Before I dive back into the melting pot of New Orleans, a little clarification is in order, about the moniker “Cajun/Creole”. Creole cuisine and Cajun cuisine are two different things, with origins in different areas of Louisiana, different ingredients, and different flavors. Both are delicious, but they are not culinary twins that can simply be joined with a punctuation mark, for simplicity or convenience.
Creole is considered the cuisine of New Orleans, the “city” cuisine, while Cajun dishes are from the Southwestern part of Louisiana, where the Acadians settled after their expulsion from Nova Scotia, Canada, and are considered “country” cuisine. Since my focus is on New Orleans, I will be sticking with the Creole dishes.
The distinction is important, because the next dish has both a Creole and a Cajun version.
Jambalaya. Just saying the word “jambalaya” out loud conjures thoughts of Southern home cooking, and makes my mouth water. The origins of jambalaya are up for some debate; some compare it to Spanish paella, some say it’s similar to Provencal and African rice dishes. Just as with any homey soup or stew, every Southern family has their own recipe for jambalaya, but there are a few necessary elements.
You have to have the “holy trinity”: onions, celery, and green bell pepper. You have to have rice. You have to have sausage; andouille if you can get it, although I suppose you could go without it. But I wouldn’t. I read some recipes without sausage, but after making it with andouille, I would never leave it out. It just wouldn’t be right. Kielbasa or chorizo would work, if andouille is absolutely not available. But really try to find andouille. It’s worth the effort.
Here’s what went into my jambalaya. There’s the trinity, along with some scallions. My proteins were andouille, ham, and shrimp. Many recipes use chicken, but I decided on ham, which is also common. There’s rice, of course, along with a splendid amount of butter, and a Creole spice blend I mixed myself. There are a few good Creole spice blends at the grocery store, if you want to buy one instead, but I had all the dried herbs and spices on hand, so I just mixed my own, after reading a few recipes. Last but not least, there’s chicken stock with a splash of vermouth, and the final ingredient, which is what makes this Creole jambalaya; the tomatoes. Cajun jambalaya does not have tomatoes; it is often referred to as “brown jambalaya”, because it gets its color from the browning of the meats and vegetables. Creole jambalaya is referred to as “red jambalaya” because it has tomatoes, possibly due to the Italian influence on New Orleans cooking in the 19th century, although this is also up for debate.
The aroma of the vegetables cooking in the butter reflected the dish’s culinary roots, in turns reminding me of French, Spanish, and Italian dishes I have cooked. The finished jambalaya, however, tasted of a completely different place, a blending of cultures that could only happen in New Orleans. The Creole spice blend and the sausage added heat and full-bodied flavor, and the tomatoes brought just the right level of acid to brighten the mix, as well as their bright red color.
I usually substitute red bell pepper for the green, because The Husband doesn’t care for green bell pepper, but I wanted to taste the true flavor of the Creole trinity in my jambalaya, so I trusted a century of cooks, and used the green. Somehow, the alchemical combination of onions, celery, scallions, butter, and Creole seasoning, both from my spice blend and the andouille, tempered the bitterness of the bell pepper, and he loved the dish, without picking out the peppers. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere; perhaps adding spice and richness to life helps counteract any bitterness we must endure.
Jambalaya is full of flavors you’ve tasted before, but never like this. It’s as unique a dish as the city of New Orleans itself.