For nearly 208 Mondays in a row, from October 2016- October 2020, I made jambalaya and red beans. As a culinary instructor at Crescent City Cooks! in the heart of New Orleans, I introduced mostly tourists to the history, culture, and cuisine of Louisiana. We’d cook and laugh and learn a little about the differences between Cajun and Creole, and everyone would leave with a full belly, and hopefully a full heart. Our small staff strived to bring a sense of family and familiarity that extended beyond even that fabled Southern hospitality. And that means, on Mondays, we’d make jambalaya and red beans. These iconic, homey Louisiana dishes lend themselves to cleaning out the fridge, those momma-did-her-fancy-cooking-Sunday kind of recipes where technique is more important than the ingredients used and can be incredibly family-specific. Ask any 10 Louisianians to describe what jambalaya is, and you’ll hear 10 different descriptions. Just like with gumbo, it may be easier to agree on what jambalaya is and what it is not.
In general, jambalaya is a rice-based dish, seasoned with the Holy Trinity (onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic), paprika, and cayenne. And while I’ve seen wet or soupy jambalayas on TV, I have never, ever, ever in my life been served a saucy or soupy jambalaya from someone’s home kitchen down here. EVER. And whether more influenced by a Spanish paella or West African jollof rice, both are considered properly made if the cook has built up some gradoux- that magical, smoky, crunchy layer of rice and flavor built up on the bottom of the pot.
A Cajun-style jambalaya is very brown due to the onion, bell pepper, and celery* being cooked down until very mushy, sweet, and sticks to the bottom of the pot. It usually contains some sort of smoked pork like andouille sausage or tasso ham. It usually also contains some sort of ‘white meat’: chicken, turkey, or cubed pork shoulder. Cajun families settled throughout the swampy bottom half of Louisiana, often insulated from outside influences by the difficult-to-navigate geography. Families would survive on what they could farm themselves rather than what the markets brought in. As a result, you may find that West Louisiana families (residing closer the Spanish-ruled Texas territory) are more likely to use a poblano and jalapeno in place of green bell pepper, making their dish a little spicier than most.
A Creole-style (often considered New Orleans-style or city-style) jambalaya is usually red from the addition of canned tomatoes. It might contain a smoked pork product and will probably have some sort of seafood like shrimp stirred in towards the end. It can also be spicy, but more likely from white or red pepper than fresh peppers. Depending on the family’s genealogy, a Creole-style jambalaya can be likened to a West African Jollof made with Louisiana ingredients. While Creole families may have had gardens on their city plots, they could supplement freely from the thriving markets that brought in not only German and Sicilian farmers, but cargo boats from Europe, African, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. This abundance of options and the overwhelming need of New Orleanians to lavish their guests adds an air of sophistication to a Creole jambalaya.
The following recipe is decidedly Cajun-style. And yes, there is a lot. of. chopping. And yes, you may have never cooked your veggies that much. But trust me, I’ve taught this to literally thousands of people. And if they can do it, so can you. Just keep the following tips in mind for a rocking jambalaya:
A cast-iron pot is 100% the best way to make your best jambalaya. You’ll start this recipe by cooking down what amounts to between 6 or so cups of vegetables until they reduce in volume by three-quarters. That’s going to take a while. A cast-iron pot holds and distributes heat beautifully so you won’t have to stir as much to prevent your browning veggies from burning. If you’re using a lightweight pot you have to stir more to prevent your veggies from scorching on the pot’s hot spots. The more you have to stir the less yummy brown bits form, and your jambalaya could end up just tasting like rice.
The seasoning in a great jambalaya is layered. When I say a generous pinch of salt, I mean enough salt to make 6 cups of vegetables actually taste good. Reaching into a dish of salt with all your fingers is called a 4-finger pinch. You’ll need two of these. Adding salt early here will allow the vegetables to sweat faster, cook faster, and develop deeper flavors. Just keep that first big addition in mind as you go. You’ll end up adding some sort of smoked (and probably salty) pork product, and a healthy glug of (salted) hot sauce. To keep the salt in check, use no-sodium stock. After stirring in the stock, give it a taste and adjust if you need to.
This recipe calls for parboiled or converted rice. This is rice that’s been soaked, steamed slightly, then dried and milled. This process makes the rice easier to mill, imparts some of the rice husks’ nutrients into the grain, and gelatinizes the starches in the grain. All that creates rice that is fluffy and individually-grained. It’s hard for this rice to turn to mush. If you’d like, use other long-grained rices like jasmine or popcorn, but pour it into a colander and rinse until the water runs clear.
While we’re talking about rice, you may notice I use a pretty unconventional ratio and method for the rice. While working at Crescent City Cooks!, my mentor Nita Duhe taught me to cook the rice with the lid off until nearly all of the liquid cooks off. As soon as the surface bubbles disappear, she pops the lid on, turns the heat off, and has a glass of wine while the rice rests. It’s a brilliant technique that's so nearly foolproof I’d be hard-pressed to finish a jambalaya any other way.
Traditional jambalaya like this is quintessential family food. It's what you have at an outdoor wedding from a giant steaming cauldron, for a baby shower from foil sheet pans, or from a styrofoam to-go plate at a church fundraiser. In normal years, it might have even been a cardboard bowl and plastic spork handed to you from family you just made the acquaintance of along a Mardi Gras parade route. While this year we can't hand each other a bowl full of love, we can keep the love going. So from all of us in New Orleans, we miss you just as much as you miss us. Stay home, stay safe, make jambalaya.
Happy eating, y’all :)
2 -3 tablespoons high heat oil (peanut, canola, grapeseed)
1 large or two small onions, diced
1 large bell pepper, diced
3 sticks celery, diced
½-1 lb. andouille, smoked ham, and/or smoked sausage, cubed
2 cups leftover chicken or turkey
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon- 1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning (like my Gradoux seasoning here)
3 cups parboiled rice
7 cups stock
Crystal hot sauce or other mild, Louisiana-style sauce
1/3 cup chopped green onion and parsley, for serving
Make the Base:
Heat a 3-4 quart cast iron pot over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the oil and allow the oil to heat until it shimmers. Add the onion, bell pepper, celery, and 2 generous pinches of salt. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally, until the veggies have reduced in volume by 3/4 and are a sweet, mushy brown and won’t stop sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add your sausage, chicken, garlic, and Cajun seasoning. Cook, stirring often, 4-5 minutes, or until the garlic is soft and the whole pot is wildly fragrant.
Ready the Rice:
Add the stock to the pot and gently scrape the bottom of the pot well. Add 1 tablespoon of hot sauce, stir, and taste. The liquid should be pasta water salty and the spiciness should linger in the back of your throat. Adjust with more hot sauce, salt, or Cajun seasoning as necessary.
Increase the heat to medium-high. When the broth comes to a boil, add the rice, STIRRING ONLY ONCE. Decrease the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, until the rice has absorbed nearly all of the liquid and the surface bubbles have just disappeared. Top the pot with a tight-fitting lid, remove from the heat, and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes. Don’t let anyone touch that lid!
After 20 minutes, remove the lid and add the parsley and green onion. Gently fold the herbs into the pot with a large fork or wide spoon. Serve warm or room temperature. If you need to warm the jambalaya before serving, return to low heat with the lid on until warmed.
*Note: the garlic from the Holy Trinity is purposefully omitted here. High in sugars and volatile oils and low in moisture, garlic can go from cooked to browned to burned in a matter of minutes, and there’s no way to cover the flavor of burned garlic. Make sure your onion, peppers, and celery are completely done before adding the garlic.