In the centre of Louisiana, just down the road from the dozens of chemical plants that give the region the nickname “Cancer Alley” lies the little town of Gonzales. Before Gonzales was known for its high school football team or the long chains of organic molecules that pay many people’s mortgages, it was known for something else:
India has its biryani, Spain has its paella, and Louisiana has jambalaya: a delicious mix of spiced rice and meat that is delightfully satisfying.
Gonzales prides itself on Jambalaya so much that every year there is a Jambalaya festival complete with a jambalaya cook-off. Competitors are given the same “regulation ingredients” and expected to make the best batch of jambalaya. No secret ingredients are allowed. If you win this competition you’re winning it because of your cooking technique and proportions of ingredients used.
I had made several trips, though, before I heard about jambalaya’s lesser known cousin: “Pastalaya”. It’s a simple concept: instead of the starch being provided by rice, it is provided by pasta – usually spaghetti. In my most recent trips there, I had it a few times and I was immediately converted. Jambalaya is delicious, but pastalaya is outstanding.
There’s not much reason to bring my family on my business trips to Louisiana, but there are some things I want to share. Fortunately Cajun food is something that, other than a crawfish boil, is relatively easy to make back home in Toronto. And so, after a little bit of shopping I start cooking. I knew it was going to be a special meal, and so did the rest of the world, clearly, from the display that was being put on outdoors.
The dish is not hard to make but there’s a lot of chopping and frying before it’s done. First up is chicken. I cut about a pound of chicken in to bite-sized pieces and coat them with Cajun seasoning. I bought this seasoning in Louisiana but I’ve seen it back home as well.
I put the chicken in to a hot cast iron pan and start cooking. Within minutes the house is filled with delicious smells.
While that cooks I cut up about a pound of pork.
When the chicken is done, I take it out and put it aside on a plate and put the pork in. This cooks for a long time until it is quite brown. After that I add about a pound of sausage to it. Traditionally, Andouille, a Cajun style sausage, is used but that isn’t as easy to find in Toronto.
Fortunately, though, chorizo is widely available. As soon as that is added, a pleasant, smoky smell fills the house. My kitchen is beginning to smell like a Cajun restaurant and my mouth is starting to water. I’m not alone, either. The cats have taken up residence in the kitchen with me, and Sage has already popped her head in the kitchen three times to ask if it is done and if not, when will it be done?
As you can see the bottom of the pan is getting a lot of grease and charred pork and sausage stuck to it. This is what is meant to be happening. One day when I was at work in Louisiana, Paul, one of the workers, a frequent competitor in the Jambalaya cook-off was helping someone troubleshoot their “Jambalaya failure”.
“Walk me through it. How did you make it?”
“First I put in all of the vegetables and fried them, then I added the meat.”
“NO! That’s the problem! You need to cook the meat first. The stuff that sticks to the bottom of the pan is where the flavour is. If you add the vegetables first they will give off a bunch of water and you’ll boil the meat instead of frying it and there won’t be any flavour.”
I am glad I was there for that conversation because it is really useful to me now.
Once all of the pork and sausage are cooked, we’re in the home stretch. I add the chicken back in to the pan. In Cajun cooking they often talk about the “holy trinity”. No, it isn’t the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but celery, onion, and bell pepper. I add this in also.
As it cooks, I see how correct Paul was. The vegetables are giving off so much water as they cook down. And something else is happening. The water that the vegetables are giving off is dissolving everything on the bottom of the pan and distributing it throughout the dish.
I wait for everything to cook down – you want the vegetables to be nice and soft and with this much in the pan that takes quite a while. Eventually, though, it is ready for the next step. I add some water, salt, pepper, and a bit of hot sauce. Because I’m adding pasta that will absorb much of the seasoning I actually have to add what seems like a bit too much. And so, I season and taste until I think it is just a bit too salty and over-spiced. And then, once the water is boiling, I break a bunch of spaghetti in half and add it to the pan.
This is the tricky part. I’m used to cooking pasta in a pot with only water. I can submerge the pasta and make sure it cooks well. But when there is so much already in the pan I find I have to stir a lot more and push the pasta beneath the water. At times I have to add more water as well as it seems to be boiling off almost as fast as the pasta is cooking.
The pasta ends up taking a bit longer to cook than it would were I to be cooking it in only water but eventually the pastalaya is done. We have more than enough for everyone in the family to have seconds and leave some behind for the next day. And that was when we made a half recipe!
If you’d like to give this recipe a try yourself, you can find the detailed recipe here. I didn’t create the recipe but found it pretty easy to follow and the results were delicious.