Jewell Parker Rhodes:
Shrimp and Ham Jambalaya
An easy recipe for a classic Louisiana Jambalaya made with shrimp,
ham, sausage and/or chicken.
As a junior in college, I took my first creative writing course. The professor said, “Write about what you know.” I wanted to write about what I could imagine! So, naturally, loving food, I went home and read my Time-Life Cookbook on Creole and Acadian Cooking. (It was a gorgeous set with a spiral bound recipe book with a lovely companion text about the region and culture.) Reading, I became transfixed by the history, culture and atmosphere of Louisiana and the story of Marie Laveau, a nineteenth-century voodoo queen.
Since I was a native Pittsburgher, there was absolutely no reason why I should be drawn to Marie Laveau – or so I thought – but fourteen years later, I published my first novel, Voodoo Dreams, a 1993 Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Authors” selection. In the intervening years, I cooked every recipe in my cookbook, visited New Orleans regularly – drinking and eating marvelous food! The odyssey of writing about Laveau and embracing the “mixed-blood stew” of Louisiana culture turned out to be deeply spiritual. As a first generation college student, abandoned by my mother as an infant, I was starving for self-knowledge, how best to live my life, how to become a novelist, and how to be a good wife and mother.
I discovered, in writing Voodoo Dreams, how to celebrate myself and my voice, my womanist strength! I also discovered the spiritual and southern folklore roots of my family. My grandmother, it turns out, was a “conjure woman” – but that’s another story! Still, I remain firmly convinced that I was “called” to write about Marie and that food was the magic that drew me to her and stirred my imagination.
Now, I’m writing a mystery trilogy about a Laveau descendent that uses spirituality and science to heal and solve crimes. Voodoo Season, Yellow Moon, and the upcoming Hurricane Levee Blues, all involve the glory of New Orleans, as well as its tragedies of hurricanes and historic racism and sexism.
For Yellow Moon, I recommend you mix yourself a strong Hurricane (New Orleans’s native brew) and let me entice you with a tale of a sexy, brilliant doctor who sees ghosts, is loyal to her friends, and fiercely defends her child, as she battles an ancient evil – a wazimamoto – a vampire from African folklore, born in response to colonial oppression.
Afterwards, party hard – as if you were in the French Quarter! Put on the Neville Brothers’s CD, “Yellow Moon”, and serve this fantastic Shrimp and Ham Jambalaya(from the Time-Life cookbook I read and cooked from decades ago). For good measure, have another Hurricane! Though New Orleans has its sorrows, it also has the uplifting spirit of its music, its defiant Hurricane drink, and soul-sustaining, one pot jambalaya. And it has St. Louis Cemetery, where folks still leave food offerings at Laveau’s tomb. If you feel the presence of spirits – get up, dance and sing, eat more food! It’s probably Laveau telling you, like she told me, “Life be a celebration! Being a woman is just fine.”
Prep time: 1 hour
From American Cooking: Creole and Acadian,
by Peter S. Feibleman and the editors of Time Life Books (Time Inc., 1971)
Note: This recipe calls for shrimp and ham, but other meats, such as sausage or chicken, can be substituted for the ham.
Short grain rice produces a stickier jambalaya than long grain rice. If you like very sticky rice, you can also pound short grain rice to make it starchier, using a mortar and pestle, food grinder, or by pulsing several times in a food processor. If short grain rice is not available, you can pound long grain rice. Use unpounded long grain rice if you prefer non-sticky jambalaya.
2 cups water
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 cup short-grain or long-grain white rice (see note)
2 pounds uncooked medium sized shrimp (16-20 to the pound), shelled and deveined
6 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1 (16 ounce) can tomatoes, drained, and liquid reserved, finely chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 cup finely chopped green pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley, preferably the flat leaf Italian variety
3 whole cloves, pulverized or finely crushed (approximately 3/8 teaspoon ground cloves)
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound cooked lean smoked ham, trimmed of excess fat, and cut into 1/2 inch cubes (see note)
- Bring the water and 1 teaspoon of salt to boil in a small saucepan set over high heat. Add the rice, stir once or twice and cover the pan. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, until the rice is tender and the grains have absorbed all of the liquid. Fluff the rice with a fork, cover and set aside.
- In a large sauce pan, bring enough salted water to boil to cover the shrimp. Wash the shrimp briefly in a colander set under cold running water. Drop the shrimp in the water and boil uncovered for 4 – 5 minutes, or until they are pink and firm. With a slotted spoon transfer the shrimp to a bowl and set aside.
- In a heavy 5-6 quart casserole, melt the butter over moderate heat. When the foam begins to subside, add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for about five minutes, or until they are soft and translucent but not brown. Add the tomatoes, reserved tomato liquid and tomato paste and stir over moderate heat for five minutes. Then add the celery, green pepper, parsley, cloves, thyme, red pepper, black pepper and the remaining teaspoon of salt. Cook uncovered over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are tender and the mixture is thick enough to hold its shape lightly in the spoon.
- Add the ham, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the shrimp and stir. When shrimp are heated through add the rice. Stir over moderate heat until the mixture is hot and the rice has absorbed all of the liquid in the pan. Taste for seasoning and serve at once.
Yield: 6 –8 servings