Learning Life Lessons from Making Jambalaya
When you’re learning to cook certain dishes are important because they teach you something fundamental. It might be a new technique, a unique way to use an ingredient, or something as simple as the importance of adding ingredients at the right time.
Jambalaya is one of those dishes for me. Living up North, it was a dish I had heard about more than I had eaten when I first started trying to make it. What I knew about it was I had liked it the few times I had tried it, it was chock full of fantastic ingredients, and it looked fairly easy.
It seemed so simple; it’s just rice, chicken, sausage and a few other ingredients, how hard could it be. When I started making jambalaya, it was horrible, the rice always dried out and was so crusty that it made you want to spit it out, and lick the back of your teeth to try and get the taste out of your mouth. It was so bad that it felt wrong to feed it to the birds.
What the dish taught me is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in cooking, which is how important it is to add everything at the right time.
What I didn’t understand was when to add the rice. I thought, well it’s a rice dish, so I should get my vegetables all sautéed and get the rice in there when I add the stock and then build everything on top of that. I can still remember digging around on the internet for recipes, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, when I finally found a recipe that told me to add the rice at the end over low heat, cover the pot, and let it finish cooking.
All of a sudden my crappy, crusty, crunchy rice was soft, tender, and full of flavor from cooking for the right amount of time in this beautiful cooking liquid I had been building all afternoon. It was a huge revelation to think about adding the main ingredient for a dish at the end of the cooking process, instead of building the entire dish around it from the beginning.
Over the years I’ve eaten well developing my Jambalaya recipe. A couple of things that I think make this recipe stand out are the way the chicken is cooked very slowly and pulled apart by hand. It helps develop deeper flavor in the stock, and it means every bite of chicken is tender and juicy. I also like the addition of Worcestershire sauce, which helps the dish develop a nice tangy, umami mouthfeel, without shifting the dish’s overall taste.
Hopefully, you don’t have to go through the same things I did in figuring out when to add the ingredients to dishes, but if you ever want to try something pretty horrible, add the rice at the beginning.
Mark is Umami's publisher