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Once you've tasted jambalaya, it's hard not to fall in love with it. My husband and I were lucky to have sampled this celebrated dish years ago in its native land, Louisiana, the state known throughout the US for its delicious food. We went to a food festival in the town of Lafayette, where jambalaya was being cooked outdoors in enormous pots.
All the cooks were men, who got together regularly to cook as a hobby.
Naturally, their creations were hearty and spicy, in keeping with the Cajun-Creole cuisine of this southern region of the US, traditionally a blend of French, Spanish, American Indian and African styles. Paul Proudhomme, considered by many to be the master of Cajun cuisine, defined jambalaya as "a rice dish highly seasoned and strongly flavored with any combination of beef, pork, fowl, smoked sausage, ham or seafood, and often containing tomatoes... the word 'jambalaya' comes from the French jambon meaning ham and the African ya meaning rice."
An entire chapter of Chef Paul Proudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen is devoted to jambalaya, and all the recipes are indeed spicy. His poor man's jambalaya is seasoned with three kinds of pepper - white, black and red - as well as bay leaves, cumin, dry mustard and thyme, and features spicy smoked sausages as well. These cook together with aromatic vegetables, garlic, meat broth and rice.
Howard Mitcham, the author of Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz, noted that jambalaya "started out as a poor man's catch-all, utilizing any leftover meats, sausages, shrimp or fish that might be lying around, and stretching them a long, long way with plenty of rice... it kept people from starving during depressions... But the consummate artistry of Creole and Cajun cooks has lifted jambalaya above its humble beginnings... and it is now served with pride and joy in the mansions of the wealthy and in high-toned restaurants."
Mitcham writes that there is an annual jambalaya festival in the city of Gonzales, near Baton Rouge, which calls itself the Jambalaya Capital of the World. The festival he described sounds very much like the one we enjoyed - "They cook big, black, iron wash pots full of the stuff, and people come from all over to sample the rich and redolent fare... A real Gonzales jambalaya is so peppery hot, spicy and rich that the uninitiated can barely cope with it," he wrote. His seafood jambalaya has yellow and green onions, green pepper, garlic, parsley and tomatoes, and is seasoned with cloves, allspice, thyme, cayenne and black pepper.
Reading the typical jambalaya Ingredients listed by Roy De Guste Jr. in The 100 Greatest New Orleans Creole Recipes can be quite shocking: "Everybody has his own special combination - ham and shrimp, duck and pork sausage, oysters, alligator." Yet this didn't deter Mildred L. Covert and Sylvia P. Gerson, who wrote The Kosher Creole Cookbook and The Kosher Cajun Cookbook, with a total of eight versions of jambalaya. Their giblet jambalaya is made of sauteed chicken gizzards and livers, which cook with the rice and the usual jambalaya vegetables and spices. They make an easy "jazz jambalaya" from salami, a satisfying chicken and sausage jambalaya, a turkey jambalaya, an elegant veal jambalaya and a summertime jambalaya salad.
Believe it or not, they even make jambalaya from a jar of gefilte fish! Actually, their versions fit perfectly within the accepted jambalaya guidelines. "Jambalaya can be made with just about any combination of ingredients that you prefer," wrote De Guste. "It is an area of cooking as much as it is a single dish."
What makes a rice casserole a jambalaya is the flavorings, the typical Louisiana vegetable combination of sauteed onions, peppers, celery and garlic, some diced tomatoes or tomato sauce, the favorite French herbs parsley, thyme and bay leaves and plenty of spice, especially cayenne and black pepper. And, according to De Guste, "There should always be some kind of Louisiana hot sauce accompanying this dish for the real fire eaters."
No matter what main ingredient you choose for this meal-in-one-dish, the rice acquires a wonderful flavor as it simmers with the seasonings. You can even make a tasty vegetarian jambalaya, following the example of my friend Patricia Greenberg, author of The Whole Soy Cookbook. She prepares Cajun Red Hot Jambalaya with Soy Sausage and notes that you can make it even healthier by using brown instead of white rice.
When you cook your jambalaya, you might enjoy listening to the song from 1952 that made jambalaya famous. My favorite rendition is sung by the Carpenters. You can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMrfEGS61mw.
Jambalaya is a great choice when you want to prepare a fish entree during the cold season, as it's flavorful, warming and satisfying. Use any kind of fresh or thawed frozen fish fillets you like. If you have some already cooked fish, you can cut it in pieces and add them during the last few minutes of the cooking time, so they just heat through. To make the jambalaya with brown rice, cook it for 45 minutes (instead of 30 minutes) in the sauce, or until it is tender. Serve the jambalaya with Tabasco or any hot sauce you have.
700 to 900 gr. fish fillets, cut in 6 to 12 pieces
11â„2 to 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 green, red or yellow pepper, chopped
1â„2 cup chopped celery
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
2 small hot peppers, chopped (optional)
1 cup tomato sauce
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 bay leaf
3 cups vegetable broth or pareve chicken-flavored broth
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups long- or medium-grain white rice
170 gr. vegetarian frankfurters, cut in chunks (optional)
1â„2 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
1â„4 cup chopped parsley
Remove any bones or skin from fish. Heat oil in a large deep skillet or stew pan.
Add onion, green pepper and celery and saute over medium heat, stirring often, for five minutes. Add garlic, hot peppers, tomato sauce, oregano, bay leaf and broth. Bring to a simmer. Add fish and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for 10 minutes or until just cooked through. Remove fish pieces to a plate.
Return sauce to a boil and stir in rice. Add frankfurter pieces, salt, pepper, cayenne and two tablespoons parsley. Cover and cook over low heat 30 minutes, or until rice is tender. Do not stir often, to avoid crushing rice. Remove bay leaf. Return fish pieces to skillet, cover and heat for five minutes over low heat. Sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve.
Makes 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.