1.  Where do I start?
When you approach a dish like this and you want to create your own recipe you need a game plan. What do you like for ingredients? What do you want the final dish to taste like? Do you want it to be sweet or hot, strong or mild? What consistency do you want it to be? What proportion of rice to meats and vegetables? So let's start to answer some of these questions and develop your recipe.
Whenever I start any recipe I first think of quantity and number of servings. Am I going to feed two, four or eight. For purposes of recipe development I would never start with more than eight and unless there is good reason not to I would start with four. You can most always double it and usually halve it pretty easily.
When professional cooks develop recipes it is usually in large quantities. The effect of this is that if they add a tablespoon of a spice to 12 gallons of liquid, it is very difficult to maintain that proportion when I am only adding a quart of liquid. If that doesn't make sense, don't worry, it will at some point.
So back to your recipe. We will start with an understanding of what jambalaya is and what our options are for cooking methods.
2.  What is Jambalaya?
As you will see throughout this site I don't get too hung up on "authentic" or "real" claims. Jambalaya is a pretty varied dish which should come as no surprise since it is made with what's on hand. And as flexible as that is, there still comes a point where it stops being jambalaya and becomes something else. For example if I start adding saffron to my rice I probably should call it paella instead of jambalaya, even though the two are closely related. And then there is Cajun vs. Creole, which basically has to do with tomatoes; Creole uses a lot of them, Cajun uses them sparingly.
So for our purposes we're going to say that jambalaya includes the cajun holy trinity, namely onion, celery and bell pepper; garlic; meat and seafood which can include chicken, smoked sausage, andouille, fresh sausage, ham, pork, tasso, shrimp, crawfish and maybe a few more; stock, usually chicken based; and rice, usually long grain white is preferred; and some herbs and spices. And as previously mentioned, tomato is also a consideration. So now that we have loosely defined jambalaya, let's talk about how we might cook it.
3.  How to cook your jambalaya
Having lived in Texas for a number of years I was introduced not only to the foods of Texas but also to those of Southwest Louisiana. Moe, a very dear friend I talked about in the jambalaya recipe post, passed away several years ago and after the church service in Kaplan, LA we all went to the American Legion Hall and jambalaya was the main dish served. I was pretty surprised when first observing the dish and it was brown, made only with pork and rice. When I inquired about it I was told that is the way they always make it in that area, using the grillades.
Very simply stated, grillades is a dish that is made by flouring pork and then browning it in oil and then braising it in a liquid to create a gravy. If you add rice at the end you get what we had and they call it jambalaya. Which in my mind makes it the most authentic kind of jambalaya you can get. No arguing with people born and raised in Kaplan, LA., the heart of Cajun country, telling you this is jambalaya. But it's not the only jambalaya coming out of that region. Far from it. So the first way to cook jambalaya is by using grillades as a base. Feel free to experiment with it and see what you come up with. I will post a recipe for that version at some point in the future so sign up for the newsletter and you will be the first to know when.
I was also introduced to a second way they cook it in that area of Louisiana. Moe would talk about his brother-in-law making it by cooking the trinity with garlic and then adding the meats to cook in some stock and then adding cooked white rice to get the desired consistency he wanted. So in effect using this method you are making the stock right in the pan by cooking the meat and vegetables in water. Then you are absorbing the liquid with the rice to get a relatively dry consistency. Again, jambalaya made by and for people from Cajun country.
The third way to cook it is the way I do it. My recipe is different in that I add the uncooked rice to the pan and saute it a bit to soak up any fat left over from sauteing the vegetables. Then I add the stock and cook the rice in the pan. I feel like it allows the rice to absorb all the goodness of the stock but does take longer because you have to make the stock first. They are all good and all "authentic" so try the different cooking methods and maybe even come up with some creative ways of your own. Of course if you do, please share them with us.
4.  Ingredients - Aromatics
Not a lot of room for discussion here unless you just want to go in a different direction. The Cajun holy trinity of onions, celery and green bell pepper is such a standard that it gets it's own name. Of course, if you are allergic to one of these things or just plain don't like them, leave it out and move on. You can also change the ratio of the trinity. The standard is two parts onion to one part each of celery and pepper. I like celery so I add more.
Garlic is also a nice addition so feel free to use as much as you like. Outside of these items I wouldn't stray too far. If you start adding carrots or kale I think you are getting outside the definition of jambalaya.
5.  Ingredients - Tomatoes
In my mind tomatoes are fine and I will use them about half the time. However, this dish should not be red like American Chop Suey. It is not a tomato based dish. When I use tomatoes I separate the tomatoes from the juices in the can and then will crush the tomatoes with my hands and separate the tomatoes from those juices. That way I can add tomato without turning the dish red. Add them to your own taste. I have had jambalaya in New Orleans that was delicious and my first reaction was how red and "tomatoey" it was.
6.  Ingredients - Liquid
There are two issues here. First, what kind of liquid am I going to use and second, how much do I add? Regarding what to use the base will be either chicken stock or water, mostly depending on how you are cooking the dish. I prefer to make stock with the chicken and some vegetables and use that to cook the rice. But as was discussed earlier, you can add the water with the chicken and then cook that together and add cooked rice.
The important thing here however is the flavor. Much of it is derived from the stock so don't take too many shortcuts here. And also don't stray too far from the stock. You could add a little beer or white wine but this is not a gourmet dish so don't get too carried away.
Regarding how much, this will depend on how much rice you are using. For four servings I usually use about 1 1/4 cups of rice so that would be about 2 cups of stock. And remember, you can always add more if it is too dry, but you can't take it out if you add too much.
7.  Ingredients - Sausage
I have to have smoked sausage in this dish but now that I live in Boston I can't get it. At least I haven't found it. Up here it is all kielbasa so I need to experiment with that at some point I suppose. I was fortunate recently in that a very good friend, Tommy Boyles, who is a great graphic designer at Artisan Field in Houston, came up for a visit and I talked him into carrying a cooler on to the plane with about 6 pounds of Chappell Hill smoked sausage. Very happy day! And he developed the logo on this site too by the way!
I did find a smoked sausage at Wilson Farm in Lexington that was made in NJ and labeled as andouille It's pretty good. I would classify it as a milder andouille so some of it would be good in the dish but it is a little too strong to be the primary meat ingredient, as would be expected from an andouille sausage. So if you can't find Texas/Louisiana smoked sausage, experiment with what you have locally. And you can also experiment with fresh sausage as well. It can be found in many different styles and flavors that will take this dish in some new directions.
Regarding cooking the sausage, there are several options. You can fry it in another pan and add it to the dish during the cooking process; you can bake it either whole or cut in half lengthwise; or you can saute it in the main pan in which case you get all the fat as well. The choice is up to you. I prefer to cut it in half lengthwise and then bake it in the oven on a rack until it gets crisp like bacon. When you add it to the dish it comes right back to form and adds an incredible flavor to the dish.
8.  Ingredients - Chicken
You have several decisions regarding chicken in jambalaya. Do you want to include it? How do you want to cook it? And what kind of chicken to use. I always include it. I think it gives a great base of flavor and texture to the dish. But it certainly is optional as was seen in the grillades style of jambalaya.
You can use any or all of the chicken. I prefer thighs because of the fat content and I think they add flavor and they tend to retain their moisture content when cooking. Drumsticks are an option as are the breasts, although I think breast meat can tend to dry out a bit.
As far as cooking the chicken, traditional jambalaya would start with cooking the skin on chicken in a heavy bottomed pot to render the fat and crisp up the skin. It would then be removed and the trinity would be cooked in the rendered fat. The chicken would then be returned to the pot with the vegetables and some stock and simmered until the chicken is tender. Then the cooked rice would be added to soak up the resultant stock.
The other way to cook the chicken is to simmer it in water with some aromatics until is it tender. Remove it from the liquid and take the chicken off the bones to be used in the dish. The liquid, once strained, can be used as the stock when cooking the dish. And if you know a duck hunter, try using duck in this dish. That would be really good.
9.  Ingredients - Other meat and seafood
Any of several cuts of pork such as ham, tasso (spiced Cajun ham) or raw pork butt/shoulder can also be used in this dish. You can also use shrimp, crawfish or crab to add a differebt twist to your jambalaya. Feel free to experiment here also. Just a note on shrimp, they should go in later in the dish as they don't take as long to cook.
10.  Ingredients - Rice
Typically long grain white rice is used in this dish. I happen to like Uncle Ben's Converted rice just because I am used to cooking with it and I know how it will behave. But any of the long grain white rices will do.
11.  Ingredients - Herbs and spices
This is not traditionally a hot dish in a spicy sense but traditional Cajun food quite often starts with red, white and black pepper to add depth of flavor. Don't overdo this though. It is a background item. When planning your recipe also consider oregano, bay leaf, Worcestershire Sauce, Cajun seasoning like Tony Chachere's, fresh parsley, paprika and thyme, either fresh or dried. This is a matter of taste and what you want your dish to be. The only caution here is you don't want to overshadow the main ingredients in the dish.
12.  Serving your jambalaya
Jambalaya should be served with chopped green onion (scallions for my northern friends), a crusty loaf of french bread, your favorite hot sauce and some fresh green parsley chopped up and sprinkled over the top. A nice glass of amber beer and you have a dish that people will come back for every time you offer it. Have fun with this and please be sure to share your ideas for the best jambalaya recipe. Enjoy!