Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Our favorite meal: Jambalaya

I had never even heard of Jambalaya, at least not that I was aware of, until I visited Jen out here, back when I still called California home. One night Jen had to work, and called me on a break, and told me to make her Chicken Jambalaya. I had seen the Chicken Helper box up there and was reluctant, because I had had many bad experiences with Hamburger Helper. It's OK for kids who don't know any better, but if you ask me, the stuff's nasty as anything you can get.

So I made it, followed the instructions to the letter, a point I feel I should make to compare to my current procedure. And it wasn't bad. It was actually pretty good. Jambalaya's a Cajun dish, something you're going to find in New Orleans, but it's not something I've ever seen at any restaurant. And over the last two and a half years, I've developed my own procedure for making it. I still use the box (2 of them, actually) but I ignore their directions and follow my own.

You will need, as far as food goes: 2 boxes Chicken Helper Jambalaya dinner mix, 1.5 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, 1.25 pounds Johnsonville Hot Italian sausage, 5.5 cups water, 1/4 cup olive oil, crushed red pepper, Tabasco sauce. As far as kitchen hardware, you should have a big skillet and a good-fitting lid, a cutting board, and a couple decent-sized bowls - and 1/4 cup and 1-5 cup measuring cups.

Start by opening both Chicken Helper boxes, discarding cardboard. In one bowl mix both rice packets and the packets marked Sauce Mix. Well, they don't have to be mixed, but it's nice if they're all in the same bowl. In the other bowl, mix the olive oil (vegetable oil works OK too) with the packets marked Seasoning Mix. (If you're the kind of person who cooks with alcohol, this is probably the place to put it. I've tried 2 shots of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum, and I think we used some cheap tequila (Toro) once, and as far as I can tell it does nothing. You got something fancy, something with a special flavor, try it on your second time and get back to me if it changes the taste. I do believe it all cooks out.)

Put the first half-cup of water and spices (crushed red pepper and Tabasco to taste) on medium-high in the skillet. Add sausage and cover, simmer for 10 minutes. While waiting, cut the chicken up best you can into 1" cube chunks. More or less, make it interesting. Put the chopped chicken into the oil mix, and stir well. After the 10 minutes, turn the sausage. After 10 more minutes, cut one sausage link at least to the center, to ensure it is cooked thoroughly. If not, cook on each side for a few minutes until you can cut a link and it be cooked all the way through. Set sausage aside when done.

Now it's the chicken's turn. Pour the oil-seasoning-chicken mix into the pan. Bring the temperature up, not to high but just below. Cook the chicken - you can telll when the chicken is cooked, it'll be white and firmer all over, although it is harder to tell with the sauce. Cook it till you think you're sure, then turn the heat down around medium and let it cook some more. But keep on stirring it, since that oil-seasoning mix can burn your pan quick if you let it. While the chicken is cooking, slice the sausage links at least 1/2" thick.

Toss the sausage in with the chicken, and stir. You may have some oil-seasoning mix left over - let the sausage soak it up, let that cook in. But before long, you have to move fast for a little bit. Next add the rice and sauce mix. I like to let the rice soak up the sauces and seasonings before adding the 5 cups of water, so stir the rice in good. Then add the water and stir well. I like to put the first 2 cups in, stir well, then the next cup, stir once or twice, then the remaining 2 cups in. Now turn the heat up to High, and bring it to a boil, stirring occasionally. Give it a good stir, cover it, and cut it down to low-medium. Well, just under medium, like a third of the way to high.

It's gonna have to cook down for at least an hour now. Well, plus or minus 10 minutes depending on some things, so check it every so often, it won't hurt it. You actually want to cut the heat off when there's still some water/sauce in it. Stir it up, it'll soak up, and as it sits there, it'll still cook a little in its own heat, especially if you uncover it only to serve it.


I cook it with only sausage and chicken, but traditionally it's a surf-and-turf dish, with shrimp and one or both of the other two. It could probably even be done with beef, but that's too tough. I don't personally care for shrimp, though, but Jen loves it. To this day I haven't made Jambalaya with shrimp, but one day I will. For Jen - I won't eat it.

We have a huge skillet. One that's small won't cut it. Our skillet is a little over 12" across (though it looks bigger...) and 3" deep, but the sides are squared off - it's 12" on the bottom, too. As opposed to one of those ones that's only 2/3 as wide on the bottom as the top is. Get a big skillet if you want to do 2 boxes. For a smaller skillet, stick with one box and eliminate either the chicken or sausage, or half both, and refer to the back of the box for simmer time.

The box calls for the 5 cups of water to be hot. Every time but the last time I've done that. I'd put the water in the microwave on like 15 minutes when I prepared everything, and when I needed it, it was still hot. Last time though, the water was at room temperature and it came out just fine. So don't worry about heating the water, it's an unnecessary step.

A friend of mine at work said that he didn't like spicy stuff, so I recommended he use the Johnsonville Mild Italian sausage, but he went with the Sweet Italian sausage. I grilled that one weekend (well, Jen grilled it - I ate some) and I didn't like it. So I didn't think to try it in Jambalaya - and I like it hot - but he said it was good, and it was the best meal out of a box, ever. I love some Kraft Mac & Cheese, but I've found me a new favorite box meal.

Just a warning, though: It's addictive.

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