Reality Bites

November 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

It happened a week ago. I returned from one of those lunches that makes you happy to exist: good simple food, in the park, sun warm on the back, and swung by the mailbox on the way up to the apartment, where I planned to nap, knit and bake away the rest of the day. I knew immediately: two matching envelopes, with a suspiciously inflexible right hand side. The work permit had landed. I giggled for five minutes or so in the way that could quite easily have turned into tears but it didn’t. For all of the amazing time I’ve had over the past three and a bit months, I was ready to go back, to engage the bit of my brain that has been skirting around cloud-cuckoo-land recently, to engage in productive labor, as the immigration folks would have it. I’m also ready to be paid again, to be quite frank.

So it’s day 4 of real life and it hasn’t been bad at all. I feel lucky that I ended up sticking pretty close to home during all my leave: there are so many things I have made a new part of my everyday life and am determined to keep up even with reduced hours to lavish on hobbies. This site being one of those things. And perhaps a dose of realism in the kitchen will be a good thing: fewer three day ravioli making indulgences and more weeknight supper ideas. Not that there isn’t a time and a place for complicated cooking on this site and you can always guarantee that I have a scrap of paper somewhere on my desk with a Project being concocted. And there is of course, always the middle ground: that special category of recipes that are versatile enough to undergo adaptation and serve as an easy supper for two or a classy dinner for friends. One of my absolute favourites for this chameleon act is the humble jambalaya. First of all, I adore the whole category of rice dishes into which this Creole speciality fits: pilafs, paellas, risottos. Food with substance and heart. Second, anything involving the smoky warmth of paprika, cayenne or chile powder gets an automatic boost up my “to cook” list. And finally this is excellent make-ahead food as the flavours intensify and mingle if the dish sits for a few hours or overnight, meaning I can take advantage of home-working and do the bulk of the work at lunchtime and then just slide the casserole into the oven before dinner while popping open a bottle of wine or taking a bath.

I’m listing the Sunday version of the recipe below, which is both tasty and involved enough to warrant a place in the middle of a table surrounded by friends. I’ve never known it disappoint. My Tuesday version really just omits the shrimp and even sometimes the chicken depending on what I have on hand or how much time I have to get to the store. Making it a rice, chorizo and tomato version practically turns it into a store-cupboard supper, which is my kind of weeknight cooking. Especially these days…

Adapted from the Lee Brothers’ Southern Cookbook

Yield: 6 servings

*Make-ahead notes. You can make the stew as per the instructions below up to the point of adding the shrimp, then let it cool and keep refrigerated until needed. You can then reheat in a medium-hot oven (350F or 180C) for about 30-40 minutes. If you want to have shrimp in the stew, remove the pan from the oven ensuring the rice is hot and thoroughly cooked and then add the shrimp as per the final instruction below.

1 lb headless medium shrimp, unpeeled, heads on
3 1/2 cups/850ml chicken broth
1 tbsp shrimp boil (see note/recipe below)
1 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
10 oz/300g chorizo, cut on the bias into slices about 3/4 inch thick
6 chicken thighs, skinned (about 2 lb)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, diced
5 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 28oz (or 2 400g) can Italian plum tomatoes, drained with the juice reserved
1 cup long grain rice
6 stems of thyme

Shrimp broil
This recipe, from the same book, makes about a cup of this spice blend. If you do not have the time or inclination to make it, you can substitute red chile powder for the shrimp broil without ill effect, as I discovered by accident the last time I made this dish 🙂

1 tbsp peppercorns
1 tbsp celery seeds
6 bay leaves, shredded with scissors
1/2 cup salt
3 tbsp ground cayenne pepper

Pound the peppercorns, celery seeds and bay leaf with the salt in a mortar, in batches if need be. Place in a small bowl and mix in the cayenne. Store in an airtight container for up to about 2 months.

For the jambalaya:
Peel the shrimp and place in a bowl, keeping the shells to one side. In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil and add the shrimp shells and the shrimp broil. Simmer over a low heat for about half an hour. Remove the shells and discard. Turn off the heat and keep the pan to one side.

In a large casserole or dutch oven that can go in the oven, heat the oil over a medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the sausage and brown all over, for about 6 minutes. Remove to a plate or bowl and set to one side.

Brown the chicken in the same pan in the sausage oil. You might need to add the thighs in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and saute until golden brown, agitating if necessary to stop them from sticking. Turn over, sprinkle again with salt and pepper, and saute the other side. Add them to the plate with the sausage and set again to one side.

Still using the same pan, add the onion, garlic and 1/4 cup or 50ml of the reserved tomato juices and saute, scraping at any brown bits on the bottom of the pan, until the vegetables are softened and fragrant, around 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and use a spoon to crush them. Turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer until the ingredients are well-mixed and thickly soupy. This should take about another 4 or 5 minutes. Add the chicken pieces, nestling the thighs in the stew. Then add the sausage and any juices that might have accumulated from the meat.

Strain the broth into a measuring cup and add enough of the remaining tomato juice to make it up to 3 cups/750ml. Add the liquid to the pan and then add the rice. Stir once very gently to combine, cover and cook over low heat for 25 minutes, or until the rice is tender and has absorbed most of the liquid. Turn off the heat and add the shrimp, stirring to distribute.

Cover and let the jambalaya rest for 10 minutes before serving. At this point the rice should be moist and plump but not soupy. Serve garnished with thyme.


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