Saints' big game spurs Big Easy food ideas

'So I hear you're a Who Dat girl."

My father-in-law's teasing voice -- and his joy over the Saints' advance to the Super Bowl -- made me laugh.

You see, my lack of interest in sports is a running joke in the family. Even my husband, KSEE 24 sportscaster Ralph Gaston, gave up coaxing me to watch just one Saints' football game.

He didn't realize this: I'm riveted by this season because of his family's long-standing ties to New Orleans. So, while Ralph watched the NFC Championship game at work, I turned it on at home. By the time my jubilant husband returned, I was talking excitedly about regulation time and turnovers and interceptions -- all foreign words to me until that afternoon.

That night, we danced to Saints songs from, watched videos of crowds on Bourbon Street, and made plans to cook gumbo and jambalaya for the Super Bowl.

The last time we followed New Orleans news so closely was during Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 storm chased away generations of the Gaston family.

Uncle Cameron was one of the lucky ones. When he returned, his new home was still standing on the west bank of the Mississippi River, across from New Orleans. But its roof had holes, its kitchen was flooded, its fence was knocked down, and there was no electricity. His old home and his mother's house also survived. "The money wasn't coming in from insurance companies," he says. "We had some savings, but the insurance they paid us wasn't enough for what we had to do."

So he fixed up the three homes himself and rented out two of them to make ends meet.

"It was a trying time," he says. "It was just working long hours starting before the sunrise and ending after the sunset."

Now a teacher, Uncle Cameron tries to instill that resiliency in his students. The Saints' shot at the Super Bowl -- the first since the franchise started playing in 1967 -- is a great example.

"I think it helps to boost people's aspirations," he says. "You don't give up until it's over. Don't give up, keep trying while there's hope."

I heard that repeatedly when collecting family recipes for the Super Bowl.

"Coming back from Katrina, it's a great, great rallying point for them," said my father-in-law, Ralph Sr.

After the NFC Championship, he headed from Uncle Cameron's house into New Orleans. The scenes: cars inching their way over bridges and brass bands on street corners surrounded by party-goers. At the airport the following day, fans clad in black and gold hollered "Who Dat?" and "We Dat!" again and again.

I guess I'm one of them now. Or, I kind of cook like them, anyway. Last weekend consisted of finding Andouille sausage and crab boil seasonings, pulling crabs apart, making shrimp stock and agonizing over roux.

The jambalaya, my mother-in-law's recipe, can be found below. As for the gumbo, I'll do another test batch before posting that recipe. Look for it on my blog -- in time for the Super Bowl.

Shrimp-and-sausage jambalaya

Makes about 4 servings

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 cups diced, cooked sausage (smoked, hot, or Andouille)

1 onion, chopped

1 cup chopped bell peppers (a mix of red and green)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced, salt-free tomatoes

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

2 1/2 cups water or, preferably, stock (see note)

1 cup uncooked long-grain rice

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more, if needed

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or to taste (optional; add only if you don't use Andouille sausage)

1 pound peeled, cleaned, uncooked shrimp (reserve heads and shells if making shrimp stock; see note)

Heat oil over medium heat in a large, deep skillet or pot. Cook sausage until brown.

Add onions, bell peppers and garlic; cook until tender. Add Worcestershire sauce, tomatoes and tomato paste, water or stock, rice, bay leaf, salt, thyme and cayenne pepper, if using.

Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Gently stir in shrimp and continue to simmer about 10 more minutes.

Taste; stir in additional salt, if necessary, then serve.

Note: If using stock, choose reduced-sodium chicken stock or shrimp stock. (To make shrimp stock: Boil the heads and shells of 1 pound shrimp in 1 quart water. Strain through cheesecloth, then stir in 1/2 teaspoon crab boil seasoning.)

This is a versatile recipe. Feel free to add other meats, such as chicken.

-- Original recipe from Denise Gaston, adapted by Joan Obra