Red beans and rice are a Monday tradition and Mardis Gras comes but once a year, but the custom of lagniappe -- the offering of something extra -- is honored every day, every meal, seemingly everywhere in the food capital of the United States. It's as synonymous with New Orleans as jazz and trout amandine.

Lagniappe, an old Creole expression, "can refer to any transaction where there's a buyer and a seller. It's a matter of friendship," explained chef Frank Brigsten, owner of the recently opened Brigsten's.

"No one ever invites you to do anything that they don't include food," mused restaurateur Ella Brennan of the renowned Commander's Palace. "Lagniappe is a very hospitable sort of thing."

Brennan certainly practices what she preaches; guests at her establishment in the Garden District are offered garlic bread and fried eggplant sticks upon being seated, followed by house-made bon bons and pralines after dinner. Lagniappe has even been exported to Houston, where Ella's son Alex Brennan-Martin and Dick Brennan Jr. preside over the restaurant bearing the family name.

At LeRuth's, where the bread is baked fresh daily and even the vanilla extract is prepared in house, diners are treated to goose liver pate'. Dessert lagniappes have been determined by the seasons. In winter there are puff pastries and eggnog at Christmas. Humid summers see the arrival of taffies and other soft candies. Always there are LeRuth's fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.

Two New Orleans traditions -- coffee from the French Market's Cafe' du Monde and the ever-present jalepeno corn muffins -- are combined in today's Express Lane menu. With sugar, butter, flour, salt and oil on the shelf and a minimum of effort, you can enjoy these as a rousing breakfast, as part of a meal, or as "a little something extra."

Express Lane list: milk, dark roast coffee with chicory, corn flour, baking powder, cayenne pepper, eggs, scallions CAFE AU LAIT (Makes 4 cups)

3 tablespoons sugar

2 cups boiling milk

2 cups hot dark roast coffee with chicory

*Place the sugar in a heavy 8-quart pan over medium heat. Cook until sugar caramelizes, stirring once or twice after sugar begins to dissolve. When caramel is a deep hazelnut color, about 7 minutes, remove pan from heat; slowly add boiling milk. When all milk has been added, wait for foam to subside; stir until blended. Add coffee and stir. Serve hot.

For authenticity, place caramel milk in one coffee pot and hot coffee in a second. Pour equal amounts of each into cups at the same time.

From "Cajun-Creole Cooking" by Terry Thompson (HPBooks, 1986) LERUTH'S CREOLE CORN MUFFINS (Makes about 10 muffins)

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature

1 1/4 cups corn flour

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1/2 tablespoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 whole eggs

1 1/4 cups milk

2 tablespoons cooking oil

Generous 1/4 cup finely chopped scallions

* Generously grease a muffin pan with butter. In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and blend well. Distribute the batter into the muffin pan evenly; there may be a little extra to partially fill a second pan. Bake in a 325-degree oven about 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove muffins from pan and serve hot with butter.

From "Dining In -- New Orleans" by Phyllis Dennery (Peanut Butter Publishing, 1985)