Friday, March 12, 2010

Oven Jambalaya and Adopting a Lousiana Heritage

My biological stepfather introduced me to Jambalaya, but before I share the recipe I'd better untangle the relationship we had.

I was adopted as an infant. When I was 18, my birth mother tracked me down and we began a slow process of getting to know one another. She was married to a man named Royal Peter. He was my biological stepfather; not related to me at all really, except by marriage and by an accident of birth, and through the efforts of two families to get to know each other after 18 years of never having met before. He's been gone now for years, and one of the many ways he influenced me was through food.

When I met him I was of the mind that if I had to cook the food, it wasn't worth eating. I was right about that! I disdained all things feminine and wanted to prove my point to the point that I was actually proud of being a horrible cook. He was a Louisianne and French enough in his outlook that he considered food a heritage. That idea eventually intrigued me enough to start experimenting with my own cultural heritage--Southern cooking, among others. In a way, he planted a seed that is still growing. I love the creativity of cooking and I really love the silence that descends as the first bite of something incredible hits the taste buds and takes control of the brain for a split second before the, "Oh! Wow!" or "Mmmm!" noises begin.

My first exposure to Jambalaya came during a conversation about an impending lunch. I was working on my biological family's ranch at the time. I was outdoors and about a mile from any buildings and by some quirk of necessity and planning I had no transportation. He was the one sent to get me for lunch.

Since it was early spring I was working on sprinklers. Since it was California it was early February. Since it was early February it was nearly Mardi Gras. Since it was nearly Mardi Gras, Roy was missing Louisiana. If he was missing Louisiana, he was going to talk about it. Being hungry he was going to talk about food, too. Since it took me a bit to work myself to a stopping point and since it was a one-person job, he leaned against the bumper of his truck to chat. That's the round about way he got on the subject of food storage in the steamy state.

He said that the week started with roasts on Sunday, sausage and beans on Tuesday, chicken on Wednesday, fish or shrimp on Friday, and leftovers on the days in between. On Saturday, anything leftover from the week that hadn't turned (or had hardly turned), got put into a jumble in a pot, spiced to perfection, and was called Jambalaya. The conversation and the remains of the job took about 20 minutes from start to finish. I could almost taste the talk. He was so descriptive in that Southern gentlemanly way of his, and I was such a foodie even then when I didn't know it yet, I could smell and see all the dishes he described. I've been hunting through Jambalaya recipes looking for him ever since.

So nowadays, whenever I stir the colors of rice and beans, when I smell bay leaf and cayenne I am there again with him in his cowboy hat, big buckle, and boots leaning against the bumper of his truck, his arms crossed and his eyes far away.

Here's our latest conversation:

Oven Jambalaya

3 cups water
1 1/2 cup uncooked regular rice
1 can corn (drained)
1 can diced tomatoes
1 small can diced peppers
1 small onion diced
1 package kielbasa or Italian sausage sliced into half inch disks*
1/2 pound cooked ground beef or breakfast sausage*
1/2 pound cooked chicken shredded or diced*
1/2 pound fresh shrimp peeled and deveined*
2 tsp chili powder
2 cloves garlic crushed
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp thyme
2 bay leaves
dash of cayenne pepper (to taste)
salt and pepper to taste

Combine ingredients in a lightly greased baking dish, cover and bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour. Yields 8 servings.

*The meats for Jambalaya are both interchangeable and optional. When I made this the first time, the meats I had on hand were kielbasa and beef hot dogs. I sliced them up and put them in the dish. Mmmm! I recommend making a Jambalaya in the traditional way whenever you have a bit of this and a bit of that leftover to make a jumble in the pot. Throw in leftover veggies, too, especially leftover okra!

Serves with cornbread muffins and a green salad anytime!

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