Today, I was going through the refrigerator figuring out dinner ideas. There were several items that I knew I was going to have to use soon and decided to experiment by throwing together fresh vegetables from our backyard garden, with rice, sausage and a few other items.
When my husband returned home from work and settled in, I opened the pot and showed him my “experiment.”
He looked down and nonchalantly said, “oh, you made jambalaya.”
“No,” I thought. I didn’t make jambalaya. I just cooked rice with fresh tomatoes, sausage and other items I had available.
Then I thought a little more about his assessment – that’s basically what jambalaya is: a cacophony of Cajun flavors with rice and meat.
And then I started thinking about my first couple of visits to the United States. In 2010, I quit my job as a political analyst for a lobbying firm in Mexico City to become a missionary. I attended a missionary training in Singapore. The first leg of that initial trip made a three-week stop in Louisiana – my first trip to the states.
It was actually during that trip that I met the man that would become my husband.
As one of three missionaries on our way from Mexico to Singapore, we were invited to a lunch/newspaper interview with “Mr. Williams.”
A teenage homeschooled girl, Shelbi, from one of the churches we visited told us that she had been taking journalism classes given by the local newspaper’s editor, Mr Williams. In my mind, when I heard about the teacher/newspaperman, I pictured an old, probably boring, man, but when we arrived at the house for lunch I realized I was very wrong – he was around the same age as me, and not at all what I imagined. We quickly became friends and stayed in touch throughout the years. Every time I came back to the U.S., he was on my list of friends I would try to meet up with. We also stayed in touch through Skype, emails, postcards and FaceTime.
At the time, my English was not very good and I lacked any confidence in the language, so I didn’t think I could correctly pronounce his first name, Aaron, so I simply always called him “Mr. Williams.”
So during that initial trip to Louisiana, there was a long list of things locals told me I needed to do – and on the top of that list was to eat certain foods, one of which was jambalaya. We also went on a swamp tour, visited a plantation, tasted alligator, enjoyed beignets in New Orleans, visited Louisiana State University and saw their mascot, Mike, the live tiger on campus, and more.
I learned that people in the South, especially in Louisiana, take pride in their food. And Louisiana offers a unique blend of flavors and foods.
The first time I tried jambalaya was in the city of Gonzales, with a good friend, Mrs. Carolyn. She brought us to a little place called The Jambalaya Shoppe, and I couldn’t help but to simply look at the rice dish, its color and texture, and debate whether or not I should just dig in.
It reminded me a little bit of Arroz Con Pollo, a Venezuelan dish, but its appearance was a bit dry. The color wasn’t the same either. And it came with bread – it didn’t make sense to me. None of my food experiences told me I would enjoy this.
But just like any other time I’ve tried new foods in other countries, I looked around to see how others enjoy the dish. Some added salt and pepper, some added hot sauce, some Tabasco sauce, some even placed the rice in the bread; but one thing seemed unanimous, it was good. So I grabbed a spoon and ate it, and to my surprise, it was moist and exploded with flavor.
A few days later, I was invited to attend a party with some people from a church in the same city of Gonzales. When I got there and looked at the array of foods, I saw jambalaya again.
I tasted this one, and though it was different than the one I had eaten just a few days prior, it too was delicious. The color was redder than the first, and it seemed to have more meats.
I found myself eating jambalaya at nearly every event I attended around the Baton Rouge area during that trip and throughout my stays in Louisiana over the years.
I realized that every jambalaya was different. Every time I had a taste of the dish, there was something new, something different and beautiful – just like the personalities of the chefs that prepared them.
So when my husband looked at my dish and said he thought it looked like jambalaya, I told him that wasn’t what it was. It was a dish with lots of similarities, but I threw in hints of my Mexican-Venezuelan ancestry and a dash of personality, and a lot of “this is just what we had in the refrigerator.” Haha
He laughed and said, “Oh, so it’s ‘Joha’-mbalaya.”
So, here’s a recipe for my twist on jambalaya; it’s Johambalaya!
(feeds 2-3 people)
1 lb of Smoked Sausage, sliced
1/2 Red Onion, cut
2 Stalks of Green Onion finely chopped
2 Cloves of Garlic finely chopped
1 Tomato, cut
1 Stalk of celery
1/2 lb Mushrooms cleaned and cut in half.
1 Cup of rice
1 Cup of Chicken Stock
A pinch of Cumin
A pinch of Cayenne pepper
1 tsp of Worcestershire Sauce
In a big pan, on medium-high heat, sauté the smoked sausage until browned on all sides. Take out of the pan and keep aside.
In a separate pot, pour 2 cups of water and bring to boil. When the water starts boiling, add rice, add some salt, and bring the heat to low and put a lid on the pot. Let it cook for about 10 minutes. Once it is soft, turn off the heat.
In the pan where the sausage was cooked, with the sausage’s grease still in the pan, sauté the red and green onion, celery and mushrooms for about 4 minutes. Then add the garlic (I didn’t add it at the beginning because it tends to burn if it is fried for too long). Cook down to give vegetables a brownish (not burnt) color.
Add tomatoes, cumin, cayenne pepper, Worcestershire sauce, fresh parsley, salt and pepper and about 2 Tbsp of chicken stock.
Carefully combine the cooked rice and vegetable mix. If the mix seems too dry, add more chicken stock little by little, giving it time to be absorbed. Put the lid on for about 5 minutes on low heat. Taste to check flavor and consistency.
Take it off the heat, add more salt if necessary and serve with some cornbread, if possible, and hot sauce!