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Neighbor's Favorite Recipe: Grandma Lessie's Cajun Jambalaya
Maggie Capitano shares jambalaya passed down through generations
"It's my Grandmother Lessie's recipe with a little tweaking," explained Maggie Capitano talking about her Cajun-style jambalaya. "My granny never really had a recipe; it was like some of this and some of that. She just made it. Then my mom just made it, and now I just make it."
The recipe also brought back childhood memories. "I remember going next door to my granny's house to eat on Sundays," she said, "when she'd make a pot of jambalaya, pork and beans, a green salad with French dressing and watermelon."
Maggie, a former professional musician and now a successful Farmers Insurance agent with her own office in Marysville, took time out of her busy schedule to teach me the differences between Cajun and Creole jambalaya and the art of cooking the former.
"There are two different types of jambalaya. There's the red kind which is Creole. This (Cajun) is the more like what the people who live there eat. The Creole has the tomatoes in it. This is the brown type of Cajun jambalaya."
Another difference, she explained, is that the closer you get to New Orleans, the more the jambalaya has tomatoes in it.
Maggie said when her grandmother moved to California, she brought her Louisiana-style cooking with her.
While cooking is important to Maggie, she said music was her first love. "I used to be in a band around here, and then I went on the road playing music for about 13 years. We played whatever was popular, but mostly country and blues."
She said she traveled around North America with her sister, Regina Allen, and her then-husband playing in bands that changed names and players. "I made a good living playing music."
But that life changed when she reached her early 30s. "I decided if I didn't make it big in the music business by the time I was 30, I wanted to be a business woman.
"When I was 32, I went to work for Earl Davis," who was the local Farmers Insurance agent. "I loved it. Every other job I've had besides music, I'd get bored after about three months. But to this day, I'm never bored. I get paid to help people, and to me, that's awesome," Maggie said.
But that doesn't mean she's given up music. "We're putting a band together with my sister: the Redeye Express."
For the hard-working insurance agent and musician, cooking is a time to relax. "I like to cook because if I'm in the kitchen by myself, it's very soothing. It's creative. I can smell the spices and have a good think."
Talking about the jambalaya, Maggie said, "This is kind of a cheap, hearty dish that would fill you up. You can make it with any kind of meat: seafood, alligator, chicken, pork — whatever. I use chicken and kielbasa.
"Usually when I make the jambalaya, I tweak it a bit, but this time, I'm going right by the recipe. You can use pork chops or even shrimp — but I never have because it's so easy to overcook the shrimp."
When we moved into the kitchen, Maggie showed me how she makes her grandmother's jambalaya.
She explained that any large, deep pot will work, but she prefers a cast iron Dutch oven because of the even heat distribution.
After pouring in a little oil, Maggie dropped in bite-sized pieces of chicken. After stirring them around a little, she left them alone to brown. "You need to get the 'fond' on the bottom of the pan — that's the browned stuff — because that's where the flavor for the jambalaya going to come from."
One issue that just about all cooks have to confront is knowing when the meat — in this case the chicken — is ready to turn over or is done. Maggie said she can tell by the sound. "When it starts to kind of pop, you'll know that it's just about ready to turn over or take out."
Speaking of the chicken, Maggie said, "When my granny was cooking this, she was very frugal. She used every bit of the chicken, including the neck, and the chicken was on the bone."
When the chicken was done, Maggie took it out of the pan and let it rest in a colander to drain off any excess oil. She then put the kielbasa in the same pan and proceeded to "cremate" it. "You want to get the sausage to where it almost looks burned," she said.
After putting the now-blackened sausage into another colander, it was time drain off the excess oil and cook the vegetables.
The first in are the onions, because they need to cook the longest, followed by the celery and bell pepper.
It's those three vegetables that are the base for many types of Southern cooking. "In Cajun recipes, the bell pepper, onions and celery are called the trinity. Usually what you want to do is have 50 percent onions and 25 percent each of the bell peppers and celery. This trinity is used in a lot of Cajun and Creole recipes," Maggie said.
Then all the other chopped vegetables are added except the green onions; she saves those for a topping.
This is where Maggie tweaked the recipe. "I like to put in a few Serrano (chilies) because I like a little more heat," she said. She also puts in twice the number of garlic cloves — six instead of three that her grandmother used.
When all the vegetables were in, she added a little Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce.
She pointed out that the next step is important. While the vegetables are cooking, you need to lightly scrape the fond off the bottom of the pot to bring out all the flavor.
Once the vegetables were lightly browned and the fond was well mixed in, Maggie returned the chicken and kielbasa to the pot, added chicken stock and beer and let it all cook for about 30-45 minutes, depending on the thickness of the meat.
Maggie said that if you don't like beer, you just need to replace it with an equivalent amount of broth.
Once all that was done, Maggie poured in the rice and brought the liquid back up to a boil and cooked the jambalaya for another 25 minutes, or until rice is cooked.
One thing to watch for is under-done rice. She said that if that happens, all you have to do is add a bit more water and cook the whole dish until the rice is done.
"This dish, from start to finish, takes about an hour and a half to two hours, depending on how much meat you're browning."
Once it was all done, Maggie mixed the green onions into the jambalaya and let it rest for about five minutes. She served it with pork and beans and a green salad with French dressing, just like her granny used to do.
GRANDMA LESSIE'S CAJUN JAMBALAYA
Preparation time: 1-1⁄2 to 2 hours
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-1⁄2 pounds boneless chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 14-ounce Polska kielbasa
2 medium onions, chopped
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more if you like it hot
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1⁄2 teaspoon soy sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 cups chicken stock
1 bottle or can of beer
2 cups uncooked white rice
3 green onions, chopped
Heat the oil in a large pot (best to use a cast iron Dutch oven). Sauté chicken until it's browned. Set aside. Add kielbasa to the same pot without washing it; cook until it's well done. Set aside. It's best to let the meats sit in a colander after cooking to drain off any excess oil.
Let the pot cool slightly and drain out any excess oil. Again without washing the pot, add the onion and cook until slightly translucent. Add the bell pepper, celery and garlic and sauté until lightly browned.
Return the meats to the pot and add the chicken stock and beer; bring to a boil and simmer for about 30 minutes. Note: If you don't like beer, add an equivalent amount of chicken stock.
Add the rice and reduce heat to low; cover and cook for 25 minutes, or until rice is done.
Stir in the green onions and let the jambalaya rest for five minutes before serving.
Serve with Louisiana hot sauce.