All the Fixin’s: Jambalaya

Happy Mardi Gras, y’all! On this fattest of Tuesdays, we turn our attention to the bayou, where Zelda’s roots lie, and an all-Cajun edition of All the Fixin’s. This week, Zelda — ably assisted by her sous-chef, Scout — tackled one of her family’s favorites, particularly at this festive time of year. Jambalaya is, like many of Zelda’s favorite foods, a rice-based dish, involving some combination of meats and vegetables and a whole lot of spice. The meat can range from chicken and pork to seafood and game, while the vegetables typically include the “holy trinity” of Cajun cuisine — onions, celery, and green bell peppers — plus other goodies. Like most traditionally rural cuisine, it’s a dish that’s ripe for improvisation; whatever ingredients you had on hand, in whatever quantities you could scrape together, all went into the pot.

Jambalayas fall into two camps, Creole and Cajun, with the former including tomatoes while the latter does not. Zelda’s family traditionally makes the Creole variety, and her mama’s go-to recipe hails from the very cookbook on which her half of this series is based. With the holiday approaching and a twinge of homesickness creeping in, she decided to set aside a day for herself, her fancy new pot (thanks, Mom and Dad!), and Paul Prudhomme.

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Chicken and Seafood Jambalaya (based on Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen)

Ingredients

2 whole bay leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (This is a reduction from the recipe’s original 1 1/2, suggested by Zelda’s mama, and even so it results in a mighty spicy jambalaya! So if you can’t handle your heat, stick to 3/4 teaspoon or less.)

1 1/2 teaspoons oregano (dried)

1 1/4 teaspoons white pepper

1 teaspoon black pepper

3/4 teaspoon thyme (dried)

2 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil (Paul calls for “chicken fat or pork lard or beef fat,” but if you don’t have any handy, we found canola oil works just fine.)

2/3 cup chopped ham, about 3 oz (Here Paul suggests you use tasso, a Cajun meat made of cured and smoked pork shoulder. His proposed substitute is any smoked ham, preferably Cure 81. After visiting three grocery stores and failing to find either of those, Zelda tapped into her grandmother’s roots and went with Virginia ham, cut in a thick 3 oz slice by the woman at the Whole Foods deli counter. It did the trick!)

1/2 cup chopped andouille smoked sausage, about 3 oz (Paul says you can also use “any other good pure smoked pork sausage such as Polish sausage or kielbasa,” but if Zelda’s Crown Heights grocery store can carry andouille, we believe your local grocer can too.)

1 1/2 cups chopped onions

1 cup chopped celery

1 green bell pepper, chopped (The recipe calls for 3/4 cup, which amounted to about half a pepper, but it won’t hurt your jambalaya to just chop and toss the whole thing in. Waste not and whatnot.)

1/2 cup chicken, cut into bite-size pieces, about 3 oz (We found two chicken thighs did the trick.)

1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic, about two cloves

4 medium-sized tomatoes, peeled and chopped (We used one can of diced tomatoes. Unless you have lots of time on your hands and deep love of chopping, we suggest you do the same.)

3/4 cup canned tomato sauce

2 cups seafood stock

1/2 cup chopped green onions (also known as scallions)

2 cups uncooked rice, preferably converted (The ideal here is Uncle Ben’s, who seem to be, if not the only, then at least the most prolific conveyors of “converted” rice. And while the recipe calls for 2 cups, you can just dump the whole box in.)

1 1/2 dozen peeled medium shrimp, about 1/2 pound

1 1/2 dozen oysters in their liquor, about 10 oz (Try as she might — and she really did try, to the tune of three grocery stores spread across two boroughs — Zelda could not find these suckers. The closest she came was Whole Foods, which offered individual oysters, unshucked, for $1.75 a pop. Now Zelda loves oysters, and she really did want to stick as closely as possible to the original on this, her first foray into jambalaya land. But ain’t nobody got $30 to spend on that, not to mention the time and equipment to self-shuck. So she decided to call it a day and double the amount of shrimp instead. Problem solved.)

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Directions

Combine the spices in a small bowl, mix well, and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat until hot. Sauté the ham and andouille until crisp, about 5 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently. (Note: If you do not have a dutch oven, or another pot+lid that can go in the oven, you can do all of your sautéing and mixing in a saucepan and then transfer to an oven-safe dish later on.)

Add the onions, celery, and bell pepper. Sauté until tender but still firm, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and scraping the pan bottom well.

Add the chicken. Raise the heat to high and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the seasoning mix and the minced garlic. Cook about 3 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the pan bottom, until well-combined and fragrant.

Add the tomatoes and cook until the chicken is tender, about 5 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently.

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Add the tomato sauce. Cook 7 minutes, stirring fairly often. (How is this different from stirring frequently? Your guess is as good as ours!)

Stir in the seafood stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Then add the green onions and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Add the rice, shrimp, and oysters if you have them. Stir until well-combined and remove from the heat. Put the lid on your dutch oven or other pot. If using a saucepan, transfer the entire mixture to a casserole or other oven-safe dish and cover with a lid or snug aluminum foil.

Bake at 350 for 20 to 30 minutes, until the rice is tender but still a little bit crunchy.

Remove the bay leaves and enjoy!

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In terms of results, this might be our most successful cooking venture to date. It tasted just like Zelda’s mama makes it, bursting with a symphony of flavor and packing a hefty kick of spice. In fact, we were so overwhelmed with our feelings of culinary triumph and flavorful bliss that we forgot to take the customary photo of “individual portion in bowl.” Instead, please enjoy this approximation of our jambalaya reactions:

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Jambalaya is a lot of work. It requires time and effort and patience. Sometimes it can get a little messy. But like most things, it is more enjoyable when made with those you love. There’s room for everything, and everyone, in the jambalaya pot. And when it all comes together, sometimes in the most unlikely of combinations, the result can be a thing of beauty.

And it tastes really damn good, too.

All the Fixin’s: A Taste of Autumn

Happy Tuesday, lovelies, and welcome to first installment of “All the Fixin’s,” our new series in which we each explore our Southern heritages by cooking our way through two books tailored to our Cajun and Appalachian roots. For this first chapter, we wanted to ease into things, and a recent Halloween movie night offered the perfect opportunity. We gathered our squad at Zelda’s abode for an evening of Jack Skellington and Kalabar, the Sanderson sisters and Wadsworth and Communism (always a red herring). And to suit the festive mood, we each picked recipes that fit the fall ambiance, and that looked easy enough to pull off even in our progressively more inebriated states.

We’ll be straight with you: Things did not go swimmingly. Blame the booze or the recipes or just plain bad kitchen juju, but neither of these dishes were what we’d call spectacular. But even though they both proved to be duds (Scout blames her lack of kitchen intuition more than the recipe, but more on that later), we’d still like to check this off as a successful first endeavor. Well begun is half done, as they say, and we are now well on our way on this cookbook journey.

We’ll start with Zelda. For her first recipe, she decided to stick to her strengths: namely, sweets and baking. From amid the jambalayas and gumbos, she plucked a recipe for Brown Sugar Cookies, which seemed both simple and seasonally spiced.

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Ingredients

1 ¼ cups packed light brown sugar

¼ cup water

3 tablespoons honey

1 egg

2 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup coarsely ground pecans (As she does not own a nut grinder, Zelda’s method involved purchasing a bag of pecan pieces, placing them on the floor, and beating them vigorously with her rolling pin until they seemed to be more powder than chunks. However, she is open to other suggestions, and were she to do it again, she might opt for the food processor in hopes of more even results…)

2 ½ tablespoons ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 tablespoon ground allspice

Directions

In an electric mixer (if, like lucky Zelda, you have one — otherwise, a large bowl will do), combine the brown sugar, water, honey, and egg. Beat at high speed until mixed, about 10 seconds. Scrape the bowl well to ensure the ingredients are fully combined.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, pecans, cinnamon, baking soda, and allspice. Mix well to combine. Add your dry ingredients to the mixer and stir until mixed thoroughly.

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Now at this point Chef Paul Prudhomme instructs you to “Drop batter by teaspoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet, about 1 ½ inches apart.” And for her first batch, that is exactly what Zelda did. The recipe prescribes baking at 375 for about 12 minutes, until the cookies are lightly browned around the edges. At 8 minutes, Zelda removed her cookies, expected some well-spread gooey delights, and instead found hard lumps with burned, black bottoms. And while the worst fate that may befall a baker may be a soggy bottom, a burnt one is not much better.

Not one to be deterred (and with half a bowl of dough left to go), she persevered. For her second batch, she lined her pans with parchment paper. And instead of just scooped the dough out in teaspoonfuls, she smooshed each dough ball into a cookie-shaped patty. After 8 minutes, she removed them from the oven to much better results. The cookies resembled cookies more than rocks, and the bottoms were decidedly more tan than charcoal. Scout and the other members of the squad declared them delicious, and it is true that the spices were decidedly fall. But Zelda, to be perfectly honest, found them to be tough and lacking in flavor. A couple days in an air-tight container later, their resemblance to rocks has only increased. No offense to Paul Prudhomme, but she won’t be making these again. Perhaps she should have stuck to the savory chapters in his book (or tackled pralines, her favorite Cajun dessert, but she remains a bit intimidated by candy…and also doesn’t own a candy thermometer, yet).

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As for Scout, it’s been well established that she is not the most proficient in the kitchen. So she wanted to start with something simple, with only three ingredients and basically one step…and she still managed to screw it up. To be fair, there were perhaps several mitigating factors: We had already eaten quite a lot and drunk a good amount of wine, and we were perhaps distracted by other events unfolding in the apartment (a dramatic re-staging of a scene from Parks and Rec in honor of Halloween). But still, all she had to do was fry some apples.

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Ronni Lundy’s recipe for fried apples requires very little: 1 tablespoon bacon grease, four apples, and some type of sweetener, be it sorghum, maple syrup, or brown sugar. Zelda bought the apples, we had bacon with dinner, and we have yet to be in a Southern kitchen that doesn’t always have brown sugar on hand. Ingredients, managed.

Following the recipe, Scout poured the bacon grease into a skillet with a lid and put it on medium heat. Next, she cored the apples and cut them into slices approximately ⅛ inch thick. She tossed them in the pan with the bacon grease…and here’s where she probably went wrong. She didn’t quite trust that there was enough bacon grease to coat all the apples, so she added a little butter and let them sweat for 3 minutes before adding a couple tablespoons of brown sugar and cooking for a few more minutes.

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Unfortunately, because of the added moisture from the butter, the apples grew soggy instead of crisp. She tried to salvage them in the oven, but they were beyond repair. Zelda and the squad gamely sampled a few bites and declared them to be “not terrible.” but definitely tasting more of bacon than of anything resembling fruit.

But all of these cooking posts, for Scout at least, are about learning, and she definitely learned a lot. In hindsight, she should have leaned into the brown sugar and out of the bacon grease. Less is more with the latter, and more is more with the former. With a little more foresight and a little more love (and slightly less wine), we could have had an excellent sweet and savory dessert. Scout looks forward to trying it again sometime.

So that’s the first step in our joint journey through our culinary roots. We lived, we learned, we ate. We’ll do it all again soon.

All the Fixin’s: An Introduction

Hello lovelies! Over the past year, one of our favorite series to write — and one of the most popular with you guys, according to an overwhelming majority of folks who filled out our reader survey — has been “Eat This, Drink That.” Scout has explored many wonders of the Southern culinary canon, and Zelda has really honed her cocktail skills. Some of the recipes have gone brilliantly according to plan; others, not so much. But all of them have taught us more about our food heritage, not to mention pastry skills, simple syrups, and how to handle a cocktail shaker.

With this new year, we wanted to turn a new page in the blog as well, but we didn’t want to abandon the food and drink posts that we, and y’all, have come to enjoy. And we also wanted to get back to the original concept of the blog: exploring the idea of home and heritage and what it means to us, in this time and this place, to be “Southern.”

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So without further ado, we present to you our brand-new series, “All the Fixin’s.” The idea comes from a few places: wanting to learn more about Southern cooking and expand our kitchen repertoires, wanting to get in touch with our specific Southern heritages and what they mean to us, and wanting to explore not just the mechanics of making Southern dishes but also the history and stories and cultural weight that they carry. As Zelda wrote in her last Required Reading, food is an essential piece of what binds a culture together, feeding both our bodies and our souls. So much of our history and traditions are bound up in the bread we break together, be it challah or cornbread or buttermilk biscuits. And so with this series, we’re diving deep, each into a cookbook that pulls together the specific flavors of our family trees.

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For Scout, that book is Victuals: An Appalachian Journey with Recipes. Recently written by Ronni Lundy, Scout’s somewhat-distant-but-not-that-distant cousin (she’s not quite sure combination of first’s, second’s, removed’s, etc. applies here), it combines recipes with narrative and history, and really gives some context to the dishes. Most of Scout’s Southern recipes come from her grandmother’s binder, cut from local papers or back issues of Southern Living and stuck together from being carted around for so long and splattered with various batters, and Victuals basically takes those conversations around the kitchen table and puts them in book form. It also doesn’t hurt that the book itself is beautiful, with full-color photos, courtesy of Johnny Autry, of the mountains and the people and the food that accompany their story.

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As for Zelda, she’s taking on Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. A good quarter of her blood comes spiced with Cajun flavors, Tabasco and okra and andouille and the like. Some of the recipes in this very book are childhood dishes she grew up with (see, the jambalaya her mom makes every year for Mardi Gras), and all of the dishes bring up memories of childhood story time, when she and her siblings would beg her dad to tell them stories of his childhood, and his dad’s childhood, in the bayou of Louisiana. Those were summers spent under magnolia trees, watching gumbo or étouffée appear like magic under a great aunt’s spoon. And while the most essential Cajun recipes in her house come on stained and crumpled scraps of paper, passed down from generation to generation, when asked to pick an actual, publicly sold text from which to learn the region’s cooking, this is the one both of her folks picked.

So that’s where we’re going, and we hope you’re as excited to come along with us as we are to get started. There’s shrimp creole and chicken and dumplings and maybe even beignets in our future. Some things may (hopefully) go brilliantly. Others may fall flat. But all will teach us something about who we are and where we come from. And it doesn’t hurt that it will make for damn good eats.