DPaul and I have been involved with a group of friends here in the Bay Area that every year celebrate Mardi Gras. We're our own official krewe, the Cosmique Krewe of Colour, and both DPaul and I have been kings at one time or another (me, 1994-1995; DPaul exactly ten years later).
The CKC traces its origins back just shy of 20 years. Our friends Sharon and JO were homesick for the wild and woolly ways of their native Louisiana living in Upstate NY and, later, Palo Alto. So they brought the party with them, starting their own krewe. Sharon and JO have returned to Lafayette, but the krewe keeps on kicking. In fact, our annual Mardi Gras bal masque was this past Saturday (hence the aforementioned Jodhpuri suits -- don't we look dapper?).
Because of the krewe, we have a strong cultural connection to New Orleans, and over the years I have developed a profound love of Cajun and Creole food, something I was little exposed to in my formative years. We've been to New Orleans only once, but I retain the memories of many incredibly good meals there. The place is predisposed to culinary greatness.
Perhaps second only to gumbo, jambalaya is the iconic dish of the Big Easy, and appropriately so. It is big on flavor, yet easy to make. In terms of technique, it is almost identical to a paella. It's a fair amount of prep, but once your mise is en place, it's simply a matter of cooking everything in the right order and then plonking it into the oven until it's done.
It is also a supremely forgiving and flexible recipe. I used the recipe from Time-Life Foods of the World: American Cooking as my foundation, but made some expedient substitutions and alterations along the way. For starters, their recipe called for onions and bell peppers, but no celery. And I know of no self-respecting Cajun that would allow a dish to be cooked without the Trinity at its base. I also felt it needed a spicy sausage as opposed to the ham hock it called for; luckily, we had a packet of chipotle-pork sausage from Prather Ranch in the freezer, which helped lend some of the smokiness the ham hocks would have. That we also used Niman Ranch Applewood-smoked bacon didn't hurt either.
The amount of liquid to add is highly discretionary. I prefer to err on the side of moisture, almost to soupiness. You should need a spoon to eat it.
The recipe that I include is pretty palatable even for those with delicate mouths. If you want to hot it up a bit, knock yourself out. I would suggest adding a few good shakes of Tabasco when you add the tomatoes. I also like a good shake or five of Tabasco on the finished product, as the bright, vinegary heat really wakes the whole dish up.
Laissez les bontemps rouler!
Adapted from Time-Life Foods of the World: American Cooking
1/4 lb. bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 links spicy sausage, like andouille or hot Italian, cut into 1-inch slices
1/2 small to medium onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper and 1 medium red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeño or other chili pepper, very finely chopped
1 c. white rice, uncooked
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
about 16 oz. canned chopped tomatoes
several sprigs thyme
1-1/2 to 2 c. chicken stock
1 lb. large shrimp or prawns, shelled and deveined
Preheat oven to 350ºF.
In a large skillet or Dutch oven, fry the bacon over medium heat until the fat has rendered and the bacon is crispy. Remove to a paper towel and reserve. Place sausage pieces cut-side down and fry for several minutes on each side to get a good sear, about 7 minutes per side. Remove to paper towel and reserve again.
In the rendered fat, fry the onions until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the celery and cook until wilted, about another 5 minutes. Add the peppers and fry another several minutes, until they begin to go soft. Season each ingredient with salt as you go.
Stir in the rice and toss to thoroughly coat with the oils in the pan. Cook until the grains turn milky-white. Add the tomatoes, garlic and thyme, and season with a good pinch of salt and a crack of pepper. Add 1-1/2 c. of chicken stock, stir well and bring to a boil. Reintroduce the bacon and sausage, and stir to combine. Pop on the lid and place in your preheated oven. After 10 minutes, taste the broth and season to taste. Add the shrimp, pushing them under the rice, and return to oven. If the jambalaya is looking too dry at this stage, add more chicken stock. Cook another 10 minutes or so, until the liquid is mostly absorbed and the rice is tender.
Serve hot, garnished with chopped parsley or celery leaves. Keep a bottle of Tabasco handy.