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Love is in the air, cher

When Mardi Gras meets Valentine's Day, it's a recipe for red-hot lovin'

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With Valentine's Day falling on a Thursday this year, it's the perfect chance to stretch out that weekend to three days' worth of romancing. Just pace yourself a little. Start out with an intimate dinner for two at home on the day, and then take it out on the town for Friday and Saturday at Winnipeg Mardi Gras.

On Thursday

In order to kick off the whole three-day romantic weekend, do a quick shop for groceries tonight (don't forget wine!) and tomorrow you can create a little heat in the kitchen with some easy Cajun-style recipes (see below). And if you can't stand the heat -- well, that's your cue to get out of the kitchen.

How to party Mardi...

It's important to head out in the right outfit, so pick something daring -- in fact, full Mardi Gras regalia is welcomed, feather boas, fishnet stockings and all.

On arrival, you'll want to start with a little something to eat, so check out the menus (my favourites are the oyster po-boys and the Louisiana crab cakes). The alligator fritters and the deep-fried dill pickles will be back, along with sweet potato fries and other favourites from Chef Quentin Harty and his team of "Ragin' Cajun Cooks." And a shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey will warm your cockles, "I garon-tee, cher."

Once your cockles have been sufficiently warmed, hold hands and wander through the Bourbon Street vendors for some romantic shopping. While you're wandering, you can catch the aerial acrobats, stilt-walkers, living statues, the colossal man and more. Later, go dance cheek to cheek (or shake the other cheeks, whatever the music moves you to do) with C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band.

Winnipeg Mardi Gras always puts some love back into the community and this year, it is sponsoring the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (find them at www.jdrf.ca).

Find a full menu and details on the performers on the website and plan ahead: www.winnipegmardigras.com; www.facebook.com/winnipegmardigras; Twitter: @WpgMardiGras.

Start your weekend with these recipes

Choose from Big Easy jambalaya or even easier, red beans and rice, then finish things off with pineapple coconut pie.

Big Easy jambalaya

I made this recipe in the electric frying pan. I like to have more control over the heat, especially when the dish needs to sit on low to simmer for a while. This is really good over rice but you could also serve it over a pasta such as penne. I used a small package of tiny salad shrimp. In addition to being more economical, you get a little bit of shrimp in every bite instead of just a few large ones here and there. If you prefer, you can replace the seasonings listed with pre-mixed Cajun seasonings.

30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil

1/2 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

1 large skinless chicken breast, cut into small cubes

400 to 500g (3/4 to 1 lb) smoked sausage, sliced

1 cube beef bouillon

1 398-ml can whole tomatoes plus two cans of water

1 156-ml can tomato paste

10 ml (2 tsp) dried parsley

5 ml (1 tsp) dried basil

5 ml (1 tsp) oregano

30 ml (2 tbsp) brown sugar (to your taste)

Tabasco to taste

250 g (1/2 lb) cooked, frozen shrimp (optional) or more if you like

Steamed rice (approximately 1 litre or 4 cups, enough for four people)

With the pan on medium heat, warm the oil and add the onion, garlic, celery and green pepper, cook until soft. Add the chicken and sausage and continue cooking until chicken is cooked through and no longer pink.

Add the beef cube and break it up. Add the tomatoes, breaking them into smaller pieces with a spoon. Add two cans of water. Add the tomato paste slowly, blending as you go. Stir in seasonings. Cover the pan and let the jambalaya simmer on a low bubble for 10 or 15 minutes. Stir gently and taste for seasonings, including sugar. It should have the consistency of a thick sauce. If it is too thin, let it cook down slowly, if it is too thick, add a little water. Let simmer for 10 to 20 minutes, adding shrimp in the last 5 or 6 minutes to heat through. Serve over rice. Makes four generous servings.

Red beans and rice

This is one of my favourite things to make. Beans and rice are great comfort food and spiced up Cajun style, they are especially good in winter. Keep the heat fairly low when cooking this so as not to brown the onions and garlic and to keep the beans from sticking to the pan. Pass the hot sauce when serving. You can also use this recipe for the beans to make bean quesadillas; just change the spices to taco seasoning, and load the beans into a tortilla with some cheese and a little salsa and sour cream.

30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil (add a little more if you need it)

1/2 small onion, chopped fine

2 small garlic cloves, minced

1 398-ml tin red kidney beans, drained and well-rinsed

Cajun seasoning to taste (I use Weber)

Prepared steamed rice (approximately 500 ml or 2 cups, enough for two people)

Warm the oil in a pan. Gently sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Add a few shakes of Cajun seasonings and then the beans. Warm through. Taste for seasonings and adjust. Serve over rice, scraping the seasonings from the pan. Serves two.

Pineapple coconut pie

I used a ready-made shortbread crust with this recipe and quite liked it. A graham-wafer crumb crust would also be good. I had some filling left over, so I poured it into a ceramic dish and baked it alongside the pie. It turned out just fine, so you could even skip the crust altogether as long as the dish is well-greased.

50 ml (1/4 cup) butter

3 eggs

45 ml (3 tbsp) flour

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) sugar

250 ml (1 cup) crushed pineapple drained

250 ml (1 cup) coconut

1 unbaked pie shell 22 cm (9-inch)

Melt the butter and pour into a mixing bowl. Add the other filling ingredients and mix thoroughly. Pour filling into the unbaked pie shell. Bake one hour at 190 C (350 F) or until set and brown.

Note: You may need to turn the heat down to 160 C (325 F) if the pie is browning too quickly. Just bake a little longer until the pie is set. Let cool and serve. Looks nice garnished with a little fruit or some whipped topping.

Winnipeg Mardi Gras

Friday and Saturday

6 p.m. to 2 a.m. nightly, third floor, Winnipeg Convention Centre

Must be 18 or older

Tickets $16 at Ticketmaster (plus taxes and agency fees)

www.winnipegmardigras.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2013 C1

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