Almost as shocking as the possibility a Republican might claim Ted Kennedy’s Seat® in the Senate is the Dallas Cowboys winning a playoff game. One of the gameday staples during the Cowboys’ span of dominance back in the early Nineties was your humble Baron’s jambalaya. If I asked people what they wanted it was always jambalaya – over barbeque, fajitas, enchiladas, fried turkey. I saved it for the big games when there were a lot of people coming over and you needed the extra mass to hold your spot on the couch.

Well jambalaya is back for tomorrow’s game, which means I’m bouncing in and out of the kitchen all day today getting everything ready.

It’s a recipe I made up on my own based on a faint recollection from one long-ago trip to New Orleans. I’ve never seen “traditional” jambalaya made, so I can’t swear by its “authenticity”. But it is the best damn jambalaya you’ll ever eat. At least that’s what everyone’s ever told me.

Trial and error has gotten it down to a science, or probably more accurately an art since science requires careful measurement. Because it’s a pretty protracted process (and loaded with kitchen zen) I’ll put the recipe behind the jump.

There’s nothing special about the ingredients. Just like there’s not much difference in ingredients between McDonalds and a good hamburger – it’s not what goes in but how it’s done.

Caveat 1: I’ve only ever made jambalaya in large quantities, so adjust to meet the number of mouths. I figure this will feed 12 hungry men with garlic bread on the side.

Caveat 2: I like my jambalaya on the runny side so I can sop it with bread. If you want jambalaya that holds its shape it’s pretty much the same but even a little faster. That’ll makes sense later…

I use a 16qt stock pot, big ass cast iron skillet, another 10 or 12qt pot, a strainer, and something into which 8-10qts of stock can be strained.

This time around I bought:

2 whole chickens
2 packages of chicken backs ~ 5 lb
2 lb beef smoked sausage
2 lb ham
3 medium onions
2 bell peppers
1 package celery hearts
1 bulb garlic
2 lb long grain white rice
1 can Rotel diced tomatoes and green chiles – regular, extra hot, mild – your call

Plus salt, pepper, poultry seasoning, marjoram, thyme

The stock and how it’s made is what separates truly special jambalaya from the stuff 90% of you have ever tried. Stock is the secret to any chicken dish served with a sauce. Not broth, stock. Chicken broth makes me think of Curly working in restaurant pouring boiling water from a kettle through a raw chicken and sending it out as chicken soup. Good stock needs to simmer for at least three hours, and it ended up taking about an hour and a half to get the chicken ready for the stock pot.

Yes it’s a lot of effort. But anyone who’s spent any amount of time in a kitchen will tell you that a good stock is the foundation of gourmet cooking. Having done my time in the food service industry – some of it doing kitchen prep – I had a chance to learn from some pretty good chef/cooks. A good sauce makes all the difference and a premium stock is the key so many sauces. The pros know.

If you’re in a big hurry, they sell quart cartons of chicken “stock” at most upscale grocery stores. Try it my way and try it that way and see which is better. I learned the hard way.

Heat up a cast iron skillet on medium heat, pour in a bit of oil, and brown the chicken backs skin side down first. Really brown them, 10-15 minutes a side. That browning is what gives jambalaya its color and flavor. Meanwhile, cut up the other two chickens into leg quarters, wings, back and breasts (leave the breasts in one piece with the skin on, just make a small cut on either side of the breast plate so it will lay flat). You’ll have to pour off fat as you keep emptying and refilling the skillet. Pour it in a can, not down the drain.

Keep browning the backs until they’re all done, then chuck them in a stock pot. Then carry on with the rest of the chicken – brown it well on both sides, then cover and keep turning occasionally until it’s cooked. Set aside, cover, and let cool. Once the chicken is cooled separate the meat from the bones and toss the bones into the stock pot. Dice the chicken and set aside.

Cut an onion or two in half crossways and brown it, along with half a celery heart and two garlic cloves then chuck them in the stock pot. I start with ~ 1 teaspoon of salt and add more later a little bit at a time if it needs it, a few peppercorns, and poultry seasoning, thyme, marjoram to taste. Ooh, and a tsp of MSG.

Pour the rest of the fat out of the skillet and carefully pour in a cup or two of hot water. Use a spatula to scrape up all the brown crunch stuff stuck to the bottom of the skillet. I believe the French call that deglazing the pan. Pour it in the stock pot with the backs, wings, onions, etc., cover with water, cover, bring to a boil, and simmer for three hours to overnight. You may need to add water periodically, but you want it to reduce a bit.

Strain the stock into a big enough container. If you can chill it overnight the fat on the top will harden and be easy to remove, otherwise skim off as much as you can. Most rice directions call for a tablespoon of butter or margarine anyway, the chicken grease is a much better substitute so no worries if you don’t skim it all off.

Here’s some of that kitchen zen you were promised…since making stock is somewhat time consuming I always make way more than I need. The rest I freeze in one cup containers for later. Stock is a key ingredient in most sauces, so it never hurts to have some ready for use on short notice.

More kitchen zen – if you’re motivated to do it, your dog or cat will love you for picking the meat out of what you strain out of the stock. It’s kind of dry and nasty for eating, but pets go nuts for it.

What you’re left with is a dark, rich flavorful stock. When people say you should eat chicken soup when you’re sick this is what they’re talking about.

Making the stock is the most time consuming part, you’re past halfway home and at the point you can go one of two ways depending on the consistency you want. Either way, slice the sausage thinly and dice the ham into sugar cube sized chunks, then dice a cup of onion, the two bell peppers, and a cup of the tender inside part of the celery hearts. Mince up garlic clove too.

Brown the sausage and ham then set aside, sweat the onion, celery, and bell pepper in the sausage/ham drippings and put in the garlic a couple of minutes before they’re tender, then set aside. Deglaze the pan with a cup of stock and set aside.

For thicker jambalaya – Measure out three cups of rice and set aside. Put seven cups of stock plus the cup of stock from deglazing the pan into a large pot with the can of tomatoes and bring to a boil, then add the sausage, ham, diced chicken, onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic. Bring back to a boil and add in the rice. Stir occasionally until it comes to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and cook for 20 minutes until the rice is tender. Remove from heat and stir well, recover and let rest until it solidifies – maybe another 20 minutes. It scoops almost like ice cream and has a density somewhere between gold and uranium.

For thinner jambalaya – measure out three cups of rice and set aside. Put six cups plus the one cup of deglazing stock into a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the rice, stir occasionally until it comes back to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and cook for 17-18 minutes (or according to package directions). Remove from heat, fluff, cover, let stand and cool, then refrigerate.

Finish by adding 2 cups stock and the can of tomatoes to the rice and reheating on low heat. Once it’s at a simmer, add in the chicken, sausage, ham, onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic. Once it’s heated it’s done. It has more of a stew like consistency. Cooking the rice in stock, then cooling it keeps the rice from from absorbing all the stock.

I don’t know how much it matters, but it also keeps the meat from leaching into the boiling water when you cook the rice. The flavor stays in the meat.

Serve with hot bread for sopping and your favorite pepper sauce. I really like Holy Jolokia – very spicy without a heavy vinegary flavor.

It’s a drawn out, tiresome process but worth every minute. I figure time you spend in the kitchen preparing a feast for your friends isn’t subtracted from your time on Earth.

Bon Apetit.

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