Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chicken and Andouille Jambalaya

I learned something about myself recently. It’s that I haven’t really done a good job of telling my friends (or AJC food writer John Kessler, for that matter) how to make jambalaya. I described my method for one friend on three scribbled steno pad pages, never going into any specifics about the spices involved because I honestly don’t season the dish the same way each time I make it. I described my method for another friend two different ways and, because she has a mind like a steel trap, she actually called me out about the transgression. I posted one recipe on Food Buzz that I thought described the step-by-step well, only to remove it once I realized it did not. And I emailed Kessler after he wrote a story about recovering from burnt jambalaya, urging him to try it my way, only realizing after I hit send that I wasn't quite clear about what my way actually was.

Though I don't advocate being a slave to recipes, I am now advocating at least being able to give someone a reliable recipe from which they can work. This is my new New Year's Resolution.

So Saturday night I sat down with my ingredients, my 12-inch cast iron skillet and a notepad and endeavored to capture a faithful rendering of the chicken and andouille jambalaya I create on a pretty regular basis in my home. It’s a recipe I learned from watching my mom (who just seems to make the dish as if it’s an involuntary function, like breathing), begging a championship jambalaya cook for his recipe and tinkering a bit on my own. What I present to you below is something with a good and zesty base flavor that’s smoky, but not overly spicy. If you’re big on heat, all you need are a few dashes of Tabasco to take this dish from fais-do-do to zydeco.

Before I proceed, here are a few notes on what will make this a memorable jambalaya:

1. A well-flavored andouille sausage, preferably something like Savoie’s (which I’ve found in my local supermarket) which is made in Louisiana. The sausage is smoky and fairly spicy; because of that you shouldn’t have to do much to season the dish. If you can’t find a good Louisiana andouille, I suppose you could use a brand like Aidell’s, which is made in California. Just don’t tell me about it if you do. If you can’t find andouille at all, a smoked sausage will do.

But here's a pile of what you really want, the good stuff:

2. You also want well-browned (that does not mean burned) long-grain rice. The browned rice adds a depth of nutty flavor to this dish that really makes it great. Expect to spend about 15 minutes stirring and stirring your rice until it looks about like this:

Not to be hyper-regional, but I’d call that color café au lait. No?

3. You could sprinkle any garden variety Cajun seasoning into your jambalaya, but I find that they all have different balances of spices. You could also mix your own Cajun seasoning, for a little more control over the taste. Here’s the mix I used for the following recipe: 1 tsp. salt, 1 pinch cayenne, 1 pinch white pepper, 1 tsp. black pepper, 2 tsp. parsley, 1-2 tsp. oregano, 1 pinch thyme, 1/8 tsp smoked paprika, 1/8 tsp onion salt. I find it's near perfect, when you consider the flavors that are already coming at you from the well-toasted rice and nicely-flavored sausage.

So with that in mind, here’s your list of ingredients:
1 diced medium onion
1 package of diced andouille
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breast cutlets, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 cups rice
3 cups water
1 ½ - 2 TBS garlic
Cajun seasoning mix (either as directed above or to your own taste)

1. Coat the bottom of a 12-inch cast iron skillet with a thin layer of olive oil and brown the diced andouille. When the andouille is browned, remove it from the skillet, put it on a towel-lined plate and set it aside.
2. Brown the boneless skinless chicken breasts in the same skillet, remove them from the skillet and set them aside on a different plate.
3. Pour the rice and onion into the leftover oil remaining in the skillet and cook until light- or medium-brown in hue. This will take about 15 minutes of your effort. Be sure to stir frequently so that the rice does not stick. When the rice is about 13 minutes along in this toasting process, add the diced garlic to the mixture. Don’t add it too soon, or else the garlic will get overcooked and taste bitter. Me, I have a no bitterness policy in 2008.
4. When the rice is well-browned, add the andouille and chicken to it, along with any leftover juices there may be and mix it all together. Then add the water and spices, and stir until well incorporated.
5. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cover the skillet for about ten minutes.
6. After ten minutes, uncover the jambalaya and stir it well, bringing the cooked rice to the top and pushing the less-cooked rice closer to the heat . Cover the skillet again for five to seven minutes.
7. When five to seven minutes have elapsed, uncover the jambalaya and stir it again, taking extra care to gently scrape up anything that is stuck to the skillet. Serve it with cold beer (I say Abita, of course) and a simple green salad with a tangy Creole Mustard vinaigrette (recipe follows).

Creole Mustard Vinaigrette
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
½ cup coarse brown grainy mustard, or Creole mustard if you can find it
salt and pepper to taste
2/3 cup of vegetable oil

Whisk ingredients together and serve over romaine lettuce.

Here are the jambalaya and the salad plated:

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