Jambalaya

by Katie on March 7, 2011

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The Mardi Gras celebrations are in high gear and it’s as festive as it gets here in New Orleans. Before I moved here a year and a half ago, I was never particularly interested in this holiday, thinking that it was just about boozing and debauchery. That may be true for some, but mostly it’s a family affair. Little kids are perched on top of ladders, parents hovering behind to ensure their little ones have the best parade views. Costumes. Cheering. People on the streets. Merriment. And the biggest shoe you’ve ever seen.

Mardi Gras is a spectacle unlike any other I’ve seen due to not only it’s presentation but the interactive nature of its main event: the parades. They make you feel like a child, giddy with excitement. Here are a few photos from parades Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon. They do not do justice to the experience.

In honor of Mardi Gras, I wanted to make a traditional New Orleans dish. Recently I attended a class at the New Orleans School of Cooking in the French Quarter. It’s not really a culinary school – it’s more for tourists. They give two- and three-hour cooking demonstrations and have a gift shop. I had the opportunity to purchase a discounted ticket so I thought, why not? As a vegetarian, I don’t eat as much étouffée or sip as much gumbo as I otherwise might. I thought that if I learned the basic essence of some traditional New Orleans dishes, I could try to create plant-based versions of them in my own kitchen.

Primarily a rice dish, jambalaya seemed perfect for this. First, the word is just fun to say. Something about jambalaya warrants an exclamation point. It’s the kind of word I would have shouted as a kid while barreling down my neighbor’s steep driveway in my Big Wheel.

I learned so much in that class. The instructor made gumbo as well as jambalaya so I was able to learn how to make the infamous roux – that mixture of flour and fat that thickens soups, gravies, and other sauces. But there’s no roux in jambalaya, and that’s fine by me.

While many people think the word “jambalaya” stems from the French jambon, meaning ham, our instructor said that it has African roots. Most of the slaves who came to New Orleans were from Senegambia (a region encompassing Senegal and the Gambia) in West Africa. In their language, “laya” means rice. The Senegambians were master cultivators of rice, which they grew here in southern Louisiana. As the story goes, people on the plantations would make big pots of it. Into the rice they would throw whatever was caught that day, whether it be on land or in the sea. This explains the prefix “jamba,” which means surprise. Rice with a surprise!

Those who regularly partake in jambalaya would be surprised to find what’s in this version. It’s entirely vegan, but it still has tons of flavor. I adapted the recipe from the one I learned at the New Orleans School of Cooking, which called for andouille sausage and chicken. Instead of andouille sausage, I used homemade vegan andouille-style sausage. Yes, you heard that right: I made vegan andouille sausage easily at home, and you can too – I’ll be posting the recipe for that later this week, so stay tuned [Update: find the recipe here]. I have to say that the sausage really makes the recipe. If you prefer to purchase vegan sausage rather than making it yourself, go for it. Hey, it’s Mardi Gras after all.

What other surprises? Tofu. My friend Susan over at FatFree Vegan Kitchen makes a tofu jambalaya and freezes (then defrosts) the tofu to enhance its texture. I used that strategy for this recipe, and it worked great.

And one parting shot, because I can’t resist. Happy Mardi Gras. As a recent transplant to the city, for a while I had no idea what that really meant. But I figured it out. Enjoy life and have fun. Life is too short not to!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carolyn October 13, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Hi, this sounds great! When do you put the sausage back in?

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