Jumbled Jambalaya: Southern-inspired Vegetarian Rice Stew

Just as I was getting used to the idea of being warm in November, remembering to check my scarf and mitts at the door before heading out into the sunny world of North Carolina, Saturday rolled around and I reluctantly dragged my feet onto a plane heading north. As we touched down in a dark, snow-covered Edmonton and the harbinger of bad news, our pilot, apologetically announced a local temperature of -23°C, all that my fellow passengers and I could muster in response – themselves having left Hawaii, Alabama, and the British Virgin Islands – was a slow, uncomfortable laugh; part fear, part disbelief: we left that, for this? Voluntarily?

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Having spent a good part of yesterday digging my car out from under the snow, then navigating it across treacherously snowy roads, and finally fashioning myself a parking spot out of several feet of snow using a hefty shovel and standard Canadian winter driving techniques (which I mentally congratulated myself on for much too long), I can say with confidence that I’m not in denial about the present state of affairs: While I was away, it snowed. A lot.

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However, not being one to let reality get in the way of enjoying things, today I’m taking you back to the south, to share with you a meal inspired by my trip. The dish – a spicy rice-and-bean stew – combines traditions from this part of the world. In line with the Louisiana tomato-and-shellfish stew, étouffée, butter and flour are combined to create a thick sauce. Drawing from another southern classic, jambalaya, rice is added directly to the pot, where it absorbs the sauce’s rich flavours. 

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The results here can’t be considered a traditional étouffée or jambalaya in any sense: the standard shellfish and meat have been replaced with beans, the usual bell pepper that constitutes, alongside onion and celery, the “trinity” of Canjun and Creole cooking has been omitted, and the typical spices have been paired down to be simpler and vegetarian-friendly (no Worcestershire sauce here!). Not to mention that my cooking partner in North Carolina hails from Australia and we were miles from the Deep South, which both dishes call home. 

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But tradition aside, my hope is that you’ll find the results warming and filling, whether you’re enjoying southern temperatures or are sticking it out further north. The recipe is easy to work with, so adjust it to your climate or your tastes. Add veggies as you see fit and swap the hot paprika for something milder if spice isn’t your thing, raising a glass as you do to the old traditions that helped you to create something new.
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Southern-inspired Vegetarian Rice Stew
Makes 8 servings (halves easily)
Inspired by allrecipes.com

Ingredients*
1/2 cup unsalted butter (oh dear)
1 large, white onion, finely chopped
3 ribs of celery, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 19-oz cans of beans (I used a combination of cannellini and kidney)
2 cups long-grain white rice, rinsed
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 bay leaves
2-1/2 tsp hot, smoked paprika
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
3 cups water
1 cup chopped cherry tomatoes 

Directions
1. In a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat.
2. Add to the pot the onion, celery and garlic. Cook over medium-low heat until super-soft, 30 minutes, stirring occassionally.
3. Add flour and cook, stirring occassionally, until flour starts to turn golden (about 5 minutes).
4. Add in beans, rice, tomato paste, bay leaves, paprika, salt, pepper and water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring regularly to prevent rice from sticking.
5. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and cover. Cook for 15 minutes or until rice is tender.
6. Turn off the heat and toss in the cherry tomatoes. Recover the pot and let rice sit off the burner for 5 minutes.
7. Fluff rice with a fork, season to taste, and serve!

*In fitting with southern traditions, next time around I’ll toss in a chopped bell pepper — red or green — at the same time I cook the onions and celery. 

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