Tag Archives: party food

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!

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The Next Day: Bacon-Fridge Veg Pasta & Random Poultry Hash

9 May

The vaguely threatening pinata

I realized it was time for bed when one party goer — who shall remain nameless — started meandering around my living room with a large bottle of distilled sugar cane in one hand. Periodically, and with great insistence, he issued what he evidently felt was an urgent query:

“Are you a pirate?”

The existential conundrum was swiftly followed by a confident declaration:

“Because I am! I’m a pirate.”

The individual in question then proceeded to tip back the bottle of tawny and empty a goodly quantity of its contents into his gaping maw, after which he would offer whichever person, dog or plant that happened to be in his line of sight, “a pull.”

Being of Irish and Scottish descent, this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, of course. When I invited a few friends over to sample a batch of homemade beer that our friend John had brewed up (I occasionally stirred a pot of barley and kind of babysat thermometers while John and Stephen did the dirty work) and toast to Stephen’s birthday, I was prepared for the usual outbursts of emotion, song and dance that often accompany strong drink. I stocked up on carbohydrates, proteins and sugar; I proffered bacon and cheese pretzels, lasagna and of course, my favorite chocolate cake (courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated — yum!)

A very carb-y spread

I even found something that the men and children could beat with sticks when they became cranky: a pinata. I’m going to start bringing them with me to family reunions, weddings and funerals, and the second things start heading south, as they inevitably do, wah-la: Pinata time!

After demolishing the contents of the pinata, my fridge and our batch of Brown Ale (which we decided was good, but not great — next time we’re trying a lager), some of the heartier souls found their way to our liquor cabinet, and my secret back-up stash of pretzels and dip. The pirates set sail. A tiny, but extremely heartfelt and fervent dance party to power 80’s music ensued. Air guitars were proffered, high kicks were executed with far too little attention to form, high fives were issued and frequently missed.

Shortly before surrendering to my wiser instincts and heading to bed, I found myself dancing with Stephen and Penny to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and sharing one last piece of decadent chocolate birthday cake.

I woke up to discover a superannuated back scratcher carved in the shape of a tiny hand waving to me just outside our bedroom; I found photographs, strangely askew on our shelves; one half of a pinata smiling in a rather threatening manner on my multimedia shelving rack, the other half was spewing candy from its keister on my little dining table; there were dishes to be done, beer glass rings to scrub, and yes, over-served victims of the previous night’s more ambitious and enthusiastic beverage and snack enthusiasts.

What does one prepare for the over-served? Hair of the dog? Black coffee? Burnt toast? After many years of long and bitter experience on Sundays following large gatherings with my brethren, I’ve found that those “solutions” either merely delay (hair of the dog) the symptoms  of an overtaxed, toxic liver attempting to emerge from the boozy brine it’s pickling in, or just makes the sufferer even more jumpy and jittery (coffee), or just taste bad and irritate the already tetchy (burnt toast).

What does work? Time, water, the cysteine in eggs (it breaks down the toxin acetaldehyde), a bit of protein for energy, and foods high in vitamin C, B and potassium.

Below, check out my recipes for Bacon-Fridge Veg Pasta and Random Poultry Hash.

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