Sunday, May 11, 2014

Creole-style Barley Jambalaya

In Minnesota, the hotdish reigns supreme. A hotdish includes meat, vegetables, starch, and some type of soup or similar to stick it all together. One reason the hotdish is so popular is that there are thousands of variations, and therefore it's easy to prepare with what you have on hand, and it's easy to create your own signature hotdish with all your favorite flavors and ingredients.

In the deep South, they have something similar in jambalaya - thousands of flavor and ingredient combinations are possible, so it's easy to be inventive. Many different meats may be used and even combined: chicken, beef, pork, sausages, shrimp, duck, alligator, and ham. Vegetables always include the South's Holy Trinity: red or green bell peppers, onions, and celery. Other vegetables may be added, such as mushrooms, carrots, squash, or garlic, but the Holy Trinity is a must. There are a couple of basics that are useful to remember: Creole-style jambalaya, also known as red jambalaya, has tomatoes and/or tomato sauce. Cajun-style jambalaya, also known as brown jambalaya, is made with a browned chicken stock or beef stock. Rice serves as the starch for this dish.

I decided to experiment a little with more traditional jambalayas by substituting pearled barley for rice (Is this heresy? A sacrilege? Will I be struck down by lightning with a Southern accent?) and cooked it all day in a slow cooker. I like using barley because I love the nutty flavor and the chewiness of the grain. In addition, you can cook it for a very long time in a slow cooker without it getting mushy and falling apart. For the meats, I chose chicken and smoked sausage, because that's what I had on hand. I like tomatoes, so this was a Creole-style or red jambalaya. My family loves garlic, so I used both garlic and shallots along with the onions, celery, and peppers. A few mushrooms and carrots rounded out the vegetables.

This little experiment turned out to be so easy to make, made the house smelled wonderful all day, and was bursting with hearty, spicy flavors. If your family doesn't like it very spicy, just modify some of the spices and concentrate on using paprika, bay leaves, thyme, and oregano. It will still be very flavorful, but not spicy. Be sure to use a smoked sausage or kielbasa rather than a hot or andouille sausage.

Creole-Style Barley Jambalaya
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 cup pearl barley
1 uncooked boneless, skinless chicken breast, diced
1 andouille sausage, diced
2 - 4 ounces ham, diced
2 stalks celery, diced, including leaves
1 large onion, peeled and diced
1 large green or red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 shallot, peeled and diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
8 mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 (14 1/2 ounce) can petit diced tomatoes

2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne (ground red) pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

  1. Place all ingredients in a 5 quart slow cooker; mix well
  2. Cover and cook on LOW for 8 hours or longer
  3. Remove the 2 bay leaves and serve the jambalaya

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Steak and Cooking Class

Last week, I attended a Taste of Home cooking class. There were about 500 people in the audience. The presentation cook prepared 10 different dishes; all recipes were in a little magazine and she shared her shortcuts and substitutions. There was a lot of energy in the room and it was a lot of fun. The magazine - and this particular series of cooking classes - are geared towards the home cook: tasty, nothing fancy, and easy to prepare. I'm interested because this is the type of cookbooks my sisters and I write; they're definitely focused on the home cook who want something easy, delicious, and nutritious.

Along with demonstrating the 10 recipes, the presenter gave some tips and shortcuts, quite a few of which I know and use regularly. But one was new to me and really intrigued me. When you're cooking or grilling a beef steak, how do you know when it's done to your liking? One way is to use a meat thermometer, which definitely works, but also pokes holes in your steak and lets out all the juices. Another way is to cut the steak in half and see what color it is. Again, it works, but the problem is that it also lets out all the precious meat juices. Her trick (and I've since learned that Rachel Ray has also used this on her TV show) is to use your fingers and touch it. First, touch your cheek - if the meat feels like that, it's still rare; touch your chin or the tip of your nose, and it's medium; touch your forehead, and if it feels firm like that, it's well done. My Mom always liked her steak cooked very well done. The joke in our family is that when her steak looked liked a charcoal briquette, it was done. most of us like is a little less done than that!

Tonight, I cooked us New York strip steaks and used the face-touching method. And it worked!
I stopped cooking the steaks just a little rarer than we like them because the meat will continue cooking as it rests. You should let it rest about 5 - 8 minutes to let all the juices settle back into the meat.

If you need a specific temperature for your steak, this would not be the correct method - it's a rough estimate at best. Use a meat thermometer if you want preciseness. But this method works just fine as an estimate and is certainly better than cutting your steak open to peek at the color.