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.
Inspired by a recipe from the New Orleans School of Cooking
Time: 1 hour 10 minutes give-or-take
Although I’m a brown rice girl, I used long grain white rice here because I didn’t want the rice to be too sticky as my brown rice typically is. The standard ratio is 1 cup white rice to 1 1/4 cups liquid. Because the tofu absorbs some of the water, I added a couple extra tablespoons of liquid. You can use more tomato juice than I specify below as long as you keep the total amount of liquid the same.
3 tablespoons oil (sunflower, safflower, canola, etc.)
2 cups vegan andouille-style sausage, sliced (about 2 links)
2 cups onions, chopped (about 1 large)
1 cup celery, chopped (about 2-3 ribs)
1 cup green pepper, chopped (about 1 medium)
1.5 tablespoons garlic, minced (about 3 cloves)
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon oregano
a generous sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 cup canned tomatoes, diced (drain and reserve juice)
2 cups + 2 tablespoons vegetable broth
1/2 cup tomato juice
2 cups long grain white rice
1/2 14-oz block extra-firm tofu, frozen then defrosted, diced to 1/2-inch cubes
In a 4-5 quart heavy bottomed pot, heat 1.5 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausage slices to brown. When browned, remove sausage and set aside.
Add the remaining 1.5 tablespoons oil to the pot. Add the onions, celery, green pepper, and garlic and saute over medium-high heat until tender, about 12-15 minutes. You can saute them longer – even brown them a little – if you want. Add the paprika, salt, thyme, oregano, black pepper, and bay leaf and saute for an additional minute.
Add the tomatoes, vegetable broth, and tomato juice, and bring to a boil. (You can preheat the broth/juice on the stove while the veggies are sauteing to speed things up.) Before it boils, taste it to make sure the broth is nice and flavorful and add additional seasoning if necessary. Add rice and tofu and gently stir to mix. Cover, turn heat to low, and cook for 20 minutes. About halfway through, remove cover and quickly turn over the rice from top to bottom, immediately replacing the cover when done.
Garnish with parsley.
© 2011 BistroKatie.com
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!