Bit of a tricky entry into 2021, but looks like the landing gear pulled through and got us to the gate relatively safely. Here’s hoping anyway.
And with that, Happy New Year! Fingers crossed everyone is well and feeling optimistic about the coming months. There is so much I am looking forward to cooking and to eating this winter, whatever it may hold. This is the month wherein we ruminate on the previous 12 and ponder what, if anything, we’ve learned from it all. I have been reflecting on cooking in 2020, how I charged into lockdown in March with well-intended ebullience, sometimes slinging out three full meals a day. For four people! Morning omelettes, fresh-salad lunches, afternoon espressos and cookie breaks, walks (So. Many. Walks.) around the neighborhood, only to return home to charcuterie and cheese boards with aperitif before dinner.
I’d swear I was running a boutique hotel in those distant days. Then April hit, and then summer, and then it was difficult to perceive an end to this strange way of life, stretching our patience to snapping point throughout “The Inside Days.” So, we adapted as best we could. I’ve reflected on my culinary triumphs (braised short ribs), as well as the tragedies (“Quaran-tini”), the hits (Vietnamese chicken soup), and the horrors (stewed rabbit — I know, I know), and in so doing have concluded one thing for certain: that our homes and kitchens are indisputably central to the care, preservation and advancement of our well-being and prosperity. Cooking and food serve as trusses to this foundation, underpinning our mental and physical fitness. Food writer Regina Schrambling said it best: “Long before there were antidepressants, there was stew,” and, if I may, chocolate cake, and … the subject of this month’s column: Jambalaya.
We got a glimpse of Mardi Gras a little early this year in my house. In large part, because of an ageing rotisserie chicken sitting alongside a plateful of leftover grilled kielbasa in the fridge. But mainly because I know of no better marriage of poultry and pork than the dreamy, kicky-spiced and cozy concoction that is jambalaya. Merriam Webster defines this dish as “a mish-mash of diverse elements,” all of which melt together into a velvety pilaf, of sorts. Cayenne-kissed, mood-boosting and bursting with warm piquancy, it’s a true show-stopper, as much in its color-rich presentation as its seasoning-forward flavor. So, why do we only make it in March, and scarcely more than once at that? It’s multi-occasion appropriate, from dinner parties to birthdays, and always in season. Utilizing pantry staples like fresh peppers, onions, canned tomatoes, and rice, we really should be making it more often!
While, I typically follow local food hero Mark Bittman’s recipe from his book “How to Cook Everything,” there is no shortage of methods and techniques all over the place for jambalaya, one version better than the next! So, if this particular one doesn’t grab you, you’ll have no trouble finding one that does. It couldn’t be easier to make, and the flavors quickly develop a depth that can fake-out even the most discerning of palettes, falsely convincing them it took hours to prepare. The recipe that follows calls for shrimp, and, admittedly, very little makes me happier than shrimp in my dinner, but I don’t always have them when I need them, so substituting shredded chicken and sliced sausage of any variety — andouille is the classic — for the shrimp is my usual move. But, if you do happen to have some around, throw them in as well, for the win! I recommend pouring yourself a Sazerac (or just a glass of wine) and cueing up New Orleans Jazz on Pandora, blaring it while you work away in the kitchen. And be forewarned: don’t rush the cooking time, as I have been known to do once or twice, or you’ll risk crunchy, unevenly cooked rice (and a very disgruntled family), which is a real tragedy when trying to mine out all the good bits in order to salvage the whole lot. Just give it a taste here and there as you go, adding more stock or water as needed until you like the texture.
This recipe is super forgiving of inexact math, and as someone who prefers ingredients measured in “glugs” and “fistfuls,” it suits a looser cooking style perfectly. So, if you are spice-skeptical, decrease the cayenne. If you never leave home without Tabasco, go all-in. It’s wholly customizable.
I hope you can give jambalaya a try in the coming weeks, delighting in both the cooking and the eating of it. It’s sure to bring some smiles, along with a bit of much needed comfort and reassurance, as we draw a deep breath, lower our shoulders, and face 2021. No matter what it has in store for us. Bring it on!!
Keep well and keep on cooking. –HK
Shrimp Jambalaya on the Stove
Makes: 8 servings
Time: about 1 hour
■3 tablespoons olive oil
■1 onion, chopped
■1 large green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
■2 celery stalks, chopped, plus some whole leaves reserved for garnish
■4 ounces tasso or any ham, chopped (optional)
■Salt and pepper
■2 cups white rice
■2 tablespoons chopped garlic
■½ teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
■1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
■2 cups seeded and chopped fresh tomato (or 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes)
■4 cups shrimp stock or water
■1½ pounds shrimp, peeled, cut into pieces if large
Put the oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it is hot, add the onion, bell pepper, celery, and tasso if you’re using it. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens and everything begins to brown, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the rice, garlic, cayenne, and thyme and stir for about a minute, until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until the pieces break up, about 5 minutes.
Add the stock. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so the liquid bubbles gently. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender and the liquid just about absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes.
Add the shrimp and stir with a fork. Cover and cook until the shrimp are pink and opaque, 2 or 3 minutes. Fluff again, then cover and let rest off the heat for at least 10 and up to 20 minutes. Garnish and serve.
Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya
For brown jambalaya, omit the ham, tomato, and shrimp. Use chicken stock or water and increase the quantity to 6 cups. In the first step, add 8 ounces chopped andouille or another spicy smoked sausage to the vegetables. When everything starts to sizzle and brown, add 1 pound sliced boneless, skinless chicken thighs. When it starts to turn opaque, proceed with the second step.
–Recipe from “How to Cook Everything”