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I spent a few days in New Orleans last year, right smack in the middle of Mardi Gras season. While there, I sat in the Zatarain's factory kitchen and was instructed in the art of making jambalaya, one of my very favorite dishes with flavors and textures that dance to the beat of the Big Easy.

With seafood swimming at the back door, chefs in New Orleans invent a myriad of ways to present it, but one of Louisiana's proudest inventions is without a doubt jambalaya. It started out as a poor man's food, but through generations has climbed the ladder of culinary success. If a food can become a lifestyle, jambalaya is in Louisiana. It makes the rounds from parties around kegs of beer, live zydeco and big, cast-iron pots simmering with the stuff; it's served at church potlucks, weddings and even funereal feasts.

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Anne Braly

Jambalaya can be made with any of several proteins — chicken, sausage or duck — and incredible fresh fish, crab and shrimp. You name it, it's thrown into the pot. In fact, the name jambalaya loosely translates into "a little of this and a little of that," so it's little wonder that one pot of jambalaya may never be the same as the last.

One thing is standard to a bowl of jambalaya, however. It is traditionally served with rice, so as a Southerner and lover of grits, I wondered how jambalaya would pair with the grain of the South. Would it be possible, I wondered, to make a traditional jambalaya with shrimp and andouille sausage and serve it over grits in the same vein as shrimp and grits? And would cheese added to the grits help or distract from the mixture? It was time to experiment, and the end result was outstanding.

Instant grits won't work in this recipe. You want the grits to have a bit of a "bite" — think pasta cooked to an al dente stage. I used stone-ground corn grits from the farm store in Berea, Kentucky. Locally, you can find a good brand at Whole Foods, or visit Falls Mill (fallsmill.com) in Belvidere, Tenn., on the other side of Monteagle Mountain and pick up a bag or two.

I made two batches of grits — one with cheddar cheese and one with smoked gouda. Cheddar did nothing for the jambalaya, but the smoked gouda brought out the earthy, smoky flavor of the sausage, marrying the grits with the jambalaya in a delicious union. Make your favorite jambalaya or, if you don't have one, this is a good, standard version I've been making for years.

Gouda Grits Jambalaya

4 tablespoons butter or bacon drippings (or combination of both)

1 large onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

Dash or two of cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons Creole seasoning (such as Zatarain's)

2 tablespoons chili powder

Pinch of sugar

1 (14.5-ounce) can tomatoes, chopped

2 cups water or chicken stock

1 pound andouille or smoked sausage, cut into slices

1 pound shrimp

Grits:

2 1/2 cups half-and-half

2 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 cup coarse-ground grits (not instant)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

4 ounces smoked Gouda, grated

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy saucepan, melt butter and add the "holy trinity" — onions, celery and bell peppers — sauteing till golden brown. Stir in flour. Add salt, cayenne, Creole seasoning, chili powder and sugar, stirring to combine. Add tomatoes and water or stock to the mixture, and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until slightly thickened. Add more liquid if needed. While the mixture is simmering, brown the sausage slices in a separate skillet over medium-high heat. When they are slightly charred and heated through, remove from heat and add to vegetable mixture. Add shrimp, and simmer for 5 more minutes or until cooked. Cover pot, and keep jambalaya warm.

For grits: Bring half-and-half, water and salt to a boil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Gradually whisk in grits until smooth. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook, whisking frequently to keep from sticking, until creamy, 20-25 minutes. Remove from heat, and whisk in butter and cheese; season with salt and pepper.

To serve: Spoon grits into individual bowls and top with jambalaya. Serve with crusty bread, if desired.

Note: Make grits while jambalaya is cooking. Or make grits ahead of time and reconstitute with a little more cream while reheating.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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