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Making Mardi Gras taste a little more like home

by ALISON LADMAN Associated Press

The sad fact of the matter is, most of us won't make it to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. But that's no reason to forsake some of the city's classic cuisine.

This year, honor Mardi Gras by making jambalaya at home. It's the perfect dish for out-of-towners; it's easy, it's weeknight- and kid-friendly, and it's extremely versatile. Because while there are several basic approaches to jambalaya - Creole and Cajun among them - there really are endless variations on this dish of rice, meat and seafood.

So we decided to put a local spin on jambalaya, with variations playing up ingredients drawn from New England, the Southwest and the West Coast. Just follow the base recipe, adding in the local ingredients of your choice (see the variations below the recipe). And don't hesitate to mix and match. The beauty of a dish like this is that it will be delicious pretty much whichever direction you head.

Jambalaya across the country

This is a have-it-your-way approach to jambalaya. Follow the base recipe below, adding the local variations where indicated. Our suggestions for those variations are listed below the base recipe, but feel free to substitute the ingredients of your choice.

Start to finish: 1 hour

Servings: 12

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 large yellow onions, diced

1 large green bell pepper, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 pound sausage (see below)

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 cups crushed fire-roasted tomatoes

Regional variation of vegetable and seasonings (see below)

2 cups long-grain white rice, such as basmati

2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth

3 bay leaves

1 pound seafood (see below)

Salt and ground black pepper

In a large Dutch oven, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high, heat the vegetable oil. Add the onions, green pepper, celery, red pepper flakes and sausage (see below). Cook, stirring, until browned, about 10 minutes.

Add the chicken, tomatoes, vegetable and seasonings (see below), rice, chicken broth and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender, stirring occasionally. Add the seafood and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until the seafood is cooked through. Season with salt and pepper. Remove and discard the bay leaves before serving.

New England variation

Use bulk breakfast-style sausage. For the vegetables and seasonings use 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage, 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, 1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced, and 1/2 bunch of Swiss chard, chopped. For the seafood, use lobster meat if available, otherwise use peeled and deveined raw shrimp.

Nutrition information per serving: 360 calories; 100 calories from fat (28 percent of total calories); 11 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 85 mg cholesterol; 36 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 26 g protein; 500 mg sodium.

Southwest variation

Use a diced spicy sausage, such as chorizo. For the vegetables and seasonings use 1 tablespoon chili powder, 2 teaspoons cumin, 1 cup frozen or canned corn kernels, 1 minced chipotle pepper plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce from a can of chipotles in adobo, and a 3.8-ounce can sliced black olives. Omit the seafood and instead use a 15-ounce can of drained and rinsed black beans. Finish with 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro.

Nutrition information per serving: 450 calories; 180 calories from fat (40 percent of total calories); 20 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 65 mg cholesterol; 42 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 24 g protein; 810 mg sodium.

West Coast variation

Use 12 ounces of an herbed chicken or turkey sausage, along with 4 ounces chopped prosciutto. In place of the crushed tomatoes, use a 6.35-ounce container of prepared pesto and a 14-ounce can of artichoke hearts (drained), the zest and juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon, and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon. Use lump crabmeat for the seafood. Serve topped with sliced avocado.

Nutrition information per serving: 450 calories; 170 calories from fat (38 percent of total calories); 18 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 105 mg cholesterol; 39 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 31 g protein; 1,050 mg sodium.

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