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!

When Best Friends Become Enemies

In April I flew home to Louisiana to help my brothers with my dad, who had been in and out of the hospital and nursing home due to his worsening heart conditions. After we worked through all of the issues with bringing him home to my brother Tommy’s house, I was able to cook a few meals before I had to return to Maryland. roast chickenOne day I roasted a chicken and made a pan of baked macaroni and cheese. One of my brother’s friends was staying for dinner and when he came into the kitchen to fix his plate, he remarked, “Where’s the rice?” I told him we had just had red beans and rice the day before and leftovers of it for lunch, so I hadn’t made rice for dinner. I gestured to the large pan of homemade macaroni and cheese, glistening with its cheesy goodness draped over the bed of soft pasta, and his retort was short and to the point, “You should have made rice.”

louisiana rice“You should have made rice.” The comment stung a bit since I had spent the afternoon in the kitchen while running back and forth to help my dad with things and do his laundry. My dad and my brother seemed very happy with the baked macaroni, however, which I had made based upon my memories of my mom’s. My brother ate a huge serving of it, and later that night, I saw him having another serving of it between two slices of bread…a baked macaroni sandwich!

RiceIsKingCrowley1938The comment, while unwelcome at the time, had some validity to it. In fact, when my father was younger, he frequently said “It’s not dinner if there isn’t rice.” You would almost think we were an Asian family rather than a half Scottish/half Cajun family. We were not unique, though. Rice is a staple in Louisiana. It’s cultivation in Louisiana began at the time of the Civil War, and today, Louisiana is one of the six states responsible for 99% of all rice grown in the U.S. Just think of all the great Cajun dishes that have rice as a foundation: dirty rice, chicken and sausage jambalaya, seafood gumbo, crawfish étouffée, shrimp creole, red beans and rice, roast and gravy, crab stew served over rice, stewed chicken and gravy, and boudin, all things I grew up on.

We did not eat much pasta in my house while I was growing up. My father really didn’t care for “tomato gravy” as my family called it. Occasionally my mother would cook a daube (a cut of roast) in her tomato gravy and we would eat that on #4 spaghetti. He wouldn’t be happy about it, but he would eat it. She also used #4 spaghetti for her oyster stew, which was delicious. We never had any other kind of pasta except for the elbow macaroni my mother used for two things: her baked macaroni and her famous macaroni salad.

We did eat a lot of potatoes, all kinds of potatoes. We regularly had parslied potatoes, baked white potatoes, homemade French fries, scalloped potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, and of course, potato salad. My mom also had something she called “scotch potatoes” which was a local hit. She would peel russet potatoes and cut them into thirds crosswise. She would then place them on sheets of aluminum foil, reassembled in their potato shape, inserting a slice of raw yellow onion and a pat of butter between each piece. She would then salt and pepper them and wrap them tightly in the foil. They would bake until tender and the onion would become soft and sweet. The bottom of the potato would brown and get crispy from the melted butter while the rest of the potato was soft and fluffy.

pasta dinnerBut, then I married an Italian American, and pasta became a staple of my diet, adding it to my other carbohydrate best friends: rice and potatoes. My first family dinner at the home of my future in-laws was lasagna, meatballs and spaghetti, Italian sausage, and huge slabs of Italian bread. The many shapes of pasta and variety of sauces meant an endless cultural experiment, and I grew to love pasta as much as rice and potatoes, the starches of my childhood.

Irish soda breadAnd then there’s bread. What can I say about bread? I’ve never met a bread I don’t love: French bread, po’ boy bread, pita bread, Irish soda bread, raisin bread, Italian bread, baguettes, croissants, biscuits, scones, waffles, and even plain old white sandwich bread. My parents gave me a bread machine in 1996 and I have made many, many delicious loaves from it, along with the dough for dozens of batches of focaccia studded with fresh rosemary and garlic, yeasty dinner rolls, and the foundation for homemade pizzas.

Even though I have always worked full-time, and even with two small children undertow, I cooked dinner every night: a meat, a vegetable, and a starch, which meant that rice, potatoes, or pasta was on our plates most nights—most nights, that is, until July of this year.

A routine physical with a new doctor In May led to a visit with a cardiologist in July, my first ever where I was the patient and not the daughter of the patient. This cardiologist, whom I shall call Dr. C., scared the daylights out of me. First, she recounted for me my very serious family history, as though I wasn’t fully aware that both parents had undergone multiple bypass surgery, my father had a pacemaker as well, and heart disease had led to both of their deaths. Then, she pointed out to me several other factors not in my favor: my age, my weight, and my sedentary lifestyle. She said I needed to have an echocardiogram and a cardiac stress test, telling me, “You probably won’t do very well on it.”  And then she “prescribed” a new health plan for me which began with these four sad words, “Carbs are your enemies.” Goodbye to rice, potatoes (other than sweet potatoes), pasta, and bread. Hello to the five items she said I should eat instead: fruits, vegetables, protein, seeds, and nuts. As for desserts, she said simply, “Birthday and Christmas, period.”

Duly frightened and newly determined, I took all of her advice to heart (no pun intended). My husband (who is in the running for “Most Supportive Spouse of All Times”) steadfastly signed on to follow the new “health plan” as well.

And, so the very next day we began changing our eating habits completely. We haven’t bought (or made) bread since July. We haven’t had pasta AT ALL. The only potatoes we cook now are sweet potatoes. And, rice? Yes, even my childhood best friend is no longer invited to our house for dinner. I won’t lie and say it has been easy. It was very difficult at the beginning. It takes a lot of planning and shopping to be sure we don’t fall into bad habits and order a pizza or fried rice from our local Chinese restaurant. veggettiWe bought a Veggetti spiralizer and learned to love “noodles” made out of zucchini and yellow squash. We eat lots of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and lean pork chops, served on a plate filled with vegetables like steamed broccoli, green beans, or asparagus. We have salad a lot more frequently. We watched Jacques Pepin serve a roast chicken on a bed of arugula and tried it, delicious. As Louisiana natives, we both ate a lot of beans growing up, so adding them as our healthy carbohydrates was no problem, chick peas, black beans, cannellini beans, and of course, kidney beans. We tried turning cauliflower into “rice”, and while I thought it was fine, my husband did not care for it. It didn’t taste like rice or have the same “bite” as rice, but it wasn’t bad.

battleFor me, the faculty room at my school is still a declared war zone. There is always something on the table in there, just waiting for me, winking at me, inviting me over to have a taste. It’s a battle, but when I have to go in there, I just march past that table to the copy machine and try not to linger. Most days now I eat at my desk, my “faux turkey and cheese sandwich”, which my husband makes me each morning. It is deli turkey and Swiss cheese rolled up and secured with toothpicks. I then dip it into hummus as my condiment. I supplement that with a small portion of mixed nuts and some fruit.

For the record, I had the echocardiogram and it was normal. I survived the cardiac stress test and the doctor administering the test declared that I had “passed it with flying colors.” I reported back to Dr. C who frankly said she was surprised at the results. She was even more surprised that I had really acted upon all of her very scary recommendations and she was very pleased with my results at the follow-up visit.

Since July, I’ve successfully navigated through the dangerous waters of weekend get-a-ways, birthdays of both daughters, a baby shower, two bridal showers, faculty luncheons, a rehearsal dinner, and a wedding reception. birthday dinnerToday is my birthday, and I’ve had a great birthday weekend with both daughters here to share it with me. We ate at one of our favorite Belgian restaurants last night, where I had no bread but I did eat the “frites” that came with my “moules”. I ordered dessert, but only ate a bit of it because it simply wasn’t that good. Today we had brunch out before our older daughter got on the road to return home. I had avocado toast (half portion), a cup of carrot soup, and a salad. happy birthday cupcakeAfter, we walked to a popular cupcake bakery and each picked out a beauty to take home. Mine was delicious and I was totally satisfied with my birthday treat.

pre wedding picMy weight loss has been gradual, even with the drastic exile of my best friends from my diet, but I’m really happy with my progress, and better still, I am still fully committed to this lifestyle change, as is my husband, whose results have been more dramatic. We both feel better and we both know we are actively doing something good for our long-term health.

food fightIn the end, Dr. C. did scare the daylights out of me, but I am happy that I was fortunate enough to get that 5-alarm fire burning under me to taking these steps towards a healthier me before something terrible happened. Yes, my former best friends are my enemies for now, but hopefully, in the future when I am healthier and fit, I can invite them over occasionally, for a brief visit to my dinner plate. Until then, the battle continues.