Jambalaya — the recipe

There are those amongst you who seem to think that a weblog called Jambalaya should have a recipe for the dish of that name. In fact I described one a while ago on another weblog. My original article has a fairly detailed recipe together with an account of how we arrived at it. I will reproduce it below for those of you too lazy to visit the original offering!

First, a word about the word—or rather about the origins of the word jambalaya. The dish itself is clearly related in spirit, method and (mostly) content to the Spanish paella, a rustic, outdoor one-pot dish or rice, meat, fish and vegetables (or whatever). A link with early Spanish colonization of Louisiana is thus plausible, though some sources go to some lengths to ascribe a French connection through the putative Provencal word jambalaia. (If anyone can provide evidence to corroborate this, please let me know). I, however, am rather struck by the phonetic similarities to the word jumble, which seems aptly to describe the nature of this dish.

Since writing that article I have been experimenting a great deal with Spanish rice dishes based on the classic paella. My original inspiration for these came from Sam & Sam Clark's wonderful Moro cookbook. The Clarks' spanish rice dishes start with a sofrito of chorizo, onion, celey and green peppers, which seems to me very sound basis for this as well as jambalaya, although many 'classic' recipies fopr these dishes don't go this way.

Leaving aside the 'main' ingredients of the two dishes, which can variously include chicken, sauasage, seafood, ham, snails, vegetables etc., the main differences between paella and jambalaya are (1) the cooking pot: a paella is a wide, shallow, flat-bottomed pan whilst jambalaya is traditionally cooked in a deep cast-iron pot; (2) the rice: the Spanish use a round rice such as Valencia or Calasparra, which absorb more liquid without disintegrating. Jambalaya is usually made with American log grain rice; (3) the flavourings: saffron, rosemary and paprika are fundamental to the Spanish dishes, the Creole derivative is enlivened with cayenne, chilli, allspice, cloves and thyme--plus tomatoees in the New Orleans version.

Now for the recipe. The method is probably fairly generic, but is most immediately based in that given by Ella and Dick Brennan in their Commander's Palace New Orleans Cookbook.

The base

The Italians would call it a soffrito, but in Creole its a mixture of onion, green pepper and celery. This is sweated off gently in butter and oil together with some bayleaves and a generous amount of diced smoked ham.

The 'fillings'

Typically chicken, shrimp, and the famous Andouille sausage. I don't think the Creole Anduoille we were served bore much resemblance to the traditional French product of the same name, which is a smoked sausage made from tripe. We have used a variety of smoked pork sausages very successfully, and even some chorizo (redolent of paella). There are other versions with, for example, duck. Use whatever you have.

Fresh chicken or shrimp needs to be cooked through a bit with the base and seasonings before adding rice and liquid, but leftovers or pre-cooked offerings can be added later.

The Brennan's recipe calls for peeled crawfish tails, but they are none too common around here (though last summer the Thames was awash with crayfish: probably the same thing).

The seasonings

The ham and sausage will probably provide enough salt. Traditionally, a smattering of paprika (make sure its good quality, and not stale), generous shakes of Tabasco (the new Chipotle variety is terrific) and Worcestershire Sauce. Finally, some dried oregano and/or thyme. Quantities? All to your own taste.


These don't feature in our homely risotto but seem to be a defining ingredient of the Creole classic. Indeed, the Brennan recipe calls for huge quantities. Don't bother with the chore of skinning fresh tomatoes: just open some cans of chopped tomatoes and pile them in.

The rice

American long-grain rice is the obvious choice, but other types could be considered. In our family 'risotto' (in fact more a pilaff) we use Basmati rice, and cook the dish covered, on a low heat with just the right amount of liquid for 15-20min, resting for a further 5-10. Basmati is fragile, and disintegrates if stirred much during cooking, or if cooked with too much liquid for too long.

For authenticity we have used the American rice in Jambalaya but find its more difficult to cook: it seems to take much longer to cook through, but is more robust then Basmati and can be stirred -- essential with a large open pan.

Close relatives to jambalaya are of course the Spanish paella, and even the Italian risotto. Both use (different) types of round rice that absorb liquid and flavouring very well, and actually benefit from frequent stirring and cooking in an open pan. We haven't yet tried them in jambalaya but will one day.

The liquid

As a rule of thumb, rice will absorb twice its volume of liquid during cooking. Different strains vary a bit in their absorbancy, and it pays to know your particular rice's characteristics. With plain boiled rice it is thus fairly easy to work out how much liquid you will need, but when making this kind of concoction, with plenty of moisture in the ingredients (especially tomatoes) its not so straightforward.

We tend to make up the liquid volume with fresh chicken stock and of course the juice from the canned tomatoes, plus or minus some passata. Its probably best to underestimate the volume initially, and to add some as you go along. That's very much how the Italians cook risotto.

The pan

Jambalaya is a 'community' dish and is often cooked in huge, wide, open pans. The closest we have is a large carbon steel paella pan which works a treat. A vey large frying pan or wok might be suitable alternatives. A lid is probably not an option with the larger pans, and the evaporation will impact on the amount of liquid required.

Final tip

Jambalaya is fine kept warm for a couple of hours or so. It will take longer than you think, so allow plenty of time and have it ready before your guests arrive.