It’s no secret that I am fascinated by food pathways and histories; where dishes originate, how they get transmuted, and how we experience them. Jambalaya, a classic Louisiana creole dish, seems to be another perfect illustration of food’s journey. The dish is a one-pot-wonder that is typically made with chicken, ham, sausage, seafood and rice. Its construction is similar to a Spanish paella, which is not surprising given Louisiana’s history of creole culture, the culinary center of which lies in New Orleans.
After being settled by the French and Spanish, locals in Louisiana began using the word creole, a term that was commonly used in many Spanish colonies, to differentiate Europeans born in the colony from the 1st generation Europeans that settled there. Like in most colonies throughout the world, men were typically the ones relocating to these new territories and throughout time married with the local population. Many were native-born black women slaves and others from West Africa, to which the word creole was also used to differentiate the two. Over time, a new “mixed race” developed that was recognized as a third class by French and Spanish rulers and characterized by certain social and economic mobility, the practice of Catholicism, and speaking Colonial French and some Louisiana Creole French (a hybrid of West African and French language). However after France sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803, the creole identity was further complicated and threatened by the influx of English-speaking American settlers who recognized a racial two-tiered system: black and white. Today, it is mostly in rural areas that French or Louisiana Creole is spoken, but its culture is very much alive in its culinary traditions.
Jambalaya takes on two forms in Louisiana, the creole or “red jambalaya” version and the cajun version, the main difference is that creole jambalaya includes the use of tomato. It’s unclear as to where the word jambalaya comes from. Some say the word derives from the French word for “ham” (jambon), “in the style of” (à la manière de) and ya (which refers to rice in certain West African languages), resulting in jambon à la ya. Others say the word is rooted in Spanish as a combination of “ham” (jamon) and paella. However the dish’s name came about, what is clear is that the dish is a very personal one and renditions of it are made according to how it’s been made at home for generations.
Today, thousands of party-goers (some trolling for beads) in New Orleans are celebrating Mardi Gras, also know as Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. This tradition was established in New Orleans by French settlers and is intended as a day of indulgence before the fasting period of Lent starts. And can you think of a better meal to have before fasting than a delicious and messy pot of rice, chicken, shrimp and sausage?
– 1 pound headless medium shrimp (41-50/pound), with shells and deveined
– 3 1/2 cups of chicken broth
– 1 tbsp of Lee Bros. Shrimp Boil (recipe below)
– 12 ounces of andouille sausage, cut on a bias 1/2 inch thick
– 6 chicken thighs, skinless
– 1 large yellow onion, chopped
– 5 garlic cloves, minced
– 1 28 oz can of whole tomatoes, drained and juice reserved
– 2 cups of long grain rice (use an American brand of long grain rice that you find at the supermarket, don’t use a long grain like basmati here because I find it too delicate and it will break easily)
– vegetable oil
– kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lee Bros. Shrimp Boil:
This is used with water to make an instant spicy and aromatic broth for boiling fish and shellfish. This recipe makes quite a bit so you can store in an airtight container and use later. Mix 1 tbsp of the spice with 1 quart of water if you intend to use it for a boil.
– 1 tbsp of peppercorns
– 1 tbsp of celery seeds
– 6 bay leaves, shredded with scissors
– 1/2 cup of kosher salt
– 3 tbsps of ground cayenne pepper
In a mortar and pestle, grind the peppercorn, celery seeds, bay leaves and salt. You may have to do this in batches. Then mix with the cayenne.
(Don’t make the mistake I did and throw the cayenne into the mortar and pestle. Feels like pepper spray!)
Peel the shrimp and reserve the shells. In a pot, combine the chicken broth, shrimp shells and 1 tbsp of shrimp boil and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes.
In a large 4 qt Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat about a spoonful of oil over medium high heat. When hot, add the sausage and cook until browned and remove onto a plate.
Season the chicken thighs with a couple big pinches of salt and a little pepper on both sides and saute them on one side until they are a rich golden brown, about 4 minutes and then flip and brown the other side. You may have to add more oil if there was not enough fat left over from the sausage. Remove and set aside on a plate.
Add the onion, garlic and 1/4 cup of the reserved tomato juice and saute and stir to scrap up all the brown bits on the bottom of the pot. Cook for a few minutes until the onions are soft. Add the tomatoes in, crushing them as you add them. Turn the heat to medium-low and simmer until the ingredients are mixed the consistency is thick and soupy. Add the chicken in and add the sausage.
Strain the shrimp/chicken broth through a strainer into a measuring cup and add enough of any tomato juice you have to make 3 cups of liquid. If you don’t have enough from the tomatoes, just add more chicken broth. Add the liquid to the pot and then add the rice in. Gently using a fork lift the chicken up so the rice can get fully incorporated and not just sit atop the liquid. Cover and cook for about 30-35 minutes on a low heat or until the rice is tender and has absorbed most of the liquid. When the rice is done turn off the heat, gently fold in the shrimp and cover with a lid, and leave it to rest for about 10 minutes. The shrimp will be cooked through and rice should be plump and moist but not soupy.
(Recipe adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook)