It's time for a hearty pot of jambalaya

January 16, 2013 

Jambalaya is one of those time-honored recipes that is passed down from generation to generation, with each cook adding something different. There is little doubt that the first rendition was made by a hungry and homesick Spaniard trying to recreate his native paella with ingredients he could find in south Louisiana.

There are those who think the recipe passed through the Caribbean Islands first and found some influence there, and that may be true. But this dish can claim influence from many quarters; the tomatoes found in the Creole version were a New World food, the rice most likely came from Africa and the ham -- jambon, a critical element to some recipes -- perhaps came from France.

Folklore also tells us that jambalaya is a combination of words borrowed from many places: the aforementioned French for ham, jambon; the French "a la," meaning in the style of, and the African "ya" for rice. It's a nice tale, but probably not true.

As with many recipes from the Deep South, there as many renditions as there are cooks, and heated arguments over what's best are common. Creole and Cajun recipes differ primarily in the Creole use of tomatoes (you will find this difference in other recipes as well, a great example being gumbo). Some variants use seafood, others just meat, some insist on Andouille sausage or ham, but the basics are pretty much the same. Always start with the trinity of onions, celery and bell peppers, followed by meat, seafood and then rice. A note of caution: Although it may be traditional, seafood that is added too early will become tough and unappetizing. Try adding cooked sea

food at the very end and see if it doesn't turn out for the better.

Another argument heard often is the type of pot that is best for cooking this filling recipe. For many, there is no question that a black cast iron pot is essential. If you are from South Louisiana, you might think a large Magnalite pot is the way to go, but the truth is that all you need is a pot of sufficient size that is heavy enough to be a true stew or braising pot. No thin aluminum pot should ever be used as it will scorch and burn what you are trying so lovingly to cook.

Lastly, don't get stuck on a recipe just because you have always prepared it that way. Remember, a recipe is only a suggestion. Try adding black eyed peas, greens, ground fatty pork, smoked sausage or a different type of rice.

Thai jasmine rice is delicious and Japanese sushi grade rice is a step up. It's a bit easier to cook the rice separately, then mix in all the ingredients. In a pinch, that's not a bad idea, but something is lost when the rice is not cooked with the other ingredients. Whatever path you decide to take, have fun cooking and sharing this good recipe with good friends.

CAJUN JAMBALAYA

2 chopped onions

1 chopped bell pepper

1 cup chopped celery

4 to 6 toes finely chopped garlic

1 cup chopped smoked sausage (andouille, if you like)

4 to 6 chicken thighs

2 cups rice

5 cups water

Black pepper, red pepper flakes, Tony Chachere's seasoning

Sauté the sausage until it is well browned; remove to drain. Add the chicken and cook until browned; remove and set aside.

In the same pan, sauté the onions for 10 minutes, season with black pepper, red pepper flakes and Tony's, then add the bell pepper and celery and sauté for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and cook 2 more minutes. Add the chicken and sausage to the pot, add the water and bring to a slow simmer.

When the chicken is done, remove, cool and debone.

While the chicken is cooling, add the rice to the pot and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Stir often so it does not scorch.

Add the chicken back to the pot, taste and re-season as necessary. Serve with a cold Viognier or, if you are willing to try something different, with Japanese sake.

JESSIE'S JAMBALAYA

1 chopped onion

1 chopped red bell pepper

6 stalks chopped celery

4 chopped garlic toes

2/3 cup chopped spicy sausage

2/3 cup smoked sausage

1 cup chopped chicken

3 cans black eyed peas

1 pound large shrimp

2 cups sushi rice

Black pepper, Tony Chachere's seasoning

5 cups water

Peel the shrimp, season with Tony's and set aside.

In a large heavy pot, sauté the sausage with a little oil until well browned, remove and drain the sausage, but keep the oil flavored by the sausage in the pot.

Increase the heat to high and sauté the shrimp for 2 minutes, making sure they take on color evenly, remove and set aside. In the same pan, but over moderate heat, sauté the onions for 6-8 minutes, add the celery and bell pepper, season liberally and cook for 6 more minutes. Add the garlic and cook until tender and fragrant. Add the water, sausage and chicken and cook until the chicken is tender.

Remove and de-bone the chicken, then return the meat to the pot. Taste to make sure the chicken stock is fully developed. If it is a little thin, simmer for 15 more minutes. Taste again and season as necessary.

Open the cans of black eyed peas, drain and rinse thoroughly. Add the rice to the pot and simmer with the lid on for about 20 minutes or until tender. Give it a good stir every once in a while, but not too often. Add the black eyed peas and the shrimp; mix well.

Serve in large bowls along with crusty French bread.

This jambalaya goes well with a craft beer. You also might want to have some Valentina hot sauce on the table for those that want a little more rice. Note the sushi rice will be creamy and a bit toothsome, a difference your guests and family will love. Jessie and I made this recipe for 200 friends on New Year's Eve and it was a hit.

Julian Glenn Brunt, who has been a Mississippi Gulf Coast resident for more than 20 years, has a deep and abiding interest in art, culture and the culinary heritage of the South. His column runs weekly in Taste. You can contact him at living@sunherald.com.

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