I take a lot of pride in my Cajun heritage. Both of my parents were born and raised in Louisiana – my mom’s side from New Orleans and my dad’s from a small south-central town called New Iberia. Growing up in the Florida Keys, I have many fond memories of traveling to Louisiana for large family holiday gatherings. And I especially can recall filling up on loads of delicious Cajun foods – jambalaya, etouffee, gumbo – you name it, I couldn’t get enough … and the spicier the better!
Luckily, when I started teaching myself how to cook back in college, my dad sent me the 100 Greatest Cajun Recipes cookbook in an effort to help hone my bayou-influenced cooking. I’ve created several authentic dishes from this cookbook, including red beans and rice, shrimp etouffee and chicken sauce piquante, all of which have tasted delicious and reminded me of my days in Louisiana.
While most of my Louisiana visits involved fun family times, each year I enjoy getting into the spirit of Mardi Gras. (Note: I did actually attend the rowdy Bourbon St. festivities during my senior year of college, but we’ll leave those stories for another day.) I’m not sure if it’s the beads, the parades, or perhaps the energized spirit leading into Fat Tuesday, but every year I set out to create a Cajun dish during the season.
This year I decided on chicken jambalaya, a hearty rice-based dish that’s a favorite with my husband. I took inspiration from the 100 Greatest Cajun Recipes cookbook’s chicken jambalaya recipe, while adding my own variation. But one thing’s for sure: Almost any Cajun dish starts with a roux.
Mamon (my dad’s mother) once told me that “A roux is to Cajun what pasta is to Italian – all stews, gravies and gumbos have a roux base.” Typically that means equal parts oil and flour stirred constantly until the desired brownness. But in this case, the recipe called for more oil than flour. Regardless, it’s imperative to achieve a dark brown color without burning it (yuck!).
Dark Brown Roux
1 ¼ cups cooking oil
1 cup flour
A little water, if needed
In a heavy metal pot over medium heat, warm the oil until it is hot, then sprinkle the flour into the pot. Heat, stirring constantly with a wire whisk, until the flour turns a dark, rich reddish brown. Be careful not to let any of the flour stick, and do not stop stirring.
When the color is correct (not black, but a very dark reddish brown), remove from the heat and continue to stir until the roux cools. You can add a small amount of water to help cool down the roux, but be careful because the hot mixture will splatter when you put the water in it. When the roux is cooled, you can store it in the refrigerator for later use as needed.
Note: Roux will keep tightly stored in the fridge for up to one month. You can also freeze it if you want to keep it longer.
Next, you’ll start on the jambalaya, and that, of course, means chopping up the Cajun “holy trinity”: onions, bell peppers and celery. It’s basically the Cajun version of a mirepoix, and often the base of any Cajun or Creole dish.
Now the cookbook recipe calls for 2 medium fryers (whole mature chicken), I opted for 2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, in which I chopped up to bite-size. I also used one store-bought smoked sausage link (sliced into circles) as well as thick-sliced deli ham, which I chopped.
As far as seasoning goes, this recipe, as with all Cajun dishes, is packed with tons of spice and flavors. I prefer to use Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning as my Cajun seasoning (it’s a staple in Louisiana), but you could also make your own with these ingredients:
Cajun Seasoning Mix
1/4 cup salt 1 tsp. ground bay leaves
¼ cup paprika ½ tsp. file powder
3 tbsp. cayenne pepper ½ tsp. ground cloves
2 tbsp. onion power ¼ tsp. ground thyme
1 ½ tbsp. garlic powder ¼ tsp. rosemary
1 ½ tbsp. fresh ground black pepper ¼ tsp. ground ginger
1 tbsp. white pepper ¼ tsp. cumin powder
2 tsp. dried sweet basil 1/8 tsp. ground allspice
2 tsp. chili powder 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. dry hot mustard 1/8 tsp. ground tarragon
Here’s the complete recipe for
2 medium (2 pounds each) fryers (I used 2 pounds of chopped boneless, skinless breasts)
¼ cup peanut oil
3 tsp. Cajun seasoning mix (see above or use Tony Chachere’s)
1 cup baked ham, cut into cubes (I used thick-sliced deli ham)
1 pound pure pork sausage, sliced into ½-inch circles (I used Hillshire Farms smoked sausage link)
2 large white onions, chopped
2 medium green bell peppers, chopped
1 ½ cups celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (14.5 oz.) stewed tomatoes
1 tbsp. Dark Brown Roux (recipe above)
5 cups chicken stock or broth
½ cup dry white wine (I used Chardonnay)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. Tabasco Sauce
2 ½ cups raw long-grain rice
1 whole bay leaf
¾ cup green onions, minced
½ cup fresh parsley, minced
Season the chicken with Cajun Seasoning Mix. Add peanut oil to a large, heavy skillet that has a lid, and let the oil get hot and start to smoke over medium-high heat. Fry the chicken pieces until they are browned, and then remove to a platter for later use. Add the ham and sausage to the skillet and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
Remove the meat to a plate and set aside. Saute the onions, bell pepper, celery and garlic for 5 minutes over medium heat. While the vegetables are sautéing, drain the tomatoes and reserve the liquid. Add the tomatoes and Dark Brown Roux to the skillet and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the chicken, ham and sausage back to the skillet and add the chicken stock and liquid from the tomatoes as well as the white wine. Let the dish cook over low heat, covered, for 15 minutes.
Add the remaining ingredients except for the green onions and parsley and bring the liquid to a boil. Once it is boiling, stir well, cover and reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, for 30 minutes on very low heat. The water should all be absorbed by the rice or evaporated, and the rice should be tender. Remove the cover and add the green onions and parsley, then stir them into the dish until well blended. Cover and let the jambalaya cook over very low heat for 3 minutes, then serve hot. Serves 6 to 8.