity and a minerally undertow. Drink now through 2019. 6,700 cases made. From Italy.
WINE BY JOE Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2015
Offers crisp and vibrant peach and pear flavors accented by creamy spice notes. Drink now. 11,000 cases made. From Oregon.
LOSADA VINOS DE FINCA Bierzo Losada 2014
Generous yet focused, this red delivers black cherry, plum, blood orange, chocolate and toasty flavors, with savory notes of licorice and fennel. Light tannins and citrusy acidity support the fleshy texture. Expressive. Mencía. Drink now through 2021. 8,000 cases made. From Spain.
GEORGES DUBOEUF Fleurie Flower Label 2016
This light-to medium-bodied red is supple, with layers of raspberry, strawberry and apricot flavors that are fresh and appealing. Hints of tea, spice and mineral underscore the floral-tinged finish. Drink now through 2020. 10,000 cases made. From France.