August 27, 2011

Cajun Jambalaya with Okra

I am a huge fan of jambalaya, and it's something I almost always make at home, rather than order out. That is solely because I live on the west coast of Canada, where "jambalaya" usually involves pasta instead of rice, and seldom has sufficient seasoning - either in type or quantity, and shockingly often includes cream. When I was in New Orleans, I took great delight in sampling the extensive varieties of jambalaya available - each with a different ratio of ingredients (including seasoning), a different degree of sauciness, and a different notion as to how much one person could/should eat at lunch. Each one was a definitive jambalaya, in its own right.

Jambalaya is such a wonderfully versatile dish, that more's the pity that so few places up here get it right, and by "right" I mean an acceptable variant of the classic forms (Cajun or Creole), which is most emphatically not merely sausage and bell peppers tossed with pasta. Jambalaya needs to be a one-pot dish, rice based, and incorporating the seasonings of the Cajun or Creole variety. The rest - the protein(s), the wet/dry ratio, the choice of featured vegetables, these are all up to the cook. It can be cooked in a deep pot or a skillet, depending on how much you are making at a time.

I have been leaning toward brown, or Cajun-style jambalayas, lately, which tend not to be tomato based. This variation was conceived because I had picked up a bag of lovely looking fresh okra from the market, and needed something to make with it. As it happened, I also had some ham and a couple of chicken thighs that needed using, so, in fine ad hoc style, into the pot they went. My basic methodology is essentially the same as I previously wrote about, but tweaked to incorporate the okra.

Jambalaya with Okra
Serves 4

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, diced
2 medium stalks celery, diced
1 medium green bell pepper, diced
1 cup orange (or red) bell pepper, diced
2 jalapeño peppers, diced
1 1/2 cups okra, sliced
8 oz ham steak, diced
175 g boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 2), diced
3 cloves garlic, minced/crushed
3 cups chicken broth or stock
1 cup parboiled rice
1 teaspoon red Tabasco sauce
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt-free Cajun spice blend (to taste - start with a tablespoon)

Heat a large cast iron frying pan well over high heat. Add oil, and tilt pan to coat bottom. Add ham cubes and sautée until they start to take on a bit of colour. Add cubed chicken, and stir well, but don't allow chicken to brown. Add the onion, celery, green pepper and jalapeño, and stir.

Cook until the onion turns nicely translucent, then add the garlic, Tabasco sauce, and spices. Stir well. Stir in the orange/red bell pepper pieces and the okra until thoroughly combined.

Stir in the (uncooked) rice, making sure that each grain gets well coated by the juices in the pan. Add the chicken stock/broth and stir again, making sure that the rice grains are all submerged. Bring up to a gentle simmer.

Turn heat to very low, cover pan, and cook for 25 minutes, stirring gently once at the ten minute mark. If it seems a little dry, you may wish to add a bit more water at this point, too. If you want to go crazy and add some raw shrimp, this is also the time to do it, at the ten (or, for small shrimp, fifteen) minute mark. Garnish with a little sliced green onion, if you like, and lots of black pepper. Pass the hot sauce.

Obviously, you can switch out the proteins however you like best: smoked sausage, turkey or duck meat, rabbit, venison sausage, shrimp, oysters, alligator, crawfish, or the classic, tasso (spiced ham) for serious points. You can increase or decrease the meat(s) and the amount of vegetables, depending on your taste or what you need to use up - this is a great way to use up extra bell peppers that might be lurking in your fridge.

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