Touchdown: Cajun Jambalaya

6 Feb

Stir it up

How many proteins can you fit in a pot?

As images of sweaty men wrestling over a pimply pig skin are studied as if they hold the key to the universe and my husband grunts, guffaws and swears like a rickets-ridden pirate tied to a ship’s deck during a hurricane, as if his very life, sanity and liberty were at stake, I wrestle with this timeless question.

The Super Bowl! It’s one of my favorite days. Not because of the football, of course. Because of the snacks.

Honestly, I have never bothered to begin to care about organized sports – the drama of the players, the bets, the brawls, the outfits. Ffff. Bad mesh jersey just doesn’t get my pulse racing. But I do love the camaraderie, good-natured ribbing, inconsequential competition and chop-breaking that it engenders. It reminds me of Church!

Or more specifically, Church potlucks.

When I was a kid, Church potlucks were the highlight of my social calendar. For the under 10 set, what more could you possibly want?

There were sticky picnic tables to scour, sun-warmed banana boat bicycle seats to climb into, slip n’ slides to conquer, triple dog dares to vanquish, worms to throw, fathers to tackle, soda to sneak, in every direction, as far as the eye could see.

And all of the moms were distracted with gossipy laughter, powdered-sugar donuts and too much caffeine, temporarily eliminating the near-constant childhood specter of Time Out on the Stairs or suspended Scooby-Doo privileges.

Some of my favorite foods are indigenous to Church potlucks. There are the archangels and the disciples of the Potluck Pantry that we all know and love: 12-layer dip paired with fried chips, sausage and Cheez Whiz balls (they go first), groaning pots of deliciously greasy sauerbraten, strawberry pie bleeding everywhere, hot wings, burnt hot dogs, overcooked burgers. Church potlucks and Super Bowls should never be staged without all of these items on hand.

Ah, but then there’s always one more dish, the potluck wonder of potluck wonders, the crowning jewel, the boss, the guru, the most high. But it’s always a mystery — it changes form depending on who’s responsible for cooking it, the region in which it’s prepared, the time of year …. But it always features the holy trinity of flavor: protein, starch, fat.

I think that Jambalaya, a Church potluck all-star, is arguably the best American embodiment of easy, no-fuss delish. So this year, in addition to gathering and scarfing many of the Superbowl / Potluck faves, Stephen and I decided to make a call down to the bayou, for Jambalaya.

Jambalaya was originally conceived of in the early 19th century as a sort of poor relative of Spanish Paella. The Creole version originated in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and it’s prepared with tomatoes; the meat is often thrown into the pot without being browned first. It’s lovely, and comforting. Then there’s Cajun Jambalaya, which, in my mind, is the more American, and the superior, of the two. It was born in Southern Louisiana swamp country, where a variety of game and fish was readily available, but tomatoes were not. Creole predates the Cajun, but the Cajuns were obviously onto something. It always requires the browning of meat, which, let’s face it, is always more delicious (thank you, Maillard reaction).

Jambalaya is relatively easy to make, but the results are arguably as glorious as the more elevated Louisiana classics, gumbo and etouffee.

Also, it inspired a Hank Williams song, not to mention a presidential feud. (When President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that he was allergic to crawfish, and therefore could not eat the Jambalaya his friends the Richardsons of Virginia sent, their friendship was detonated).

A variety of proteins can be used, the more the better. Since I didn’t have time to go out and wrassle any gators, and I couldn’t rationalize the expenditure necessary for fresh crawfish, I settled for shrimp. Whole Foods was fresh out of ham hocks, so I settled for chicken thighs, fresh pork sausage and some sliced ham. Turkey, smoked sausage, duck, wild boar and would also be fab, depending on your mood and budget.

Click on for the recipe!

Cajun Jambalaya

Ingredients:

  • 2 TBSP vegetable oil
  • 1 lb. skinless, boneless chicken thighs, but into bite-size chunks
  • Salt, pepper and cayenne to taste
  • 1 lb. fresh pork sausage, casing removed
  • ½ yellow onion, chopped fine
  • 3 large celery stalks, chopped fine
  • 1 large red bell pepper, chopped fine
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 7 oz. cooked, smoked ham, cut into bite-size chunks
  • 1 tsp hot sauce
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp dried thyme, oregano, basil, paprika
  • 2 cups long-grain white rice, rinsed and drained
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1 lb. peeled and deveined shrimp
  • ¼ cup chopped scallions, or to taste
  • Optional: Chopped parsley and sriracha sauce

Method:

  • Sprinkle chicken with salt, pepper, cayenne. Heat oil in large Dutch oven. Brown chicken, but don’t cook through (about 5 minutes). Remove with slotted spoon, put in large bowl and set aside. Brown sausage meat in leftover fat, but don’t cook through (about 5 minutes). Add to bowl with chicken.
  • Add vegetables to leftover fat and cook until translucent, about 7 minutes. Add garlic, ham, spices and cook over medium heat, stirring, until fragrant, a few minutes. Add broth and bring to boil. Add uncooked rice, reduce to a very low simmer and cook for about 30 minutes, covered (no stirring allowed). Add par-cooked meat, raw shrimp (if you have cooked, that’s fine, just add near the end), and cook for another 10 minutes, or until rice is tender and meat and shrimp are cooked through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Garnish with chopped scallions and serve!
  • Optional: add fresh parsley for an herbal kick, and serve with sriracha on the side so heat-heads don’t take your name in vain.

Nutritional Breakdown of Jambalaya: About 500 calories and 18 grams of fat per serving. Fabulous source of protein. Heaps of cholesterol and sodium.

Cost Breakdown of Jambalaya: Any dish packing this much protein is going to leave your wallet much lighter. With organic meat and fish, plan on spending about $6 a serving.

Verdict / In the Future: Between shrieks of agony and joy, I got two hearty thumbs up. I’m going to stick to my no-tomato guns on this dish, but next time I’m going to substitute rabbit or duck for the ham, for a rich, gamey kick.

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