If King Solomon wrote a cookbook, there would be a picture of pastalaya on its cover. You want pasta? And you want jambalaya? Pastalaya it is! No one even bothered thinking up a new name, like “Creole linguini” or “Cajun cavatelli.” They went for the portmanteau and called it a day. But what is this creature, really, this pastalaya? Enemy of all that is good and normal? Look, I grew up in Gonzales, Louisiana — the self-proclaimed jambalaya capital of the world! At the annual jambalaya festival, the use of pasta is a disqualifier. Go rice, or go home. But when it is done right, perhaps the wisdom of the recipe becomes apparent. Perhaps rice has been coasting all these years, with the vegetables and seasoning doing all the important work.
“Pastalaya is basically the exact same thing as jambalaya, only with pasta instead of rice,” says Marc Ardoin, the corporate chef for Rouses Markets. Assuming that Gordon Ramsay is not joining you for dinner, you don’t even have to make the pasta fresh. Just grab a bag from the store shelf and chuck it in the basket (though you might want to avoid making eye contact with fellow shoppers). The best pasta to use for a dish like this is bowtie or penne — something with shape.
Like its rice-based counterpart, there are two types of pastalaya: brown and red. Look, I’m not here to judge. If you prefer red jamba/pastalaya, that’s fine, but just be aware that you are the only person who likes it. And every time you cook it for your friends, they like you less and less. They are talking about you behind your back on Facebook. And, serve it one more time, and they will become actively hostile, if not outright enemies. (Not judging.)
When preparing the dish, Ardoin recommends the use of a nice cast-iron pot or something oven-safe with a heavy bottom to it. “You want the heat to be evenly distributed across the bottom of the pot,” he says. Thin cookware might lead to the dish heating more in some places than others, leading to burning. The first step in the preparation is to render your sausage. Cook it low and slow until the fat starts lightly sizzling and melts away from the meat. (If you would also like to use pulled pork in your dish, heat it at the same time.) If pig isn’t enough and you are using all God’s creatures in this dish, pull the sausage from the pot once rendered and add your chicken, cooking it in the pork fat. If you have a favorite Creole seasoning, here’s the time to break it out. (Ardoin recommends Paul Prudhomme’s seasoning blends, which offer a variety of spices without a lot of salt; they also come in no-salt and no-sugar varieties). Once the chicken is nice and brown, remove it.
Veggie time: Without cleaning the pot, add onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, green onion and parsley to the pot, slowly cooking them down. “Make sure you scrape up all those little bits stuck to the bottom of the pot,” advises Ardoin. It’s going to take about 25 minutes to cook the vegetables. This isn’t a race; keep the heat low. Once they are nice and caramelized, begin to reintroduce your meats into the dish. Next, slowly add chicken stock — about three-and-a-half cups of chicken stock per pound of pasta you plan to cook. Again, scrape the bottom of the pot to loosen anything stuck there.
If you hate your friends and wish to make red pastalaya, it’s the same prep, only refrain from cooking your vegetables down as much as you did for the brown variation. You’re aiming here only to get your onions translucent and bell peppers soft. Then add diced tomatoes and the juice from said tomatoes. The tomato juice will cause the reddening of the dish, and will cut the necessary amount of chicken stock down to three cups.
In both cases, once the stock is added, get it to a simmer and add your dry pasta, making sure that it is completely submerged in the liquid. Put a lid on the pot and stick it in the oven. Bake one hour at 350 degrees. If everything goes right, the pastalaya you pull from the oven will save your marriage, improve your personal hygiene, give you a whiter smile, and add five hundred points to your Good Place score. But what if something goes wrong? Don’t worry; you’ve got options. First: Be aware that it’s the chicken stock that’s going to get you — adding too much or not enough. “If you realize you didn’t add enough,” says Ardoin, “be sure to heat the liquid separately before adding it to the pot.” Otherwise, the entire dish will have to reheat in the oven, and will do so unevenly.
If you have a bad feeling about things and want to check, remove the pot from the oven, set it on the stove, close the oven door, check the pastalaya, correct your mistakes and then put it back in the oven. The worst thing you can do is keep the oven door open while inspecting your dish because the heat will escape. (This goes for anything that you’re baking, from bread to prime rib. Temperature variation in the oven will absolutely destroy your dish.)
If you pull your pot out of the oven and discover in horror that the bottom is burned, don’t panic. Yet. Find a casserole dish, and transfer everything into it. DO NOT SCRAPE THE BOTTOM OF THE POT. “Use your spoon and lightly move the ingredients around,” Ardoin explains. “Whatever comes off, comes off.” When you’re preparing a jambalaya and the rice sticks to the bottom of the pot, there’s no mistaking the disaster unfolding. Pastalaya, however, is a bit more complicated than that. “Sometimes it’s not burned; sometimes it’s just stuck, and the caramelization will add a little extra flavor. There is a big difference between burned and crispy,” cautions Ardoin. Conversely, if you pull the dish from the oven and notice that it has a lot of moisture to it, that is likely a good thing. You don’t want a completely dry pastalaya.
The most important thing to remember when making a pastalaya is that there is no “right” way to do it. Ask 10,000 people how to make gumbo or jambalaya, and you’ll get 10,000 different responses. Every oven is different. Every pot is different. Every recipe is different in seasoning and quantity of vegetables. It’s about trial and error. Pastalaya is a dish where fortune favors the bold.