Cooking, at least for me, is about sharing. Taking something that you like, that you enjoy, and sharing that with the people that matter to you. It shouldn’t be a chore, and it shouldn’t be something that causes stress.
And I think people tend to be a little intimidated by cooking. Especially the Cajun or Creole dishes we’ve written about here over the years. People think they can’t find the right ingredients, or they can’t get the seasonings right, or that it will be too spicy, etc…
With that in mind, we’re going to take a Cajun classic and an LSU tailgating staple – jambalaya – and break it down basic elements that anyone, anywhere, can work with. Whether you have a big cast-iron pot and burner set up outdoors, or small pot and a hot plate. Whether you’re cooking for yourself, or 100 people. Whether you’re having a lazy day around the house or bringing a dish to a friend’s tailgate.
Jambalaya is a great tailgating dish because it translates to large groups easily, and it can be a relatively inexpensive option at that. After all, it’s mostly rice. It’s also extremely portable and easy to cook in advance, if you’re meeting friends.
That’s also the biggest reason not to be intimidated; if you can cook rice, you can cook jambalaya. Whether you just toss it in an electric cooker with a 2:1 water ratio, or gussy it up in on a stove top, jambalaya is just rice. Cooked with meat, sausage and seasonings.
That’s all it is and you can make it. Here’s how.
The first key to jambalaya or any other rice dish is to have the right ratio of fixings to rice. For jambalaya, you want a 1:1:1 ratio for rice, meat and sausage.
Working with a half-cup of rice? Half pound of meat, half pound of sausage. One cup? One pound of each, and so on. And as a rule, each pound/cup of rice will translate to roughly 5-6 servings for your crowd.
Chicken is the typical choice to pair with the sausage. You can use some pulled smoked chicken, or just diced up breasts or thigh meat (thigh meat is preferable), just make sure your weight is even with the sausage and rice.
Personally, I prefer to use diced pork — some cubed-up shoulder meat typically. I find it a good compliment to the sausage flavor. But a lighter meat is what you want.
For the sausage, the only real important thing to remember is to get something with a good smoked flavor. Is andouille sausage the best? Yes. Is it easy to find everywhere? No. At least not in its truest form, with a chunky, coarse texture. Any smoked sausage will work, so just go with whatever kind you enjoy.
TIP: some like to add seafood to jambalaya, but I would resist that impulse. Personally, I prefer to taste shrimp or other seafood, and the presence of the smoked sausage and the other flavors are going overpower that here. In my opinion, it’s just a waste of good seafood.
As for your vegetable seasonings — diced onions and bell peppers — I would stick with that 1:1:1 ratio. One large onion, one bell pepper per cup of rice. That said, here’s where you can vamp a little to your taste. Keep in mind that onions will cook down, so you can afford to be a little heavy there.
Cooking meat with onions, bell pepper and rice. Simple.
Find a pot big enough to fit everything. Brown your meat. Add your onions and cook until wilted.
Brown your sausage. Stir in your rice and combine everything well. Add your bell peppers. Then enough liquid to cook the rice. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cover the pot firmly — use both a lid and a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil — until the liquid is cooked out and the rice is puffy. Boom. Jambalaya.
NOTE: Bell peppers bring a lot more flavor to the party if you don’t overcook them. It usually pays to mix them in with your rice right before your steaming liquid. They’ll still cook down well in the process.
The basics are great, but you want to level things up, right? Here are some ways to take your jambalaya up a notch.
On The Grind
Substitute some ground pork for one half of your meat ratio (so if you’re planning on one pound of chicken, use ½ of a pound, plus ½ of a pound of ground meat). Brown it first, until all of the fat renders and the liquid evaporates. Add add your onions and wilt them in the meat, then cook the rest as normal. The ground meat helps add a real richness and body to the dish, and it’ll help it go farther if you’re planning to make this a main dish. Some pulled pork shoulder is a great idea as well.
The steaming liquid for your rice is another opportunity to add some more flavor to the pot. Using chicken broth instead of water is an obvious starting point. But other sauces can complement the smoky flavor of the sausage, such as worcestshire, sambal, adobo or assorted hot sauces. Something important to remember – rice absorbs a lot of salt, so keep an eye on the amount of sodium in any liquid you add. A darker beer, like a brown ale, amber or a stout can also add some roasted flavor.
Of course, mind your promotions. If you need two cups of liquid, keep that in mind if you add, say, a ¼ cup of worcestshire or a 12-ounce can of beer.
One little red fruit is the source of one of Louisiana’s greatest schisms. Do they belong in jambalaya, or not? You see it in the New Orleans area as opposed to the rest of the state, and it’s sparked many a very serious discussion at tailgates.
In the historical sense, the Creole cooking tradition includes using tomatoes in a lot of dishes because they were more readily available in city. And the constant influx of immigrants through the port brought more of the Spanish influence as well. Out in the more rural areas, they worked with what they had and tomatoes were harder to come by.
Whether its diced tomatoes mixed in with the onions and peppers, or some sauce or paste mixed in with the rice, tomatoes add a little more color and some acidity and more depth of flavor. Personally, I’m agnostic on the general topic, so if it’s something that you enjoy, I say go for it.
Spice It Up
The biggest misnomer about Cajun/Creole cooking is that it must be hot. Seasoning takes a lot of forms with different herbs and spices, and pepper can always be a welcome thing to any dish. But there are a lot of ways to heat up a dish like Jambalaya besides just dumping in a couple teaspoons of black or cayenne pepper. You can add some diced chilies in addition to the bell peppers. You can also mix some hot sauce in the steaming liquid as well, and most pepper sauces also bring a little acid to the party as well from the vinegar. But some garlic powder, paprika or chili powder can do just as much without turning up the heat level. Perhaps some rosemary or thyme – but a little goes a long way, so work with something that will complement the other seasonings involved, including the sausage. Add them in with your liquid, but always make sure you mix and taste as you go – once it’s in there, there’s no getting it out.
Some of my best memories are standing with my dad around a big pot, throwing ingredients in and stirring them with a big paddle. Telling jokes, enjoying age-appropriate beverages and cooking for our friends and family. And it’s my hope that what we have here can translate to you and your experience, regardless of scale. Food is meant to be enjoyed. So, go out there and enjoy it.