In Defense of American Food • 07.07.10
As an American living abroad, I’ve gotten used to hearing people’s unprompted opinions about the US. I’ve heard the good (Americans are so optimistic!), the bad (Americans are destroying the planet with their SUVs!) and the totally silly (Americans always wear white sneakers!)
I usually don’t pay much attention to the sweeping generalisations made about a nation of 380 million people- some of who do wear glaringly white sneakers, drive Hummers and look on the bright side. But, occasionally someone will say to me “There’s no such thing as ‘American’ food. Americans only eat fast food.” And, well… that one just pisses me off.
America has an amazing food culture. Those willing to look beyond the drive-thrus will find a wealth of distinct, local culinary habits. The South has soul food like fried chicken and collard greens and grits. The North East has clam chowder and lobsters and grinders. The South West has Tex-Mex. Nebraska has steak. North Carolina has barbeque. Chicago has pizza. Seattle has coffee.
One of my personal favourite food cultures in America is found in Louisiana. Proper Cajun food is a uniquely American delight. A fusion of rustic French techniques, local produce and African influences, Cajun food is a great example of how cooks adapted old methods to make something new and truly American. A melting pot cuisine, if you will.
My husband is from Georgia and was raised on proper Southern food like sweet tea, biscuits and gravy and fried pork chops. But, his favourite American food is easily Cajun food. He loves dirty rice and gumbo and crawfish. And, he makes a mean jambalaya. Richly flavoured and spicy, his jambalaya is enough to make me feel sorry for those who think that America has no more to offer the culinary world than fast food. Those people are missing out on a whole nations worth of deliciousness.
600 grams (1 ¼ lbs) chicken breast
500 grams (1lb) spicy sausages
1 large brown onion
2 stalks celery
5 cloves garlic
3 spring onions
¼ cup vegetable oil, plus more for sautéing
¼ cup plain flour
2 tbs Cajun seasoning* (or more if you want your jambalaya very spicy)
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups pureed tomatoes (we used a jar of tomato passata)
500 grams (1lb) prawns
200 grams (a little less than ½ lb) okra
3 cups cooked long-grain white rice- to serve
chopped parsley- to serve
Chop the chicken into bite sized pieces. Remove the sausages from their casings and break the sausage meat up into bite sized pieces.
Add about a tsp of vegetable oil to a large heavy pan and place the pan over medium heat. Brown the chicken in the oil.
While the chicken is browning, dice the onion, chop the celery into small pieces and mince the garlic and the spring onion. Once the chicken has browned well, but is not cooked all the way through, remove the chicken from the pan and keep it in a bowl to the side.
Add another tsp of vegetable oil, the onions and the celery to the pan. Fry the onions and celery for 10-15 minutes, until they are soft and translucent. About a minute before the onions and celery are done, add the garlic and the spring onions to the pan. Stir well. Remove the onions, celery, garlic and spring onions from the pan and keep in a bowl to the side.
Add the flour and a ¼ cup vegetable oil to the pan to make a roux. Stir this mixture until it becomes very thick, like a paste. Keep stirring the roux as it slowly browns. As you stir, scrape up any bits of browned chicken or onions that may still be in the pan. This will add a great depth of flavour to the roux. Allow the roux to cook and brown for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Don’t’ let your roux burn… it should be a nice dark beige colour.
Once your roux is ready, add the chicken, onions, celery, garlic and spring onions back into the pan and stir to combine with the roux. Add your Cajun seasoning and stir again. Then add your chicken stock, tomato puree and sausage meat to the pan. Allow this mixture to come to a simmer and to simmer together for at least 30-45 minutes. It should be thick and creamy from the roux and spicy from the Cajun seasoning.
At this point you can refrigerate or freeze your jambalaya. This is the type of meal that’s best served the day after it’s made, so I recommend getting the jambalaya to this point, then allowing it to cool and popping it in the fridge overnight.
If you do put the jambalaya in the fridge overnight, then place the pan on a very gentle heat to bring it back up to a simmer. If you don’t put it in the fridge, then just let the jambalaya continue to simmer.
While the jambalaya is coming up to a simmer, chop the okra into bite sized pieces. Add the okra to the pan and allow to simmer with the jambalaya for 5 -7 minutes. Then, add the prawns to the pan and allow to cook for 2-4 minutes or until cooked through.
Serve the jambalaya scooped over bowls of rice and sprinkled with freshly chopped parsley.
*We bring big jars of Cajun seasoning home in our suitcases every time we visit the US. If you can’t find Cajun seasoning in your area you can make it. Mix cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, chilli powder and some dried basil. Make it to your taste- more onion powder and garlic powder if you don’t like spicy food, more cayenne if you want it hot!