When I lived in Newfoundland my family billeted a choir from Louisiana. Two girls came to stay with us for a few weeks and as a thank-you, the choir threw a big Mardi Gras party for all the host families. That meant tons and tons of food that I’d never seen before. I’d heard of gumbo, rice and peas and jambalaya before, but they’re just not foods you generally find on Newfoundland dinner tables.
When this choir came up from Louisiana each member brought with them a bottle of hot sauce. Not as a gift for the host families, but for themselves, since they’d heard Newfoundland cuisine was so bland. They were right. None of them really liked their touristy meal of fish n’ chips – batter, starch, and white fish. Tartar sauce? Really? It doesn’t really jump on the taste buds of someone whose injected themselves daily with chilies since birth.
So the Mardi Gras meal they made for us featured two versions of every dish, to satisfy the Louisiana and Newfoundland differences in palate: regular (spicy) and wimpy (relatively less spicy). Sometimes just adding heat wrecks a dish because it overwhelms any actual taste, but sometimes it enhances what’s already there. A good cook knows how to balance, and that means having made a recipe a million times to get it all exactly right. Unfortunately (and fortunately, I suppose) when you’re dealing with fresh peppers, each time you make a dish it will be different because of the heat of the individual pepper. So you need to err on the side of “too little” heat, and then bump it up at the end with hot sauce if necessary. That’s the safe way to do it, but where’s the fun in that?
I found lamb sausages at the Plateau farmers’ market in Montreal and decided to use half to make a tamale pie and the rest to make jambalaya, but any kind of sausage works, and there are lots of locally made options at markets and butchers in the city.
4 small lamb merguez sausages (or 2 andouilles, or other spicy sausages), removed from casings
1 small cooked chicken breast (optional)
1/2 lb Nordic shrimp, shelled, thawed if frozen (optional)
2 tbsp creole seasoning (below)
1 tbsp olive oil
3 peppers, diced (green, red, orange, yellow or green. Whatever you want. The bitter green ones are more traditional in jambalaya)
1 onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced (or the stem of bok choy – it’s hard to use those up, isn’t it?)
3-5 cloves garlic (about 2 tbsp!), diced.
1/2 cup tomatoes, diced
3 bay leaves
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp hot sauce
3/4 cup long grain rice
3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
Fresh black pepper to taste
Creole Spice Blend (use all dried spices and just mix this all together. It’s a great spice rub for meat at a another meal on another day, and it keeps in the fridge for a few weeks. My fall-back for fish or chicken is a dijon mustard on the meat or fish and then a generous sprinkle of this spice blend before cooking):
2 1/2 tbsp paprika (preferably a hot smoked variety)
2 tbsp salt (yes, 2 tbsp)
2 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp onion powder (skip this if you don’t have it hand and don’t feel like having it sitting in your cupboard for years after this single usage)
1 tbsp cayenne
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp dried thyme
1. In a bowl combine sausage, shrimp, chicken and the 2 tbsp of creole spice blend. Don’t crush the sausage but use your hands to break apart the sausages and completely coat them in spice. Wash your hands in hot, soapy water. Cover and place the bowl in the fridge to keep cool while you make the rest of the recipe.
2. In a large saucepan or skillet heat oil over medium heat.
3. When hot add the onion, pepper and celery, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes, bay leaves, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce. Stir in rice and slowly add the broth, stirring to coat all the rice kernels.
4. Bring the skillet to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the rice is almost tender and the dish is thickened, stirring occasionally (about 15 minutes).
5. Now add the spiced meat but try to keep the shrimp out. Cook until the meat is done, about 8 minutes more, then add the shrimp for 2 minutes. They just need to turn pink and really don’t need a long cooking time at all. Basically if you’re not sure if they’re cooked yet, they will be by the time you turn off the heat, serve the jambalaya, and sit down to eat it. Season to taste with black pepper first, and only then add more of the creole seasoning if you want.
6. Die of spice-induced euphoria.