by Virginia B. Wood

If you don't participate in a fun, food-related celebration in the next week, then you just aren't trying hard enough! There's Chinese New Year on February 8, Mardi Gras on February 11, Valentine's Day is the 14th, and each event boasts a corresponding list of food festivities. The first Valentine's bash is La Peña's Toma Mi Corazon V on Friday, Feb. 7 at Miguel's La Bodega, 415 Colorado. This annual fundraiser offers patrons an opportunity to support La Peña's efforts by purchasing hearts created by a stellar assortment of local talents. Both the preview party (4- 6pm) and silent auction (6-8:30pm) will offer live music, a cash bar, and an appetizer buffet including chipotle fudge and tequila & chipotle chocolate truffles. Assuming your New Year's resolutions included healthier eating, Chinatown owner Ronald Cheng is ready to help you carry them out. The longtime successful restaurateur invites intrepid Chinese food lovers to toast Chinese New Year at his newest eatery, Chinois, located at 215 E. Sixth. According to the Chinese calendar, February 8 inaugurates the Year of the Ox and Chinois' special holiday menu will include such traditional New Year dishes as crispy whole fish with jalapeño black bean sauce and stewed duck with Chinese black peppercorn sauce. Cheng himself will be in the Chinois kitchen, using such techniques as grilling and sautéing to prepare many of the new dishes he describes as "heart-healthy contemporary Chinese cuisine."

For a complete cultural shift, chere, stir up a batch of that secret family gumbo recipe and enter it in the Third Annual Central Market Gumbo Contest on Sunday, February 9. The $50 entry fee entitles contestants to a clear, plastic one-quart container for the gumbo and a chance at winning the $1,000 Grand Prize, $100 gift certificates, or monthly cooking classes for the coming year. Entries must be received in the store between 9am and noon on Feb. 9, judging will begin at 1pm and the winners will be announced at 6pm on the cafe mezzanine. Categories are Individual, Individual Exotic and Restaurant. Bon chance! Hot on the heels of the big gumbo cook-off, Mardi Gras rolls around on Fat Tuesday, February 11. Several local bakeries will be making King's Cakes for the pre-Lenten feast day. Both Central Market ($8.99) and Fiesta ($3.99) prepare the New Orleans-style yeast bread brightly decorated with colored sugar. Sweetish Hill and La Madeleine stay close to their French heritage, opting for the traditional French preparation, Galette du Rois, a circle of flaky puff pastry filled with a delicate almond paste... Local Cajun restaurants will do their best to get in the Mardi Gras spirit. The Old Alligator Grill will party all day on Fat Tuesday, complete with costumed employees, boiled crawfish, boudin, King's Cakes, and strands of Mardi Gras beads. Cajun chef Robbie Greig of Ruby's BBQ and Hoody's plans to enter his signature gumbo in the Central Market contest and hopefully sell the winning recipe to his loyal fans at Ruby's on Tuesday, along with crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, and red beans & rice. As always, Pearl's Oyster Bar will have live music and their Mardi Gras festivities will include a big happy hour blow-out and a costume contest. Up in Pflugerville, both Gumbo's and McGowan's will be decorated for the season and serving their distinctive Louisiana menus complemented with bayou hospitality.

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