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Jambalaya

This week I had some trouble deciding what to cook for the blog. I wanted to try something other than traditional French cuisine, but couldn’t settle on another culture or region, or even on one kind of protein. That was when jambalaya popped into my head. It’s spicy, hearty comfort food that can be made with a mish-mash of your favorite meat and seafood. Best of all, it’s cost-effective and can easily feed a crowd (not that I really have a crowd to feed).

While I was wandering through Whole Foods on Sunday night to purchase everything I needed, it occurred to me that my recipe only called for 4 ounces of chicken, 5 ounces of Andouille sausage, and 12 shrimp. Way to get specific, Emeril!

Initially, I had gone straight to the prepackaged meats section, where I realized that I’d end up buying way too much meat for this recipe. I ended up checking out the butcher counter instead, where I easily purchased one large chicken breast and two links of Andouille. I ended up saving myself a nice chunk of change.

This tip may seem like a no-brainer for some, but we are so conditioned to gathering pre-packed food at the supermarket, that unless we need something special-ordered or can’t readily find what we need, we don’t even speak to the butcher. It used to be that having a good relationship with your butcher or fishmonger was the only way to get the best cuts of meat or the freshest seafood.

As a young lady living alone, I am constantly trying to find ways to make appropriate portion sizes, cut down on my grocery bill, and minimize food waste. Usually, I’m pretty uncomfortable when speaking with the butcher (or buying any unfamiliar cuts of meat) because I find the terminology super confusing. I’m happy that I finally moved out of my comfort zone, and maybe now I’ll learn something new!

That’s enough on my butcher counter epiphany. Here’s your run-down on the history of jambalaya:

The 'Holy Trinity' of bell pepper, onion, and celery.

The ‘Holy Trinity’ of bell pepper, onion, and celery.

As with many dishes, the precise origins of jambalaya are unclear. Over the centuries, countless cultures ebb and flow, mixing together around the world. Places like Louisiana develop into vibrant melting pots, producing remarkable cuisines that can’t easily be tracked back to a single source. Plausible theories abound, and legends and folklore end up becoming “fact.”

One of the most popular explanations for the origin of jambalaya cites jambon, the French word for ham, and yaya, a supposed African term for rice. Although this is a creative theory suggesting it began as a ham and rice dish, many experts have discounted it. Comparisons of jambalaya to Spanish paella, West African jollof rice, and the French-Provencal “jambalaia,” or fowl, vegetable, and rice stew, confuse things even further.1, 2

A few years ago, culinary historian Andrew Sigal conducted a fascinating and extensive study into the origins of both the word jambalaya and the culinary dish. After a great deal of research, a decisive answer still was not reached, but Sigal leaned toward a Provencal origin for the word and a collective cultural origin for the dish. As he puts it:

The recipe might have been created or named in Europe, Africa, or America, and the creators might have been French, Occitan, Spanish, Acadian, Native American or African.3

The 'Holy Trinity,' vegetables, and rice just before the chicken broth is added.

The ‘Holy Trinity,’ tomatoes, and rice just before the chicken broth is added.

Regardless of its ambiguous geographical, cultural, and linguistic origins, pinning down an “authentic” recipe for jambalaya can be equally as frustrating. Enthusiasts disagree over whether tomatoes should be included, what kind of rice to use, how much of the holy trinity should be added, and which proteins belong in this dish.

Ultimately, the argument over certain ingredients and cooking methods has boiled down (no pun intended) to two separate camps: red and brown. The “city” or New Orleans version of jambalaya is usually red, due to the addition of tomatoes—a hallmark of Creole cuisine. On the other hand, the brown version is more prevalent in rural areas of Louisiana since it is typically cooked in a cast-iron pot, which lends itself to more thorough caramelization of the ingredients. This produces the brown color that is then absorbed by the rice.1

The meat and/or seafood isn't until the rice is nearly done cooking.

The meat and/or seafood isn’t added until the rice is nearly done cooking.

I have adapted the following recipe from renowned chef Emeril Lagasse, but make no claims about its authenticity! I left the tails on the shrimp for a bit more flavor, added an extra dash of Lagasse’s signature spice blend, and, as usual, doubled the veggie content. I hope you like your jambalaya hot!

Cajun Jambalaya

(Adapted from Chef Emeril Lagasse’s Jambalaya episode of The Essence of Emeril)

  • 12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined with tails attached
  • 4 ounces chicken, diced
  • 1 ½ tablespoons Creole seasoning, recipe follows
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 1 cup chopped tomatoes
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 3/4 cup long-grain rice
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 5 ounces Andouille sausage, sliced
  • Salt and pepper

Combine the shrimp, chicken, and Andouille sausage in a bowl with the Creole seasoning, and mix by hand until the meat is thoroughly coated.

Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat and sauté the onion, pepper, and celery for about 3 minutes. Next, add the garlic, tomatoes, bay leaves, hot sauce, and Worcestershire sauce. Stir in the rice, and then slowly add the broth.

Reduce the heat to medium, and cook for approximately 15 minutes, or until the rice becomes tender, but is not yet fully cooked. At this time, add the shrimp, chicken, and sausage, stirring well, and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the meat is cooked through.

The finished product!

The finished product!

In the recipe above, I suppose you could use your favorite creole seasoning mix. However, this was a great blend, and I can’t wait to use the leftovers for other recipes! (FYI, this makes a whopping 2/3 of a cup of seasoning)

Emeril’s ESSENCE Creole Seasoning (also referred to as Bayou Blast):

  • 2 ½ tablespoons paprika
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
Sources:
  1. Bienvenu, M. (2011, September 15). Jambalaya shows both sides of Creole and Cajun influences. The Times-Picayune. Retrieved from http://www.nola.com/food/index.ssf/2011/09/jambalaya_shows_both_sides_of.html
  2. Dry, S. (2009, January/February). Jambalaya. Louisiana Life. Retrieved from http://www.myneworleans.com/Louisiana-Life/Winter-2008/Jambalaya/
  3. Sigal, A. (2007). Jambalaya by any other name. Petits Propos Culinaires, (84), 101-119. Retrieved from http://www.sigal.org/culinaryhistory/jambalaya/Jambalaya_by_Any_Other_Name.htm

Savory Breakfast Strata

If you’ve never heard of strata, you’ve seriously been missing out. It is one of the most simple, delicious, versatile, and affordable options for breakfast, brunch, or a potluck. Strata is basically a fancy name for a savory bread pudding so named for its alternating layers (strata) of bread, custard, cheese, and various other toppings. The following recipe is one of my favorites, but strata can basically be made with any coordinating combinations of vegetables, cheeses, meats, and herbs that you prefer.

I assembled this one in a flash after dinner on Monday and put it into the fridge to soak overnight. Tuesday morning I woke up a little earlier than usual to take it out, let it warm up on the counter, and then bake it in the oven before heading off to work. My coworkers loved it, and my boss even washed my casserole dish and wrote me a thank you note! I think I may have to make another one very soon since it was such a hit. (Unfortunately/fortunately, the dish disappeared so quickly that I didn’t have time to take hardly any pictures!)

Now here’s your weekly dose of food history:

One of the earliest known strata recipes supposedly comes from a 1902 cookbook by Juniata L. Shepperd entitled Handbook of Household Science.1 Oddly enough, this cheese strata recipe does not include eggs, which are characteristic of most (if not all) contemporary versions. Nonetheless, I’m bound to fall in love with anything featuring copious amounts of cheese, so I suppose I can find it in my heart to forgive Ms. Shepperd for her omission.

As I mentioned above, strata is basically a variation on bread pudding, which has an interesting history. Like many popular dishes nowadays, bread pudding had humble origins. European lower classes in the 11th and 12th centuries repurposed stale bread into “poor man’s pudding” or bread pudding to make the most of their meager resources.2 Even in today’s recipes for bread pudding and strata, using stale bread is crucial so that it adequately soaks up the custard that is poured over it. Custard has a more complicated background, but many food historians are of the opinion that the custard we are familiar with today originated in the Middles Ages, typically as a filling for pies, tarts, and other pastries.3

Regardless of whether you’re making any version of sweet or savory strata or pudding, remember to let your imagination (and sometimes your pantry) guide you when it comes to choosing toppings. Anything goes!

IMG_4470Sausage, Fontina, and Bell Pepper Strata

(adapted from Bon Appétit, June 2009)

  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 ½ cups whole milk
  • 2 cups sliced green onions
  • ½ cup whipping cream
  • ½ cup finely grated Romano cheese
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 pound hot Italian sausages, casings removed
  • 1 large red bell pepper, halved, seeded, and chopped
  • 1 1-pound loaf rustic French bread, cut into ½-inch slices and allowed to sit out briefly
  • 2 ½ cups coarsely grated Fontina cheese (or even more, if you prefer things extra cheesy)

Butter the bottom and sides of a 13×9-inch baking dish. Whisk the first 7 ingredients* together in a large bowl, and season well with freshly ground pepper.

The assembled dish, prior to setting and baking.

The assembled dish, prior to setting and baking.

In a large nonstick skillet, sauté the sausage and bell peppers, making sure to break up the meat well. Once the sausage is cooked through and the peppers are brown in spots, remove from the heat.

In the prepared baking dish, arrange half of the bread slices in the bottom, and then pour half of the egg mixture over the top. Sprinkle with one cup of the Fontina, then add half of the sausage/pepper mixture. Repeat this layering process once more. Use the final ½ cup of grated Fontina to sprinkle over the very top.

Allow the ingredients to stand in the dish for at least 20 minutes, occasionally pushing on the bread to encourage it to submerge. (I recommend covering it with plastic wrap and placing it in the fridge overnight with a few small plates on top to aid the bread in soaking up the custard.)

When you are ready to bake the strata, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake until golden brown, approximately 1 hour. If you let the strata set in the fridge, you may want to remove it to the counter prior to baking in order to take the chill off the dish and reduce the baking time. If the top begins to brown too quickly, cover the dish with a GREASED sheet or two of aluminum foil so that the cheese doesn’t burn or stick to the covering.

* I have noticed that when I buy bigger loaves of bread, the designated amount of custard in this recipe (first 7 ingredients) may not be enough. If your strata seems dry after soaking briefly, just whisk together another couple of eggs and a few splashes of milk and cream and pour it over the top. It won’t hurt anything, and it’ll ensure that your strata will turn out moist and not so bready.

Sources
  1. Shepperd, J. L. (1902). Hanbook of Houshold Science. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=HTRDAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA241#v=onepage&q&f=false
  2. McFadden, J. (2008, January 23). Bread pudding originated in 11th century as frugal dish, but has become trendy dessert. The Daily Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.dailygazette.com/news/2008/jan/23/0123_pudding/?print
  3. Olver, L. (1999) The Food Timeline. Retrieved from http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodpuddings.html#bread
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