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Jambalaya: an easy and cheap way to feed a crowd

If you want to start an argument, insist that you know the origins of jambalaya. Some people think it derived from Spanish paella, others say the French had a spoon in it, and you just can’t discount the influence of Native cultures and the good things that the Creoles (sons and daughters of French and Spanish settlers born in North America) added to the recipe along the way.

But really, who cares? Jambalaya is a go-to recipe for people whose purse strings are drawn tight and for those expecting a crowd. It is inexpensive, hearty, and delicious.

Typically, jambalaya has a vegetable base, what we call the Holy Trinity, made of onion, celery and bell pepper. The meat component can be ham or sausage, perhaps a few pieces of chicken, and added last of all to the pot, seafood. What makes this recipe so good in that the rice is stirred into the base, stock is added, and the rice picks up the combined flavors. It is a one pot special perfect for leftovers too!

There are a few tips that will help you make sure the jambalaya you make for your family is killer good. First of all, take your time, this recipe does not require you to hover over the stove, but if you rush through each step, your results will be less rewarding.

When sautéing the vegetables make sure to do it low and slow. The end result should be caramelized, brown and delicious. Think of the difference between a raw onion and a dark brown caramelized onion, that’s the flavor range possible and you want the most flavor out of each ingredient. Do the same thing with the sausage or ham. Cook in a little oil or butter, and make sure each piece is golden brown. If you really want to make the best jambalaya possible, make your own chicken stock. If you are going to add shrimp or fish, sauté it in a little butter, but don’t overdo it. Add the seafood at the very last, nothing is worse that overcooked seafood of any type.

Now to the fun part. There are quite a few things that you can add that are not traditional. Use sushi or Italian arboreal rice and the results will be creamy and delicious.  Add jalapeno peppers and lots of garlic to make a super fortified version. Use two kinds of sausage, a good smoked sausage and Polish, or use ham and bacon for a real difference.

Perhaps one of the most interesting jambalaya ideas came from my friend Frank Westovich. He retired from the Coast Guard and told me that on many of the boats that they stopped coming out of Cuba, they found pots of what looked like jambalaya but was made with yellow rice. They began to call it Cuban jambalaya. 

Basic Jambalaya recipe

1 chopped onion

1 chopped bell pepper

2/3 cup chopped celery

4-5 cloves chopped garlic

1 cup sliced sausage or ham

1 cup jasmine rice 

2 cups homemade chicken stock

1 pound large shrimp

Salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes

Olive oil as needed

Sauté the sausage or ham in oil until well browned, remove and set aside. Add the shrimp to the same pan, season liberally, and cook for two minutes, remove and set aside. In the same pan, sauté the chopped onions in a little oil, along with a pinch of red pepper flakes for five minutes, add the bell peppers and celery and cook for five more minutes. Add the rice to the vegetables and stir until well coated. Add the sausage or ham and the saffron stock, cover with a tight-fitting lid and turn the heat to low. Cook for 20-25 minutes without removing the lid. Add the shrimp, toss well, and you’ll have a fantastic dish right in front of you.


Written by Julian Brunt

Julian Brunt is a food and travel writer that has been writing about the food culture of the Deep South for over a decade. He is the eleventh generation of his family to live in the South, grew up in Europe, traveled extensively for the first fifteen years after graduating from the University of Maryland, University College, Heidelberg, Germany. Today, he's a contributor for multiple publications, including Our Mississippi Home. He's also appeared on Gordon Ramsay's television show, "To Hell and Back in 24 Hours."


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