Rasta pasta with jerk chicken is a popular Caribbean dish that’s perfect for a weeknight meal, dinner party, or potluck. Rasta pasta is a sort of Italian-meets-Jamaican dish—penne pasta is tossed with a jerk infused cream sauce and colorful bell peppers. You can add any protein of choice, with shrimp and chicken being the most popular. Rasta pasta can also be made completely vegetarian. Any time I make this dish there are barely ever any leftovers, it’s a family favorite!
The variations on Rasta pasta range from chef to chef and within each household. The type of pasta and choice of vegetables is up to you, but one thing is a must—there must be an ample amount of jerk seasoning, so each bite has ample flavor.
What I love most about Rasta pasta is that it's a complete meal in one pot. Serve it up with a little side of cabbage salad and a nice refreshing drink and you’re all set. It’s the perfect way to taste the islands during the colder winter months, or anytime.
The Origins of Rasta Pasta
Another name for jerk pasta is Rasta pasta—it was first created in Negril, Jamaica in 1985 by Chef Lorraine Washington in her Paradise Yard restaurant kitchen. Chef Lorraine recalls making fettuccine for a crew of construction workers and topping it with red sauce and then a bit of ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit. The red, green, and yellow colors hinted at Rasta colors which prompted one of the carpenters to call it a “Rasta pasta!”
You are bound to come across it on a menu at a Caribbean restaurant with variations in the choice for pasta, protein, and vegetables. Footprints, a Jamaican restaurant in Brooklyn, New York made this dish popular within the local community.
Bring on the Heat with Hot Jerk Seasoning
The chicken in this pasta dish is what brings the spice. It’s marinated in hot jerk seasoning and a bit of green seasoning, then sautéed with bell peppers, onions, garlic, and fresh hot peppers, such as Scotch bonnets or habaneros, which enhance the punch. Add heavy cream, Parmesan cheese and a handful of vegetables are to the chicken and peppers then simmer until the cheese melts. Toss in the cooked pasta and serve hot.
This dish is quite versatile because you can swap it out for whatever veggies you have on hand or are in season. I’ve used shredded cabbage and carrots and other times just a handful of frozen mixed vegetables. Rotini or penne are perfect pasta choices to soak up the luscious sauce.
What is Jerk Seasoning?
Jerk seasoning is a blend of deep, earthy spices with prominent notes of allspice, nutmeg, black pepper, and cinnamon. Combined with thyme leaves, onion, garlic, ginger, and Scotch bonnet peppers, the seasoning becomes a wet marinade.
The amount of each ingredient and addition of other spices depends on each cook and household. You can use jerk seasoning on any type of meat or fish. These days, there are even recipes for jerk seasoned vegetables!
You can find jerk seasoning in a dried rub form or a wet marinade. Many Caribbean grocery stores and online retailers sell both versions. I sometimes make my own marinade, but prefer pre-made for convenience. My favorite brands of pre-made marinades are from Walkerswood or Grace.
I typically use hot and spicy jerk seasoning for optimal flavor. It also comes in a mild version, but the hot and spicy gets toned down anyway once you add milk to the dish.
Adding a Little Green Seasoning to My Hot Jerk Seasoning
Caribbean green seasoning is a seasoning base made of various herbs and vegetables that typically contains onion, scallions, garlic, and pepper. It is widely used in Caribbean cooking to marinate meat and as a flavoring for rice, stews, and soups. In Haitian cooking it’s similar to making an epis or the Latin American seasoning base, sofrito or recaito.
There is no one recipe for green seasoning. It varies by what’s in your fridge and what you feel like adding to the mix. To bring it all together, a little water or oil is added and pulsed in a food processor or blender until slightly smooth. Traditionally this is all minced in a mortar and pestle, but I highly recommend using an appliance to save time. I’ve added some green seasoning to the chicken marinade along with the jerk seasoning. It gives the meat extra flavor!
Adding a Dash of Browning Sauce for Color
I’ve added a small amount of browning sauce to the chicken to give it a little color. This is purely for aesthetics and can be left out of the recipe. Browning sauce is used in West Indian cooking to add a bit of color to meat, rice, and even cakes. I prefer Grace brand browning sauce. You can find it online and at Caribbean grocery stores.
Why We Marinate Chicken
For this recipe the chicken soaks in a mixture of lime juice and water for 15 to 20 minutes and then gently rinsed a couple of times and patted dry. This is a common way that Caribbeans “clean” or “wash” meat. Allowing the acid to work on the chicken helps with removing slime and also preparing the meat to take on the seasonings better.
Prepping the meat the night before is a huge time-saver and actually makes the meat taste much better—the seasonings really get a chance to soak in.
Making Rasta Pasta Dairy-Free
If you are sensitive to dairy, you can swap the cream for coconut milk (regular, not lite). The brand of coconut milk matters—if the coconut milk is too watery, the pasta will not be creamy enough. The brands I recommend are Trader Joe's, Aroy-D, or Thai Kitchen.
Cashew and oat milk are also great options because they have a nice creaminess.
More Creamy Pasta Recipes
Rasta Pasta with Jerk Chicken
This recipe makes about 1/2 cup of green seasoning, but we will only use 1 heaping tablespoon to season the chicken. Store the remainder in the fridge in a sealed glass jar or freeze it in an ice cube tray—be sure to wrap the top in plastic wrap to avoid freezer burn. Freeze for up to 2 to 4 weeks.
Substitute any other green herbs you’d like to use in place of thyme.
Chicken thighs or breasts may be used in place of tenderloins, just make sure weight is the same.
For the green seasoning
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
10 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper
5 to 6 stems of thyme, leaves removed
3 tablespoons water
For the chicken
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken tenderloins, sliced into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon hot jerk seasoning
1 heaping tablespoon green seasoning
1/2 teaspoon browning sauce (optional)
2 teaspoons neutral oil, like avocado or canola
For the pasta
8 ounces penne
4 teaspoons neutral oil, to cook chicken and vegetables
1/2 green pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 red pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 yellow pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, leaves removed
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- Food processor
Boil the water to cook the pasta:
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add salt to the water to help flavor the pasta as it cooks. (1 tablespoon of salt for every 2 quarts of water.)
Make the green seasoning:
In a food processor add the onion, garlic, Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, thyme, and water. Pulse until the texture is slightly smooth and thick.
Prep the chicken:
Put the chicken pieces into a large mixing bowl.
Roll the lime on the countertop to soften. Slice in half and squeeze the juice over the chicken. You can mix the lime halves with the chicken and leave it until you’re ready to rinse. Fill the bowl with water just until it covers the chicken. Using a wooden spoon or tongs, stir the chicken. Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit in the acidic water for 15-20 minutes.
Rinse the chicken and pat dry:
Gently drain the water out of the bowl. Fill the bowl of chicken with fresh cold water and gently drain again. Repeat this process twice to remove the lime and any slime the chicken might have. Pat chicken dry with paper towels.
Season and marinate the chicken:
Add the hot jerk seasoning, green seasoning, browning sauce, and oil to the bowl of chicken. Massage the seasoning into meat using your hands or tongs. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Let the chicken marinate for a minimum of 30 minutes or up to overnight.
Cook the pasta:
Once the water has come to a rolling boil, add the dry pasta and cook, uncovered for 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Keep the heat at medium-high for a rolling boil. Drain pasta in a colander, add drained pasta back to the pot and drizzle in a little oil to keep from sticking while you make the sauce and cook the chicken.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Cook the chicken:
Take the chicken out of the fridge, remove plastic wrap. In a deep non-stick skillet over medium heat, add 2 teaspoons of the oil. Using a pair of tongs place chicken in the pan, leaving excess marinade behind. Sauté about 10 minutes until the chicken is browned and the seasoning has dried onto the meat, turning the chicken occasionally. Chicken should read 165 degrees F if using a thermometer or juices should run clear when done. Remove from the pan and. Set aside.
Cook the vegetables:
Add a little more oil to the skillet.
Add 2 more teaspoons to the skillet. Add the peppers, onion, and garlic. Sauté until tender, but still crisp, about 5 minutes. The peppers should still retain their color and not look dull. If you pierce with a fork the pepper should still have some give to it. Add the chicken back into the pan with the vegetables and toss to combine.
Make the sauce:
Add the heavy cream, salt, black pepper, and paprika. Let the cream simmer for 5 minutes. You’ll know it’s simmering when small bubbles appear on the surface. Stir in the Parmesan cheese and cook for an additional 1 to 2 minutes until the cheese melts.
Remove from the heat and rest a bit, then serve:
Remove from the heat and let the pasta rest for 2 minutes so the pasta can absorb the flavors of the sauce. Serve hot!
Store leftover pasta in an airtight container with a lid in the fridge for up to 3 days. When reheating, I recommend not overheating because the cheese can melt too much and become oily.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 41g||52%|
|Saturated Fat 22g||109%|
|Total Carbohydrate 27g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||11%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 109mg||545%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|