Building a Better Jambalaya (Even If You Never Made One Before.)

I naturally imagined that, having never made jambalaya before, that it would turn out badly. The fact that it didn’t, that it in fact turned out to be a culinary triumph here in Casa Ozersky, testifies to both my dumb luck and the usefulness of hubris. A better man, having never stepped up to making one of the country’s most beloved and cherished dishes, would – at least at first – try to make it the right way. It’s not as if I didn’t have a blueprint. I reached out to John Besh, the greatest chef in New Orleans history, and asked him how I should make it. He sent me an exact recipe for the traditional dish. I can’t say why I didn’t follow it.

Maybe it was sheer perversity. Or maybe I knew that I would like my way better.

For one thing, while I’ve never made jambalaya before, I have had it on multiple occasions. And it hasn’t thrilled me. I say this with all due respect. There are a lot of classic recipes that our modern tastes, accustomed as they are to oversize flavors, can’t really get behind. I remember the first time I had cassoulet; I couldn’t believe that this dish, treated with an almost religious reverence by Waverly Root and A.J. Liebling, amounted in reality to just a bowl of beans. Jambalaya, a simple dish of baked rice with some sausage and shrimp thrown in, was likewise a letdown. I don’t know what Besh’s version is like, but it didn’t sound that interesting. I felt guilty about it, but so what? I made it how I wanted.

First of all, I replaced the carolina converted rice the recipe called for with carnoli rice – the stuff they use in risotto. I didn’t want it to be fluffy; I wanted it to be rich and moist, like a great pilaf or even risotto. So I used risotto rice: short-grained carnoli. I wanted it to be rich and flavorful, and so eschewed the pallid pale chicken broth the traditional recipe calls for. (I added some chicken demi glace to it to give it a bigger, deeper, roastier flavor.) Instead of the usual blah bell peppers, I added five or six levels of mild chile flavor, to give a zing and piquancy that was missing from most of the versions I have tried: fresh minced poblano and serrano peppers, cayenne, esplette pepper, and a rub I got from chef Jesse Perez in San Antonio. (I also used the rub to season the wild shrimp I popped in for steaming at the very end.) And finally, along with the andouille – which is, we can all agree – indispensable to any self-respecting jambalaya, I worked in a half pound of chorizo fino: a very fine grind of the spicy Spanish sausage, for extra piquancy. There was also a bunch of bacon in there somewhere.

The result was fantastic – better than I could have hoped, and better than any jambalaya my guests claimed to have eaten. (They were probably just being nice – but still.) The rice absorbed all those flavors and all that rich liquid; I put in more than recommended because the starchy rice seemed thirstier. It wasn’t a traditional jambalaya; it was something denser and hotter and more interesting. Why not? I’m not from New Orleans. Next up is cassoulet.

Jesse Perez’s “Trinity Chile” Rub:

7 ea. ancho chile pods

7 ea. guajillo chile pods

7 ea. Pasilla negro chile pods

1 cup light brown sugar

¼ cup toasted coriander seeds

¼ cup toasted cumin seeds

2 tablespoons ground canela (Mexican cinnamon) (looking for a soft bark cinnamon)

1 teaspoon all spice berries

1 tablespoon anise seeds

2 tablespoons kosher salt

Roast dried peppers in an oven at 375 degrees for 2-3 minutes, until fragrant and puff in nature from heat. Be careful to not burn chile pods. Remove chile pods from oven and let cool completely. This will allow you to easily handle. De-stem chiles and de-seed chiles removing as much as possible and break into small pieces.

Place coriander, cumin, canela, all spice berries, and anise seeds in a dry sauté pan. Over medium heat, heat the spices until fragrant and a light smoke appears. Move the pan occasionally to ensure all spices have toasted evenly. Move to side and let cool.

With a spice grinder or Vita prep blender, place small portions of the dried chiles and grind into a fine powder. Continue the process until all of the chile pods have been ground into a fine powder. Move the fresh ground chile powder in a separate container. Using the same spice grinder or blender, grind the spices into a fine powder. Add ground spice mixture to the chile powder and mix thoroughly. Add light brown sugar and salt and mix until all ingredients are well combined. If necessary, add the total mixture in small batches into the blender and pulse a few times to thoroughly combine all the seasonings.

Adjust the seasoning with more sugar and salt if necessary. Store in an air tight container for later uses.

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