Chicago has been home for much of my life, but once upon a time, I was seized by a recurring case of anywhere-but-here syndrome. It lasted for some time, this urge to experience other places, and in the 1990s and early 2000s, I lived here and there, going to school or working.
During the mid-1990s, I lived for a few years in Louisiana. By the time I left Louisiana in 1998, I had established a point of identification with it, something inexorable and strangely insistent. I found that it was difficult to live there at first, to feel like I might fit in, but eventually I made friends. And, bit-by-bit, I first fell in like, and then fell in love, with the state’s quirky, imperfect and singular personality.
These days, I occasionally miss Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the whole of Louisiana, but I have not gone back in a few years. I used to return often, grateful, because it was New Orleans that allowed me to discover all kinds of things about myself. Those memories are simultaneously bright and dusty now: a geological layer in the rock and sediment formations that will eventually catalog my life. But there is a kind of continuity there as well. The young woman who lived in Louisiana learned how to became a better cook. She ate trout meunière, mock turtle soup with sherry, and eggplant terrines for the first time. She sampled innumerable types of jambalaya and learned what Creole cooking meant. She learned how it differed from Cajun food and bought what few cookbooks she could afford.
Occasionally, I wonder about returning to the Louisiana cauldron that played a formative role in my life, if only because a heaping platter of fried oysters or a dish of smoky, spicy jambalaya unexpectedly jump-starts an inexplicable, but visceral longing for New Orleans. Perhaps I should make a pact to return, rain or shine, at least once a year, and in so doing, not forget the benedictions of the Mississippi where it curves and thickens and crescendos its way into the ocean.
Jambalaya encourages a little bit of improvisation: here is jazz cooking at its very best. Once you have the basics down, add a little of this or a little of that, substitute shrimp for chicken, use ham instead of sausage. I often use smoked turkey sausage and the difference is negligible. Fresh crawfish are fantastic, if they are available. Many people use shrimp. Both Cajun and Creole cooking lay claim to a unique version of jambalaya, the latter with tomatoes. Families too have coveted recipes for jambalaya, as do the purists. The following is mine:
1 medium onion
4-5 ribs celery, sliced thickly on a diagonal
1 green bell pepper, medium-dice
3-4 cloves garlic
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 12-inch piece of smoked sausage, sliced into ¼-inch rounds. Slice each round into a half-moon shape. Use andouille sausage, if you can find it.
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano
1 teaspoon paprika
¼ cup of fresh minced parsley
2 cups raw white rice, long-grain or parboiled (parboiled rice, for example Uncle Ben’s, is less likely to be sticky and is therefore preferable)
4 cups chicken or beef stock, or water
Salt and pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
Canola or olive oil
- Wash and pat dry the chicken thighs. Season with salt, pepper, a few shakes of garlic powder, and ¼ teaspoon each of paprika, oregano and thyme. Sprinkle a little cumin on the chicken if you like. Let sit while the other prep is handled.
- Finely dice the onion, use a medium-dice for the green pepper, mince the garlic and slice the celery in a wide diagonal. Set aside.
- Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a heavy-bottomed stock pot, the same one you will use to make the jambalaya. Brown the already sliced sausage. Remove from pan and set aside. The sausage will release some fat while cooking. If desired, you can remove some of the excess fat.
- Brown the chicken pieces next, making sure they are not crowded. The pan should not have so much oil/fat in it that the chicken spatters. Some fond will develop in the bottom of the pan during the browning process. Once browned, remove chicken from heat and set aside. Cool and cut into bite-sized (1-inch) pieces. If adding shrimp, or any other raw seafood, sauté them next and set aside once cooked.
- Back into the same pan: add onions and sauté until translucent. The moisture from the onions will begin to deglaze the fond from the pan. Add the garlic, green pepper, celery. Season with salt and pepper at this stage. Sauté a few minutes, add the tomato paste, and stir well until the tomato paste has dissolved.
- Add rice, chicken, sausage, thyme, marjoram/oregano, and paprika. Stir gently to incorporate. Next, add the stock (the ratio is usually 2:1 stock to water, but I use a little less stock if the vegetables have released a fair amount of liquid). If the jambalaya will include seafood, chicken stock or water—rather than beef stock—is recommended. If you don’t have stock, water will do just fine. Add salt if needed. Cayenne pepper too.
- Once the liquid has been added, turn the heat to medium-high and allow to come to a boil. When bubbles form at the edges, cover the dish, turn the heat to low, and set the timer for 15 minutes.
- Once the dish is finished and the rice cooked through, add the cooked shrimp (if you are using shrimp) and parsley and stir to incorporate. Leave covered for about 5 minutes, allowing all flavors to co-mingle.
- Done! Serve with cornbread.