Eating My Feelings: Making My Peace with Tomato Paste and How to Make a Great Jambalaya
Welcome to our cooking column Eating My Feelings, where Calvin Amari shows all you broke bastards how to cook great food on the cheap and do it with hilarity. This motherfucker can cook, trust me. He’s a culinary genius.
By Calvin Amari
How did I end up here? How did I end up as a degenerate food junkie whore? A dirty pirate food hooker if you will. How did I get here? The answer to this question requires that I back track a bit. I was twelve, lying in my sleeping bag in a tent between my two camp counselors… my normal cabin counselor and special canoe trip counselor who is nameless and faceless in my memory…. How did I get here? I wondered as the larger of the two forced me by the scruff of my neck face first into his sleeping bag. I didn’t know why this was happening. I didn’t know what the purpose of his action was at first. Then it hit me. He had passed gas and wanted me to experience it. And by experience it I mean he wanted me to chew it… to breathe it in deep and let it permeate my existence. He was a mountain of a man. Six foot seven and likely inbred. As he held my head next to his ass I was struck by the intensity of the sulfuric content of his gas… struck by how strong he was… struck by how long his shit wind lingered… struck by how it was the single worst smell I’ve ever encountered in my life. Struck by eggs.
We had been laughing… all of us for the first time since we left Camp Manito-Wish. The other kids who I didn’t know or like or trust in one tent and me and the counselors in the other. Laughing, and it was fun… and then I was in a world of shit.
I reflected on why this largest of mammals would inflict this on me… now as an adult and a parent and a school teacher… I get it… sometimes that relationship needs to cross a line. I had been very needy on the trip… unsure of myself, a poor paddler, and a winey little bitch when it came to eating my pizza poof. He was trying to help me grow up. He was saying man up city boy… man up or the world is going to Dutch Oven you over and over. Upon reflection, let me say, thank you large man, thank you for farting in my face. You helped me grow up. Thank you.
Now for the pizza poof. For that, I will never forgive you, Camp Manito-Wish counselors. It all started in a benign manner. One could safely say they were even excited to announce that on the menu that evening was pizza puffs. You may be reading this and thinking, oh pizza puffs on the trail, what a very creative and fun way to engage the campers in cooking and eating (if you’re thinking that… shut up). The deal was this: they had made some dough and then we were to assemble our pizza puff and they would then cook it in a frying pan over the campfire. Again, you may be thinking… oh a pizza poof that sounds delightful… just like a calzone, and you’d be right, but not in this instance… this was something different, something vile.
Let’s just say I was a picky eater. I wouldn’t eat cheese on anything but pizza… I wouldn’t eat a tomato that hadn’t been cooked and pureed, or anything that had even exchanged a knowing glance with an onion. In fact, the list of things I wouldn’t eat was much longer than that of the things I would. So when I heard pizza puffs, I breathed a sigh of relief… at least I wasn’t going to eat mac and cheese again like the last night when they put corn in it and told me I’d get to see it again later. At least I was back on familiar ground… in my safe place.
The toppings were displayed and explained to us. This is tomato paste… it’s like pizza sauce, but a little goes a long way, so don’t over do it. Here… this is oregano and this is cheddar cheese (by this point my mind was racing…. What in the fuck kind of pizza poof is this? Are you off you’re fucking rocker? Cheddar cheese?) And this is summer sausage. ????? How is this pizza I wondered? Oh shit, I’m in for it here I thought… and I was… I was proper fucked on this one because how much is just a little tomato paste? Was it just three big spoonfuls? Probably, lets go with that. I had grabbed too much dough as well. That along with several 1cm chunks of cheddar cheese and some summer sausage yielded a pizza poof roughly the size of a guinea pig.
What do you think happened when it made it into the frying pan? Did it miracle its ass into palatability? Of course not. No my friends, the outside of the massive dough ball burned while the inside remained at a constant and uncooked temperature.
It was raw and saltless (how could they not have insisted that we salt the tomato paste?). And what the fuck is summer sausage? My eyes welled up with tears and I sat there paralyzed while the kids with mullets ate theirs with the verve and gusto that they would later in life employ to bed their first meth addled cousin outside the shed.
I was trapped. I couldn’t go home and I was as alone as I’d ever been. They insisted that I eat the whole thing and I sat there and cried and tried and stood my ground. I knew that nothing mattered more than not eating this abomination. No amount of punishment or diminishment of character would faze me… this wretched odious mess was unwelcome in my soul’s vessel. Fuck them and fuck that pizza poof.
That night (after they had given up on trying to make me eat it) I truly felt relief. When they allowed me to volunteer to be in the counselor tent I felt safe, and when the big guy gave me a high definition odorphonous image of his colon I thought to myself… at least it’s not that fucking pizza poof.
So here’s the way you should actually use tomato paste:
My friend from New Orleans, Chris taught me to use tomato paste. He made me jambalaya, and if used proportionally and at the right time tomato paste creates a glaze over the rice and a base for the flavor of this dish.
Dice 3 yellow onions, two red a yellow and a green pepper. Mince a head of garlic, and four large stalks of celery, Slice 12oz to 1lb of andouille sausage into thin disks. Cube and salt one pound of chicken breasts…. Boneless skinless. Measure out a pound of rice (preferably something hearty like Arborio) and open the smallest container of tomato paste you can find.
Cook the sausage in a large Dutch oven (this is a cooking pan… heavy walled and lidded… not a gift to give your lover) until they are browned and have released their fat… add chicken breast and stir occasionally till it is seared off. Take the proteins out of pan and set aside.
Add a good bit of olive oil and leave fat from sausage in pan. Heat on high till it is threatening to smoke. Add bells and onions and stir till they are softened. Add onion and garlic at a reduced temp.
Stir in the raw rice. Let it toast and catch the oil from the cooking vegetables stirring continuously so as not to let it burn or stick.
After a few minutes add in a bit less than half the tomato paste and be a vigilant stirrer, as it will burn if not attended to properly here. Stir to coat the rice and veg … roughly a minute and then add 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then let it simmer stirring periodically. Salt the shit out of it. Add much cayenne pepper and paprika and chili powder and mix in.
Add protein back in and stir periodically. As the liquid thickens taste the rice. Continue to add liquid (stock can be used but it’s not necessary) until the rice is al dente and the sauce is tight.
I like it to be tight you may like it loose but it’s up to you. Taste and season again.
I urge you to go to The Front Porch (in SF) and eat their delicious food and season your jambalaya with either their red or orange hot sauce (you can buy a bottle to take home… it is outstanding)
I made this dish the other day with my three year old helping me stir and my 1.5 year old in my left arm slowing me down. The bigger wore his chef coat and loved dumping in the veg and the water and the rice. Later when it was served he said he’d try some… picky little bugger refused… straight up stone walled me and I want is for him to experience food and to be open to it and so I tried to leverage him into eating it. And it didn’t work. He cried like I cried and I was an asshole. And then I wrote this.
Love peace and chicken grease,
photo from someecards