Since Gonzales, a small Cajun town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, proclaims itself "The Jambalaya Capital of the World" and sponsors a major festival and cooking competition every June, don't even suggest to any of the locals that this legendary rice dish is considered by many to be a hallmark of Creole cookery. What matters is that the name itself derives from the French jambon, and that some form of ham continues to be the main ingredient of jambalaya even when crawfish or shrimp, poultry, or even game is added to the elaborate dish. Cajuns will tell you that no jambalaya is authentic unless it contains tasso, a highly seasoned local ham rarely found outside Louisiana. Nor are you likely to encounter any jambalaya in the region that doesn't also boast a spicy, smoked pork sausage such as andouille or kielbasa. The best I can determine is that my jambalaya would be classified as Creole by virtue of the fact that it has no tomatoes.
In a heavy 8-quart pot or casserole, cook the salt pork over low heat till all the fat is rendered, add the onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic, and stir till the vegetables soften, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the ham, sausage, salt, pepper, thyme, cayenne, and bay leaves and continue stirring for about 10 minutes longer. Add the rice, and water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 45 minutes. Add the shrimp, stir well, increase the heat to moderate, and stir with a forl till the rice begins to dry out and is fluffy, about 15 minutes.
Serve the jambalaya with Tabasco on the side.
Learn more about James Villas' cookbook Pig: King of the Southern Table by reading Nadia Arumugam's book review from the June/July 2010 issue of Fine Cooking.
Photo: Lucy Schaeffer