COOKIN’ ON HWY. 1
Tim Acosta was already at work in the kitchen at the Rouses Market on Baronne Street in New Orleans, browning ingredients with a wooden spoon in a big iron pot on the stove, when I arrived.
Tim is the Marketing & Advertising Director for Rouses Markets. Every time I write a story about Cajun cooking, he is the first person I call. Today he had invited me to watch and learn how he makes jambalaya. Now, I grew up near and went to high school in Gonzales, Louisiana — the “Jambalaya Capital of the World,” an honor the town takes very seriously — so I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to witness the preparation of a real Cajun jambalaya.
In Gonzales, jambalaya must be brown. If you order jambalaya in New Orleans it is likely to be “red jambalaya,” or Creole jambalaya, which is made with tomatoes, a staple ingredient in Creole cuisine. Do not bring your red jambalaya to Gonzales, and certainly not to its annual Jambalaya Festival, in which locals compete for the title of world champion. There, it’s brown or nothing.
“There are as many ways to do a jambalaya as there are people,” Tim told me. “It’s like gumbo or boiling crawfish. This is just how one Cajun guy from Thibodaux on the bayou does it.”
Regional ingredients drive jambalaya’s myriad recipes, which is why you can find not only the classic chicken and sausage Cajun jambalaya, but also things like bison, bear, salmon, rattlesnake — even, according to my Google search of random animals, kangaroo jambalaya — though I cannot imagine recommending any of these.
Pointing to a prep station lined with ingredients he had sliced and diced for the jambalaya, Tim explained, “This is my three-three-three recipe.” Depending on the size of the pot and the number of people he needs to feed, his jambalaya recipe scales up or down. This one, he said, will serve 20 people. “There’s three pounds of pork, three pounds of chicken and three pounds of sausage.” Those aren’t the only threes in the recipe, as I soon learned.
This was not an everyday jambalaya, or a box jambalaya — both of which have their places in our busy lives. No, this was serious business jambalaya. The process so far had taken two hours of prep and browning, beginning with the bacon, all the way through the trinity.
While Tim cooked, now pouring into the pot two containers of low-sodium chicken stock and one of vegetable (three stocks), I watched as a young cook on the other side of the bustling kitchen space seasoned rotisserie chickens, placing each on a pan spaced just so, all bound eventually for a good oven-roasting. Nearer to me, another cook tended to a deep fryer, keeping close watch on chicken turning golden brown in a slightly sizzling oil. These, the cook said, were for chicken sandwiches. He had already prepped dozens of buns with Rouses special dressing. We both kept a watchful eye on a some wire baskets bearing Cajun-seasoned fries. I had skipped lunch and, in the presence of all this culinary bounty, I was starving.
I glanced at the pot, which was filled with more liquid than I would have expected. I wasn’t sure how Tim would handle that. “When I add the parboiled rice, it’ll absorb all of it,” he assured me — and yes, you guessed it, he used three pounds of rice. He occasionally stirred the pot to make sure nothing was sticking to the bottom. “This part doesn’t take too long,” he said. As the broth slowly began to boil, he pulled a couple of clean spoons from a box, handing me one. We each tasted the liquid. It burst with flavor.
“Once I put the lid on, that’s it — you don’t get to look anymore. If you’re looking, you ain’t cooking!” (I had a feeling this wasn’t the first time he’d made that pronouncement.) He stirred the rice to distribute it evenly in the pot among the ingredients as the broth continued its journey to a full boil. Parboiled rice was best, Tim explained, because it absorbed more liquid than other types. When at last the broth reached a boil, he covered the pot and reduced the heat to a simmer. It would take about 20 minutes to cook, he said.
“This is better when you’re cooking it outside, drinking a cold beer,” he joked. We stepped back from the stove while everything heated and chatted for a bit.
Across the kitchen, the chef tended to the deep fryer, moving the fried chicken and French fries to stainless steel bins, which he set next to the buns he had prepped. He expertly transferred each chicken breast from bin to bun, one after the other. He offered me a chicken sandwich, though I reluctantly refused, saving my feverish appetite for the jambalaya. It was not easy.
We kept an eye on the pot for steam to blow from beneath the lid. Too much, said Tim, and you should lower the heat so the bottom of the jambalaya doesn’t burn. But no matter what, he said, it was important to keep the lid on the pot. That steam is what is cooking the rice. You lift the lid and let it out, and you risk ruining the dish.
After monitoring the steam for a bit, Tim leaned down and listened to the pot. “The jambalaya can tell you when it’s ready,” he said. “You can hear it bubbling slightly. Give it a listen.” I did, and there was indeed the babbling of jambalaya from within. “You are listening for when it is absorbed in the rice,” said the Jambalaya Whisperer (my new nickname for Tim). “It will get quieter.”
After a bit, he again leaned in and listened to the jambalaya in the pot.
About 25 minutes after the lid went on the pot, the jambalaya told Tim it was time to switch off the heat. It would still need another 20 minutes or so to set, the rice absorbing the last of the stock and flavors. The wait was interminable. By then, the entire Rouses Magazine team had gathered around the pot: They were beyond ready…salivating, positively starving. Tim removed the lid and fluffed the rice, and you could see the sausage, chicken and pork peeking out from within. The jambalaya he revealed was the proper color, a stunning golden brown — a real Gonzales brown! — and the aroma of the dish filled the room. Frustratingly, though, our enjoyment of it was delayed further: It still needed to be photographed. But once that was done, and the magazine cover was set, we grabbed forks and plates, and no one was shy about digging in.
Folks, even by the stringent Gonzales standards, it was a masterpiece. Just to be 100% sure, however, I had seconds. And then thirds.
SEASON THE POT
When you purchase cast-iron cookware, Tim said, whether a skillet, stovetop pot or giant jambalaya pot, the first thing you must do is season it. This is necessary to protect the pot from rust and the elements. In the old days, these black iron pots came coated in a wax resin that would need to be burned off on an outdoor stove. That is not so much a problem these days, and many come pre-seasoned. If yours is not, however, or if you inherited a little-used pot and want to season it, Tim has some advice.
“The old timers used lard,” he said. “You coat the whole thing in lard, and cook it.” Medium is the magic setting. After about an hour, the iron will be pretty hot. Turn off the heat, let the pot cool, and then reheat it again. After it again cools, turn the pot upside down and coat the exterior in lard, and do it all over again. It is important to do this on an outside burner or barbecue pit because the oil will smoke, and you don’t want your house to smell like the back of a fast food restaurant.
Tim says lard is fine, but he has an even better method.
“I use bacon,” he said. “Good old-fashioned bacon grease.” Slather it inside and out. The process is the same, and you get to eat bacon while you do it.
To clean cast-iron cookware, never use soap. This cookware should be cleaned only with hot water and a scouring pad.
Each time you use the pot, explained Tim, you can use a little bit of vegetable oil or other light coating to protect the metal from tarnish after rinsing it. But the real secret to keeping your cast iron in top form? “You’ve got to use it!” he said with a laugh.