Healthy Jambalaya Recipe: Reclaiming “Unhealthy” Southern Cooking

Healthy Jambalaya Recipe: Reclaiming “Unhealthy” Southern Cooking

Healthy Jambalaya Recipe

Jambalaya? Healthy?

As I’ve mentioned a few times on my site, I am originally from the South — Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to be exact. I attended Louisiana State University, tailgated at crawfish boils for football games, and spent celebratory meals at the Chimes, where alligator is definitely on the menu!

In other words, my heritage, when it comes to cuisine, is most decidedly French and heavily inspired by the influences of Cajun and Creole dishes and traditions. I am enthralled with food as an art form and expression of culture, and I celebrate food as a way of bringing people together.

However, most people associate Southern dining with being terribly unhealthy – and for the most part, they’re right! As Dr. Andrew Weil says:

Ham glazed with Coca-Cola, twice-fried chicken, cream gravy, and other fat-and-sugar-laden traditional entrees explain why the terms ‘healthy’ and ‘Southern cooking’ are seldom linked.”

Two Souths

I agree. However, having grown up in the Deep South, I (along with many other people who are from or live in the South that are committed to healthy eating) know that there are two “Southern” food traditions that run parallel:

Traditional Southern Cuisine 

There is the traditional cuisine that is the result of merging Native American, European, African, Caribbean and other food cultures. The dishes that came from this fusion are heavy on legumes, rice, corn, cooked colorful vegetables like squash and greens, and local seafood and small game (squirrels, birds, rabbits, etc.). This food is fairly inexpensive, resourceful, nutritious, and abundant. This diet, while it does incorporate animal fats (in sometimes generous amounts and from odd parts of the animal), is primarily driven by vegetables, grains, and spices, and has an overall sound nutritional profile.

Manufactured Southern Cuisine 

… And then there is the stereotypical (yet sadly true) low-quality decadence that dominates the Southern food scene in the national eye – deep-fried, salty everything and a general over-use of animal fats, sugar, fast food, and manufactured foods. It is a somewhat recent phenomenon – as personal trainer and fellow Southern expat Erika Nicole Kendall writes:

When I think back to my almost-100-year-old great-grandmother and her garden in Selma, Alabama, I don’t remember salt and grease. I don’t remember fried chicken, and I’m pretty sure she’s never cooked it for me. I got that from my mother.”

Like many other Southern people my age, I grew up with a bit of both. I had collard greens, cornbread, catfish, and crawfish ettouffe. I also had Little Debbies, funnel cakes, fried chicken (fried everything, actually), and too much gravy for my own good. When I moved away from the South, I temporarily disavowed any connection with my heritage – I didn’t want to be associated with what I perceived to be a uniquely Southern food problem.

However, what I’ve learned over time is that this industrial shift has happened in every food tradition that has reached American shores. People who go to Mexico are often shocked at how unlike Tex-Mex authentic Mexican food really is. Visitors to Italy are unprepared for the abundance of fruits and vegetables, when comparing a Tuscan table to an Italian-American restaurant menu. Did you know that until the 1970’s, broccoli or mixed vegetables – not pasta – was served with shrimp scampi in Italian-American restaurants?

This over-dependence on heavily-processed foods, which has developed in the last 50-70 years throughout the United States in general, has had a disproportionate effect on the South for a host of economic, historical, and socio-cultural reasons. The South’s food problem is just an intense distillation of America’s food problem. The consequence is that this distorted, caricatured version of the traditional Southern diet has obscured the simplicity and nutrition of basic dishes like gumbo, red beans and rice, shrimp ettouffe, and, yes, jambalaya (I promise the recipe is still coming!). And it has made the South a stereotype of diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and obesity.

Now, I stand up for the cuisine of the South, because it’s not all “industrial pseudotradition” like Popeyes and canned biscuits and gravy.

Traditional Southern food is beautiful, simple, plant-based, and often can also be very inexpensive. Southern food, in short, could be the poster child of hipster, farm-to-table, sustainable cuisine. However, Southern food is also often dependent upon the time and skill of a cook who will invest energy in actually cooking.

Southern cooking is all about ingredients and preparation.

Are you ready?

Healthy (and Easy) Jambalaya Recipe

The Shopping List

  • 2 cups short-grain brown rice
  • 3 cups and 2 tbsp. vegetable or chicken broth
  • ½ lb. chicken thighs
  • ½ lb. shrimp
  • ½ lb. Andouille sausage (I get chicken sausage)
  • 1 sweet onion
  • 3 stalks celery
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 head garlic
  • 5 large tomatoes
  • Cayenne pepper to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning to taste

This is a “stand at the stove” recipe.

What To Do 

  • Finely dice the onion, celery, bell pepper (known as the “holy trinity” in Cajun cooking), carrot, and garlic. This combination can also be called a mirepoix, and can be found pre-diced in some grocery stores. Toss this into the 2 tbsp. of stock at the bottom of a sauce pan over medium high heat. Let these vegetables turn translucent and brown slightly.
  • Cube up the chicken thighs and slice the Andouille sausage. Toss this meat into the sautéed vegetables.
  • Peel and de-vein the shrimp, and either leave the tails on or cut them off (your preference). Add them to the meat in the saucepan. Stir and allow to cook through until they are fully white and pink.
  • Chop up the tomatoes and add them to the mix.
  • Finally, add the two cups of rice and three cups of stock to the saucepan, and allow to reach a boil.
  • Turn the heat down to low, and cover. Stir occasionally.
  • Season to taste with salt, Cayenne, and Tony Chachere’s.
  • Serve!

The result is a beautiful, sticky, satisfying, nutritious Southern dish. The texture and shine comes from the mirepoix and the cooking of the rice, not necessarily from oil. While there is a bit of fat that will come from the meat, there is no need for added oil in this dish.

Remember, even though this is a “healthy version” of Southern cooking, portion sizes still matter! I hope that you are following my whole meal prep series. If so, this dish makes six servings total and should be separated into six separate dishes for storage before eating any of it. This is essential to the meal prep method!

Bon appétit! 

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