I have a few love affairs with certain cultures, and the culture of New Orleans is one of them. Way back in the ’80’s when I was in high school, I rented a movie on VHS called The Big Easy starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. It’s a sexy legal thriller about the mafia and corrupt New Orleans cops. The music, the accents, and the food depicted in it made me long to know more about it. I told no one then, but I actually bought the soundtrack to the movie on cassette, and I still have it memorized.
From there, I developed quite an interest in New Orleans culture, and I got to know the music quite well. When I began playing the drums at 18, I practiced often to New Orleans-Zydeco-Funk music, and The Meters, Aaron Neville’s band, has had one of the most profound influences on my drumming. Even more interesting is that, last year, a colleague of mine wanted to jam New Orleans music, and he asked if I had any knowledge of it. Of any drummer he could have asked, I have that background, which is a bit esoteric. My wife and I went to New Orleans for our first time 6 months before Katrina hit, so I watched the tragic events that followed in tears, literally, because I love that city so much. A big reason that I studied French all through college was partly due to my love of New Orleans, too.
It also happened that, as I got into that culture, a certain chef by the name of Emeril was festooning the TV channels with “Bam!”, heavy spice, garlic, and a laissez faire, confidence-building attitude to inspire amateur cooks at least to attempt to make good food. I didn’t really start cooking regularly until my late twenties, but when I did start, I started with Emeril. He made me want to cook. Whatever one may think about him, just like Ringo on the drums, he got many people not to be intimidated by cooking and instead to try daring recipes. I was one of them.
Jambalaya is the quintessential Cajun dish. Simply put, it’s a spicy rice stew and, if made right, it’s a nut buster. For me, jambalaya is one of those dishes by which I will measure a restaurant. If it’s on the menu and they make it well, I’ll be back. If not, pox on them and their families.
The best part is that jambalaya is quite easy and somewhat cheap to make. The recipe below is Emeril’s, and I really don’t mess with it because there is no need to. I will say, though, that I will omit the shrimp sometimes just because I have to be in the mood for shrimp, but that would be my only alteration. If I don’t use shrimp, I add more chicken and sausage to it.
I put the recipe for Emeril’s Essence (the crack-like substance he “bams!” on everything) after the jambalaya recipe. I always have a batch of it in a jar because I use it for a dry rub on steaks, chicken, whatever.
12 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, and chopped (if you like shrimp; if not, omit and add more chicken and sausage)
4 oz. chicken, diced
1 tablespoon creole seasoning (like Emeril’s Essence, recipe follows)
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper (whatever color you have works, dude)
1/2 cup chopped celery
2 tbsp. chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes, or 1/2 can of diced tomatoes with some o’ the juice (my trick)
3 bay leaves
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. vinegary hot sauce, like Tabasco or Crystal
3/4 cup rice, rinsed
3 cups chicken stock
5 oz. Andouille sausage, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
In a bowl, combine the chopped shrimp, chicken, and the creole seasoning. Mix it together well and set aside.
In a large saucepan or skillet, heat the oil over high heat and add the onion, bell pepper, and celery. Cook this for about five minutes. Then, add the garlic, tomatoes, bay leaves, Worcestershire, and hot sauce. Cook this for a minute or two. Then, stir in the rice and cook for a minute. Slowly add the broth and get it boiling. Reduce the heat to medium and cook it, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the rice absorbs the liquid and becomes tender, about 15 minutes. When the rice is tender, add the shrimp, chicken, and sausage. Cook this until the meat is done, about 10 minutes more. (At this point, I have even hit it with a 1/4 cup of white wine for good measure and it works out famously.) Season to taste with salt, pepper, and more Creole seasoning, if you want some more heat.
Spoon it into a bowl and serve with some French bread and alcohol of some sort, like red wine, a beer, or a Sazerac, if you have some class.
2 1/2 tbsp. paprika
2 tbsp. salt
2 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. onion powder
1 tbsp. cayenne pepper
1 tbsp. dried oregano
1 tbsp. dried thyme
Combine all of the ingredients well and keep in an airtight container.
And that’s it! This is a great dish to serve company, too, as long as you are sure that they like some spice.
Mardi Gras is next week, so it’s apropos to share a jambalaya recipe. Go on Pandora and find a Mardi Gras station, cook some jambalaya, get your gin-and-juice on, and laissez les bon temps rouler.
A la prochaine, mangez, buvez, et ayez surtout la paix.
©Jon Marino 2013