Let the good times roll with hearty jambalaya

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As New England wrestles the last throes of winter, things in New Orleans are heating up with the final days of Mardi Gras, which traditionally begins on Twelfth Night (Jan. 6) and ends on Fat Tuesday Eve (the night before Ash Wednesday).      

Because the point of Mardi Gras is to enjoy life's excesses before the fasting and simple, reflective life of Lent begins, Creole and Cajun dishes — such as jambalaya, gumbo, dirty rice, and red beans and rice — are a major part of the celebration. And let's not forget the King Cake, an oval pastry with a sugary icing in Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. Each cake contains a small plastic baby, and the person who finds the baby must buy the next King Cake.

These easy, hearty versions of Cajun classics feed a crowd on any cold night. A slow-cooker version of jambalaya gives you the same flavor of a long, slow boil on the stove, but with half the work. And, it's ready for you when you walk in the door after a long day. Skinless chicken breasts and turkey kielbasa keep this recipe on the light side, and long-grain brown rice can just as easily be substituted for a healthy grain option. Or, our stove-top dirty rice can be a delicious way to celebrate on a weeknight with a little planning. Just be sure to keep an eye on your rice as it's cooking in the stock so as not to burn any on the bottom of the pan.

If you don't have Cajun seasoning, simply mix up your own. Combine 3 tablespoons paprika, 2 tablespoons fine kosher salt, 2 tablespoons garlic powder, 1 tablespoon ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon ground white pepper, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, 1 tablespoon cayenne, 1/2 tablespoon dried thyme. You can store this in a sealed container for up to 1 year, or, at least, until next Mardi Gras season.

SLOW COOKER CHICKEN AND SHRIMP JAMBALAYA

(From "Cooking Light Chicken Delight!")

INGREDIENTS:

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces

3/4 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 cups chopped onion

1 cup chopped green bell pepper

1 cup chopped celery

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 ounces turkey kielbasa, halved and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

2 teaspoons salt-free Cajun seasoning

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (optional)

Two 4 1/2-ounce cans diced tomatoes with onion and green peppers, undrained

One 14-ounce can fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth

Two 3 1/2-ounce-bags boil-in-bag long-grain rice

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon hot sauce

Fresh parsley leaves (optional)

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DIRECTIONS:

Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add chicken; cook 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Place chicken in an electric slow cooker.

Add onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic to pan; saute 4 minutes or until tender. Add onion mixture, turkey kielbasa, and next 5 ingredients (through chicken broth) to slow cooker. Cover and cook on LOW for 5 hours.

Cook rice according to package directions. Add cooked rice and remaining ingredients except parsley garnish to slow cooker. Cover and cook on HIGH 15 minutes or until shrimp are done. Garnish with parsley leaves, if desired.

***

DIRTY RICE WITH SMOKED SAUSAGE

(Courtesy of the Neelys/Food Network)

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups long-grain white rice

5 cups chicken stock, divided

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound smoked pork sausage, sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 large onion, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 medium green bell pepper, chopped

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

DIRECTIONS:

Make the rice, in a medium saucepan combine the rice and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until all the stock is absorbed into the rice, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a heavy-bottomed saute pan over medium-high heat. Brown the sausage. Once browned, add the garlic, onion, celery, and green bell pepper. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add 1 cup chicken stock and cayenne. Cook until the stock has reduced a little. Add the cooked rice and parsley and stir thoroughly. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Optional: Hot sauce, such as Frank's Red Hot, added to taste.


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