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!

Barbacoa de Res

Before we get down to business let me just say that barbacoa is a very special thing.  Barbacoa is more than just slow cooked meat.  Much more.  Preparing barbacoa is a time-honored tradition in Mexico.  The tradition spread to Texas years ago, along with the Mexican immigrants who introduced the cuisine.  Anywhere you find a sizeable Mexican population you are bound to find barbacoa. 

The origins of barbacoa are steeped in history and culture.  Ancient cultures, and not-so-ancient cultures, adhere to the notion that the animals we eat should be respected and treated with reverence.  When an animal is slaughtered it should be treated with dignity and it should be thanked for the sustenance that it provides to us.  Using all parts of the animal pays respect to the animal.  This ritual is a sacred rite and one that is increasingly disappearing in our modern culture.

Barbacoa is typically served on weekends.  It is presented to family and friends as a celebration of life.

Cooking methods vary from place to place.  Traditionally, barbacoa is made from young goat (cabrito), lamb (borrega), beef (res) or pork (cochina).  The entire animal is often used, including entrails and stomach.  If you want to make barbacoa the traditional way you will need to dig a pit, line it with fire resistant bricks, slaughter and butcher an animal, obtain some agave leaves (hojas de maguey), prepare an intensely hot fire and layer all of the ingredients in the pit, cover the pit with sheet metal and wait for several hours. 

I don’t have an underground brick oven…but don’t think for a minute that I haven’t considered making one!  I have had authentic barbacoa on a few occasions and words can’t sufficiently describe how rich and wonderful  the experience was. 

Since I don’t have an underground pit, I buy beef shoulder roasts (chuck roast) and braise the meat in a Dutch oven, or a covered casserole dish.  Sounds simple, when you compare this to the effort involved with the traditional method, right?   

The chuck roast is a tough, muscular cut of beef, which means it contains a good amount of collagen.  When you cook it at a low temperature for a long period of time, the collagen dissolves and becomes gelatinous, and that is what makes the meat moist and succulent.  

If you have the luxury of living in a place where you can get fresh beef from a butcher, ask the butcher for a “blade roast”.  A blade roast is a shoulder roast that contains part of the shoulder blade.  As the roast cooks, the bone imparts rich flavor and the meat that is next to the bone becomes very tender. 

In Mexico, barbacoa is served with soft, warm corn tortillas.  Here in the states, we tend to use warm flour tortillas.  Both kinds of tortillas are equally good in my mind, when it comes to barbacoa tacos.  If you want to make this meal even more special, find freshly made corn tortillas or homemade flour tortillas.  See my recipe here for homemade tortillas

Okay, let’s make some barbacoa!

Ingredients:

Beef shoulder roast (chuck roast) 3 to 5 lbs.

2 Tbs cooking oil

2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

3 or 4 dried guajillo chilis, stemmed and seeded

3 or 4 bay leaves

2 Tbs dried onion flakes

2 Tbs paprika

2 Tbs cumin powder

2 Tbs garlic powder

2 Tbs oregano (Mexican oregano is preferred)

Directions:

Heat an oven to 225°.

Apply salt and pepper to the raw meat. 

Sear the meat in a hot skillet, with a little oil.

Add the stock, bay leaves and most of the spice mix to a Dutch oven or casserole dish. 

Spread the rest of the spices on top of the meat and cover.

Braise in the oven for 5 hours.

Pull the meat from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Shred the meat with two forks and transfer to a serving bowl.  (Make sure to remove any stray bay leaves and chilis before shredding.)

Serve with warm tortillas, guacamole, fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lime wedges. 

To complete the meal, include side dishes like refried beans, borracho beans, fried potatoes or Spanish rice.

Above all, as you sit down to eat, consider the ranchers and farmers that made the meal possible.  Consider the sacrifices that we all make for each other as we try to make each other happy, safe and healthy.