Jambalaya

Sometimes, all it takes is an exotic name of a dish to get me excited about cooking.  Jambalaya fits the bill perfectly.  “Jambalaya” rolls off the tongue lyrically and it speaks of the African influences in this Louisianan, Cajun dish.  French and Spanish cultures are also essential to Cajun cuisine, which has helped make Cajun food a wonderful mélange of cross-culturalism.  And, lest I forget, there is a particular sofrito that is the fundamental base of many Cajun creations.  The sofrito, which traditionally consists of diced onion, celery and bell pepper is so revered in Louisiana that they refer to it as the “holy trinity”. 

The last several months have been full of challenges, disappointments and despair but, I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know.  We’ve all been suffering from anxiety, depression and hardship in our own ways.  I selfishly want this dangerous virus to be crushed so that I can happily return to my favorite restaurants, without feeling that I am putting myself or others at risk.

I am glad that I know how to cook.  Maybe I should rephrase that. 

I am thankful that I have the confidence and courage to cook and that I have the necessary tools to prepare a meal.  If there is anything good to be said about 2020 it might be that we have been given the opportunity to invest in our families and bolster each other with love and support.  Providing home-cooked meals for the family allows us to gather around the table and enjoy good food and have meaningful conversations.

Okay, that’s enough my maudlin rambling.  Let’s make a Jambalaya.  But, before we get to it, just imagine how James Earl Jones would say “jambalaya”.  Let that be your muse!

Ingredients:

1 ½ cup chicken broth

8 oz tomato sauce

1 Tbs Cajun seasoning

½ tsp dried oregano

½ tsp dried thyme

½ tsp dried parsley

½ cup chopped celery

1 medium onion

3 small, mild jalapeños ( I didn’t have bell peppers on hand)

2 cloves garlic

3 small tomatoes (the last of my fresh tomatoes!)

½ lb smoked sausage (andouille is traditional, but I used another tasty smoked pork sausage)

10 shrimp, peeled and deveined

½ cup rice (I used short grain, but long grain is perfectly fine)

Garlic bread (get a good loaf of French bread – it might become the star of the show!)

Butter and garlic salt, for the bread

Directions:

I like to prepare everything in advance and I like to have all of my ingredients ready and within arm’s length.  Mise en place, if you will.

I used whole, raw shrimp, but it is a wonderful convenience to use raw, frozen shrimp that has been peeled and deveined. 

Add chicken broth, tomato sauce, seasoning and herbs to a large skillet.  Set heat to low/medium and simmer for a few minutes.

Add the holy trinity (onion, celery and, in this case, jalapeño) to the pan.  Adding garlic to the holy trinity is referred to “adding the Pope”, so, add the Pope.  Add the chopped tomatoes.

Mix everything in the pan and simmer at low/medium heat for a few minutes. 

Add the uncooked rice.  Stir to combine. 

Cut the sausage into ½” disks.  Add to the pan.

Cover the pan with a lid and simmer at low/medium heat, until the rice becomes tender.  This took about 30 minutes, for me. 

While the rice cooks, prepare the garlic bread.

Slice the French bread into thick pieces (1 ½’ or 2” thick).  Brush melted butter on one side of each piece and dust liberally with garlic salt.  Reassemble the loaf and wrap in aluminum foil.  Bake at 350° for 20 minutes.  Remove the garlic bread from the oven and keep it sealed until you are ready to serve.

Once the rice is soft, add the shrimp .  Nestle the shrimp in the jambalaya and cover the pan again.  Simmer for another 5 to 7 minutes. 

Serve with laughter and merriment.  Eat well, stay healthy and find something to admire about everyone you meet!

Ode to a Moonless Night

Years ago, my wife and I went on a cattle drive.  We played cowboy and cowgirl for a week, while moving cattle down from the Mugollon mountains of New Mexico to the dessert floor, near the town of  Alma. 

Keep in mind, prior to our cattle drive, my wife’s most memorable experience of horseback riding was being bucked from a horse, along with her sister, at her grandparent’s farm in Kansas.  My experience with horses was hardly better.  I spent three months on a ranch and occasionally moved cattle from one pasture to another.  Most of the time, I fixed fences and learned how to be a ranch hand from my uncle John, and my younger cousins, Shane and Hugh.  I was a city boy but I fell in love with the dessert Southwest. 

Many years later, I accepted an invitation from my uncle to join him on a cattle drive.  Cattle were grazing in the mountains during the summer and, as autumn approached, they needed to be driven down to the ranch for the winter.

We decided to join the drive, as long as we could make camp on the mountain, before the drive.  We bought a tent and sleeping bags and we were dead set on camping.  All of the ranchers, including my kind-hearted uncle, thought we were a little crazy, but we insisted on camping and, despite the bitter cold nights, I was glad we did.

We drove up to the mountain top, during the daytime and by late afternoon we made camp and started a campfire.  I set up a Dutch oven over a fire and started boiling some pinto beans.  How rustic!  Living like real cowboys!

Six hours later, the beans showed no signs of softening.  The sun dipped beneath the tops of the tall pine trees and, by early evening, the sky turned deep blue and the thin mountain air chilled quickly.  A few minutes later, we shivering and cold, under a moonless sky.

We scooted closer and closer to the fire and were mesmerized by the glowing flames.  We gave up on the beans and decided to eat granola.

We sat in silence for a long time, staring at the fire, and then we awoke from our trance and talked and laughed and told stories.  It wasn’t long before the campfire was the only thing we could see.  The mountain was quiet, except for the crackling fire and, even though we could see each other’s faces in the flickering light, we couldn’t see anything outside of the fire ring.

As the fire dwindled, the chill crept in and my wife grabbed a fresh piece of wood and jabbed it into the heart of the fire ring.  Thousands of wild embers spiraled upward, into the black sky, crisscrossing and swimming upward, like tiny, weightless fairies, searching for the heavens.  We watched the display, in awe.  She jabbed at the fire again, and a new salvo of embers erupted.  Again and again, we poked at the fire and watched as newborn embers whizzed into the black night.  Each tiny ember followed its own trajectory and moved toward its own destiny.   Some embers flickered and sputtered.  Some embers sailed up high, beyond the dark treetops.  Some embers sizzled and popped but every ember rode together on a whirling vortex that seemed chaotic but beautifully composed.

We received the U.S. presidential election results today and I am still buzzing. 

My late night snack is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with fresh apple slices.  It’s a meal that keeps me young at heart and gives me unexplainable joy.  Simple food for a simple person, I suppose.

Peanut Butter and Jelly

Ingredients:

Two slices of bread

A copious amount of peanut butter

A generous splotch of jam or jelly

One crisp apple, cored and sliced.

Directions:

Really?  I think you can figure this one out on your own.

On a serious note, I am grateful be an American.  It’s a complicated mess, at times, but I love the complicated messy people that I live with.  We can achieve anything as long as we are compassionate to each other and as long as we are willing to work together.  We are the embers that fly into the night sky, giving warmth and joy to each other, while we spiral upward.

Beef Stroganoff-ish

This isn’t a classic Beef Stroganoff…it’s more like a stripped down version.  But that is where my heart is tonight.  Basic.  Essential.  Sincere.

I didn’t realize I was making Beef Stroganoff until I was nearly done making this dish.  It all started rather innocently with me deciding what to do with a leftover beef pot roast that was at risk of drying out in the refrigerator. 

I pulled some items from the refrigerator and the pantry and I began putting stuff in measuring cups, as if I was working from a recipe.  Who was I trying to fool?  I was just making stuff up, as usual. 

The simple fact of the matter is, I just wanted to make something to help ease our troubled minds.  Our lives are under a tremendous strain right now and our emotions are conflicted. 

We need to find some comfort every day.  We should gather our families together to share a meal and make time to share our thoughts and feelings. 

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups elbow macaroni

1 Tbs olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 Tbs butter

2 Tbs flour

2 cups chicken stock

2 Tbs beef bouillon

1 Tbs ground black pepper

1 Tbs salt

½ cup half and half

1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce

1 ½ lbs cooked beef roast

8 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced

Directions:

Boil the macaroni in a large pot of lightly salted water.  Strain the macaroni when it becomes tender.  Set aside.

In a large skillet, add olive oil and sauté the onion until the onion begins to soften.

Move the onion aside, in the pan and add butter.  Set the heat to low.

Add flour and whisk the butter and flour. 

Add the chicken stock, beef bouillon, pepper and salt.  Turn heat to medium and whisk.  Once the sauce thickens add the Worcestershire sauce and the half and half.  Whisk to incorporate.

Add the beef and stir.

Cover and simmer at low heat for 30 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and stir briefly.  Turn off the heat and add the macaroni.  Stir to mix and turn out to a large serving bowl.

Creamy Potato and Celery Soup with Ham

Ingredients:

8 small russet potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped

1 Tbs olive oil

1 medium sized onion, chopped

5 cloves garlic, minced

6 stalks celery, chopped

1 Tbs butter

2 Tbs flour

4 cups vegetable broth

2 cups chicken broth

½ cup half-and-half (whole milk and cream)

1 cup smoked ham, chopped into ½” cubes

5 oz white cheddar cheese, grated

4 green onions, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Bring a pot of water to boil and add the diced potatoes.   Boil the potatoes until cooked through and softened.  Strain the potatoes in a colander.

In a large pot over high heat, add olive oil, garlic and onions.  Cook and for a minute or two, until the onions are translucent.

Add the chopped celery stalks and cook for another 3 minutes.

In a small bowl, add 1 tablespoon of butter to 2 tablespoons of flour. Mix and mash together with a fork. Add a splash of broth and mix a little more. Add the mixture to the pan. Stir to combine.

Add the vegetable broth and chicken broth.  Stir and bring to boil.  Cover and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes.

Pour the soup into the blender and add the potatoes.  Puree until smooth.  This may need to be done in batches, depending on the capacity of the blender. Return the soup to the pot.

Add the half and half and the ham.  Heat at low temperature for a few minutes while stirring occasionally.

Turn the heat off and add the shredded cheese.  Slowly stir the soup once or twice.  Do not over-stir.  Allow the cheese to melt without much interference.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Top with diced scallions.