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Celebrate Any Festivity With Good Food

Winter is filled with entertaining possibilities. There are festivities galore, from Super Bowl to Valentine’s Day to Mardi Gras, to help the typically dreary stretch between New Year’s Eve and Easter flash by.

For example, even if you find football as interesting as annual reports, watching the big game on Sunday is the greatest excuse you’ll find to hoot, scream and indulge in football foods, such as chili, cheese dip and beer.

If you think brevity is the only good thing about February, set aside the second of the month to celebrate Groundhog Day. Start with a stew - something with some unidentifiable ingredients - then add a glass of red wine and a triple-chocolate dessert. End the evening with the Bill Murray movie by the same name and you’re halfway to spring.

Mardi Gras is my favorite escape from the cold. I take my cues from celebrations in Brazil, the Caribbean and Louisiana where food is colorful, spicy and plentiful. My idea of Mardi Gras includes a chunky gumbo filled with spicy sausage, accompanied by sugary sweets and lots of jazz.

When I make gumbo for two with flavorful chicken thighs, andouille sausage and plenty of rice, I can vicariously party along with the people in New Orleans who have their big bash on Feb. 24. As a variation of their melt-in-the-mouth pralines, I make a small batch of crisp, buttery Pecan Cookies.

Chicken Gumbo

3 tablespoons oil

4 tablespoons flour

2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1 small red bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced

1 small onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

6 ounces andouille or other spicy sausage, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

1-1/2 cups chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 teaspoon crushed dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon crushed dried thyme

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 (14-1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 cup sliced okra

Juice of lemon

1 cup cooked rice

Make roux in small, heavy-bottomed pan by combining 2 tablespoons oil and 3 tablespoons flour. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until mixture is syrupy and tan colored, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Cut chicken into bite-size pieces. Dust with remaining 1 tablespoon flour. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in skillet. Brown chicken in skillet over medium heat about 5 minutes, turning once.

Add bell pepper, onion and garlic and saute until onion is transparent, about 5 minutes. Add sausage and brown 1 to 3 minutes, turning once.

Pour in chicken broth. Use wooden spoon to scrape up browned bits from skillet. Add roux to skillet along with white pepper, oregano, thyme, bay leaves and hot pepper sauce and cook over low heat 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and tomatoes and simmer 10 minutes longer. Add okra and cook 10 minutes.

Just before serving, add lemon juice. Remove bay leaves. To serve, spoon half the rice into each of 2 bowls. Top each serving with half the gumbo. Serve hot.

Yield: 2 servings.

Pecan Cookies

1 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Sift together flour, salt and cinnamon in bowl. Set aside.

Beat together butter and sugars in bowl of heavy-duty electric mixer until light. Stir in flour mixture; do not overbeat. Stir in pecans and beat just until soft dough forms.

Scoop out dough by level tablespoons and place on ungreased baking sheet. Using fork tines, press cookies to an even 1/3-inch thickness. Bake at 300 degrees until cookies are browned at the edges and firm to the touch, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

Yield: 2 dozen cookies.

Nutrition information per 2-cookie serving: 183 calories, 11 grams fat (54 percent fat calories), 2 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrate, 21 milligrams cholesterol, 52 milligrams sodium.