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World’s Best Jambalaya

The secret is bacon fat.

That’s right. Slowly caramelize the chopped onions in a big handful of rendered bacon fat and you’ll conjure up some terrific sweet flavors to balance all the savory and spice (and to think all this time I’ve just used oil).

I’ve quickly learned that you can’t flinch at pork products in New Orleans. They’re fairly essential to a lot of the big dishes I love — like jambalaya.

As luck would have it, I got to travel out to Slidell, Louisiana, and learn how to make jambalaya from none other than New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh. John was cooking in his own kitchen and with his own pot, with his wife at his side. John believes adamantly in the connection between good food and quality family time, so much so that he just published a book about it. My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking offers dozens of down-home recipes with personal stories about how the family of a very busy chef makes sure that meal time is family time.

Watching such a celebrated chef making something he loves for the people he loves was beyond exciting for me. Not only is John Besh charming and eloquent in person, but he’s a great teacher, too. I learned so much about cooking just by being around him. What’s more, he gave me courage to attempt creating some of the fabulous meals I’ve been eating down here.

Jambalaya is a classic New Orleans dish whose name derives from the French jambon (ham) and the African laya (rice). Like all great creole cooking, it’s packed with a whole cast of flavors, one after the other: smoky bacon, hot red chili, fragrant rice, juicy peppers, the sweet onions. John made his extra special by throwing in a chopped roast pork shoulder.

Now John would never claim that his jambalaya is the best in the world, but I’ll come out and say that it is. I ate one giant plateful and then didn’t refuse when John dished out another massive pile of jambalaya on my plate. Gosh that was good eating.

John isn’t shy about his recipes either. He’s happy to share what he’s learned — and so from New Orleans and out to all of you, he sends the recipe for (the world’s very best) jambalaya:

John Besh’s Pork & Sausage Jambalaya

1/2 pound bacon, diced

1 onion, diced

1/2 bell pepper, diced

1 stalk celery, diced

1 pound smoked pork sausage, sliced

3 cups uncooked converted Louisiana white rice

1 tsp. smoked paprika

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

5 cups chicken broth

1 cup tomato sauce or canned chopped tomatoes

2 cups diced cooked pork

3 green onions, chopped

Salt

1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, cook the bacon over medium-high heat until the fat is rendered, about 3 minutes. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until browned. Add the bell pepper, celery, and sausage. Cook, stirring, for another 3 minutes, then add the rice, paprika, thyme, and red pepper flakes.

2. Increase the heat to high and add the chicken broth and tomato sauce, then the pork and green onions. Stir well and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 18 minutes. Remember, the pork and sausage are already cooked, you’re only making the rice at this point. Remove the post from the heat and it’s ready to serve! Season with salt and Tabasco.

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