Since the early days of the Southern French US colonies, Mardi Gras has been a yearly tradition that even a hurricane could not stop. It’s the historic time of Carnival, the celebration of indulgence and what many might call “sin” before taking on the 40 day fasting from such things we know as Lent.
The tradition of Carnival has been celebrated all over the world for generations as the idea of consuming the last of the meat before fasting. I originally thought it simply was a thing you see only in New Orleans and Brazil, but I was wrong. Practically every civilization outside of Africa and the Orient has their own take on Carnival. I can surely remember many times my father and his friends would celebrate it in their own Greek traditions. I just never saw the connection as clearly.
In the US, New Orleans, Louisiana has become the center of the Mardi Gras celebration, despite that much of the Southeast has been celebrating the tradition since the early days of the country. Historic Bourbon Street is packed with tourists from all over the world giving out beads, wearing costumes, partying, and sampling some of the distinct cuisine of New Orleans that has spawned so many famous chefs.
While there are many varieties of food in the region, the two main cuisines known to Louisiana are Creole and Cajun. Creole food is best described as “city food”. It’s a melding of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Asian Indian, Native American, and African influences. However, Creole chefs did adhere much of the classical European styles of cooking. Cajun cuisine however can be better described as “fiery” and “rustic”. It’s a cuisine made in the more rural areas of the region, and while it shares some similarities with Creole cuisine, it’s not seen as “refined” as the Creole. In many ways though, this is a good thing.
There are loads of great meals you can make the Cajun and Creole styles, and I want to focus today on the rice dish known as Jambalaya. When you look at it, you might think it seems awfully similar to Paella, and there is a truth to it. It’s a rice dish cooked with meat, vegetables, and even seafood. The rice is thrown into the pot and cooked with it as opposed to separately. Perhaps this was brought about by Spanish settlers in the region. The dish can be literally anything you like in it when it comes to meat and vegetables, but maintaining the spicy smoky Cajun flavor is the challenge.
When I attempted to make this jambalaya, I had just finished my supply of paella and wanted to break away from seafood. Looking over a large bounty of recipes online, I found a combo of chicken with turkey kielbasa to make a very tasty dish. The only challenge though was an ingredient known to Louisiana as Tasso Ham. It’s pork butt shoulder heavily spiced with cayenne pepper and garlic, cured, and then smoked tender. You don’t use it as an ingredient as much as you use it like a seasoning.
While you can get Tasso ham all over Louisiana and perhaps online, up here in the North it’s a seasonal product you might find at gourmet food stores. Since I’m unable to smoke meats in my own home, I decided to make a “bastardized” version of Tasso ham for this recipe. I’m sure Cajun foodies would slap their foreheads at this idea, but the end result wasn’t bad and did have a somewhat similar end flavor to actual Tasso ham. Plus less fat.
Bastardized Tasso Ham
- 1 tbsp of cayenne pepper
- 1 tbsp of brown sugar
- 1 tbsp of paprika
- 1 tbsp of granulated garlic
- 2 tsp of salt
- 2 tsp of onion powder
- 2 tsp of allspice
- 2 tsp of pepper
- 2 tsp of thyme
- 1-2 lbs of cured cooked ham, diced
- In a container you can seal or in a food storage bag you can seal, place all the seasonings.
- Mix the seasonings together.
- Place the ham in the container. Mix to coat all the pieces.
- Place in the refrigerator and marinate for four hours to overnight.
This is obviously NOT traditional Tasso ham, but I felt the flavor did come close to the actual. It makes a nice substitute if you want to trim the fat off this dish or you just can’t get Tasso ham.
Another substitute for the Tasso ham would be a cured and cooked chorizo. You’re free to go any direction you choose. Now let’s get into the Jambalaya:
Cajun Style Jambalaya
- 1 lb of smoked sausage or andouille sausage, sliced
- 2 lbs of boneless skinless chicken breasts, cubed
- 2 yellow onions, chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 lb of Tasso ham (or the bastardized version), cubed
- 2 tsp of thyme
- 2 tsp of basil
- 2 tsp of red pepper flakes
- 2 tsp of pepper
- 3 cups of chicken broth
- 1 1/2 cups of long-grain rice
- 2 tsp of parsley
- In a large stock pot, place the sausage and chicken in at high heat.
- Cook the meats until they are slightly browned on the outside. Be sure to scrape the sides of the pot as you cook.
- Lower the heat to medium and add in the onion and garlic. Cook until the onions become soft and more transparent.
- Add in the Tasso ham (or your substitute), thyme, basil, red pepper and regular pepper.
- Turn the heat to low and simmer for ten minutes.
- Add in the chicken stock and turn the heat back up to high. Bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to medium and gently stir in the rice and parsley.
- When the liquids start to boil again, turn the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for about 25 minutes or until the rice is done.
It’s important to scrape the sides of the pot as you cook this dish. You don’t want burned gunk ending up in the dish.
Have extra chicken broth on hand in case the rice isn’t done and your liquids are gone. Add more and continue until the rice is finished to your taste.
The particular variation I decided to go seafood-free. However, jambalaya is very much known for seafood like Paella. So feel free to add in shrimp, oysters, or even crawfish if you can get them. Some will even put in game meats and exotic meats known to the region, like alligator. You can also add in vegetables to your taste. Red and green peppers add a nice color and flavor.
As stated before, if you can’t find Tasso ham, then try my “bastardized” version, or use some curked and cooked chorizo. If you would rather not go in any of those directions, then season the jambalaya as you see fit for desired hotness. Andouille sausage will add fire to the taste if you like.