Calling Doctor Zatarain …

Have you heard the term “doctored up,” or is that a Southern phrase? It means to add your own twist to something, usually to improve the taste or appearance of something, as in, “She doctored up the punch with a bottle of rum.” (LOL. Sorry, that’s the covid talking.)

Yesterday I wrote about buying fresh seafood at my local farmers’ market, specifically a pound of shrimp and a pound of fish filets each Saturday. I lauded the benefits of cooking with fresh ingredients instead of processed foods. Well, there a few exceptions, and one of them is Zatarain’s Jambalaya Mix, which I made last night after having doctored it up to my own tastes.

I grew up eating jambalaya, always made from scratch, and usually made by my Uncle Joe. He isn’t really my uncle, but the brother of my dad’s brother-in-law. Uncle Joe could have won any cooking contest on earth with his jambalaya. What made it special was his addition of lima beans…just a sprinkle for color and an extra veggie boost. Not traditional, but I love it this way.

I sometimes see jambalaya on restaurant menus, but I never order it. Why? Because it is never, not ever, jambalaya. Let’s start with what jambalaya is NOT. It is not stew over a bed of rice. It is not soup with rice in it. It is not made with pasta (?). It does not have tomatoes in it, unless you are Creole and not Cajun.

So what IS jambalaya? It is a rice and meat dish that is cooked together slowly until the liquid is absorbed into the rice while flavoring the meat. Good jambalaya is tricky because rice can be tricky. Too wet, too mushy, too crunchy, too dry, too gloppy, too gummy. There are lots of ways rice can go wrong.

If you had to compare jambalaya to something, it would be the famous Spanish dish of paella. The cooking techniques are similar, although the spices and seasoning differ greatly, with paella relying upon saffron to bring its color and unique flavor to the dish. Uncooked rice is added to a pan where vegetables and aromatics have been sautéed together. Liquid is added, just enough to cook the rice and get completely absorbed, along with spices and seasonings. Seafood, sausages, and other meats are added in stages, depending on their individual cooking times. It is cooked slowly, stirring every now and then so it doesn’t stick to the bottom (which is the main difference from paella where the burned rice at the bottom is highly desired).

So, how do I make my doctored up jambalaya? This is not so much a recipe as a suggestion of how to go about making something that looks and tastes like jambalaya.

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a heavy-bottomed dutch oven with a tight fitting lid. Sauté chopped onion, garlic, green and red bell pepper, green onions, celery, and parsley in the oil until soft but not brown. Season with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the Zatarain’s mix and the water as indicated on the box. The Zatarain’s box calls for 1 pound of meat: cubed chicken, sliced smoked sausage or andouille (sauté first to reduce the greasiness), and/or cubed ham. It could be one type of meat or a mixture. It can be left-over pork chops or left-over rotisserie chicken. If adding seafood, add it closer to the end of cooking time so that the seafood doesn’t get rubbery. (Here’s where you add the lima beans, straight from the freezer bag!) Stir together and bring to a boil. Cook tightly covered 20-25 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Stir every now and then to prevent sticking but over-stirring will break up the rice and make it gloppy.

When I make this with shrimp, I always make a quick stock with the shrimp shells (heads and tails included) and I use this instead of the plain water called for on the box. This brings so much flavor to the table.

If you have a family of yankees who don’t like spicy Cajun food, you can add 1/2 cup of long grain white rice (uncooked) and an additional cup of water to the mix. This will dilute the heat a bit.

Serve with a green salad and some crusty French bread. Louisiana heaven–albeit doctored up and not from scratch–on a plate! Bon appetit!

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