Man does not subsist on rice and curry alone, so that’s why I blog about “all things spicy” as well. Yes, I love my Mexican; love my Szechuan; and love that homemade kimchi my Korean neighbor gave me recently (Thanks, So Yung!). But recently, I’ve been on a jerk kick. Jerk Chicken that is. For those that don’t know, this is Jamaica’s version of BBQ chicken, doused in all kinds of spices; grilled on an open flame and hacked up into manageable pieces. Where the name comes from, I’m not sure, but the Maroons, who were escaped slaves who started their own communities in the hills of Jamaica, are credited with developing this tasty and piquant dish. I’ve had jerk chicken all over Brooklyn, Brixton, and Kingston, so I consider myself somewhat of connoisseur. Now I’m on the hunt for Baltimore’s best jerk, and believe it or not, it’s a tough call because there’s a lot of authentic jerk joints out there.
Whenever I get obsessive about a certain food, of course, I have to learn how to make it. Though usually something like jerk is best left to the experts—or at least the help of a pre-made jerk mix—my laziness paid off the other day when I decided it was way too hot to motivate and trek out to Park Heights, Baltimore’s Caribbean neighborhood, to buy a jar of jerk sauce (My favorite is Walkerswood, which I have blogged about before). Of course, there was that recipe for Jerk chicken in Some Like It Hot by Clifford Wright, a cookbook I am currently reading. I pulled out the book and went to my kitchen. Peeking into my fridge and through my cupboards, I discovered, to my amazement, that I had all the ingredients on that long list except scallions. Though I could have picked some up at my local store 5 minutes away, I said, ‘That’s cool, I can use an onion instead.’ Besides, it would defeat the purpose of being lazy and not leaving the house.
Though the list of ingredients was extensive, the prep could not have been easier. I threw everything into a blender and hit play. The rotary blade symphony was over in seconds, but the only problem was that the resulting puke-colored liquid mixture bore no resemblance to any jerk sauce I had ever seen before. (hence, no photo) Hmmm, I thought to myself, an experiment gone awry already? Oh well. I had no other choice than to hack up some thighs (bone in), and marinate them in this liquid overnight.
Real jerk is cooked outside in one of those steel drums that has been sawed in half lengthwise and filled with either wood or coals. I used my handy dandy barbeque grill for the same effect. As soon as I threw the chicken on the grill, I started getting that familiar jerk scent I know and love. I covered the grill so the smoke could work its magic. After 10-15 minutes I turned the chicken to discover a nice char on the cooking side. I turned them a couple more times to ensure the chicken wouldn’t burn. Meanwhile the smoke is wafting around the neighborhood, and I could picture people with mouths watering catching a whiff from miles away.
When I sat down to finally dig in, I was not disappointed at all. The chicken was crispy and charred on the outside and moist within. The overnight bath had allowed the “kitchen-sink” list of ingredients to meld with each other and infuse the chicken with pure flavor. As I took a bite, I realized I didn’t need any hot sauce either. The four Habaneros had done their thing, lovely. Of course, I can’t take credit for the recipe, but I doubt if I’ll ever buy another jar of pre-made jerk sauce again. Thanks Clifford Wright! I’m going to try out some of the other recipes in your book, Some Like It Hot, too.
For the Jerk Marinade:
2 TBSP ground allspice
2 TBSP dried thyme
1 TBSP cayenne pepper
1TBSP freshly ground black pepper
1 TBSP dried sage
1 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 TBSP salt
6 large garlic cloves
One 1-inch cube fresh ginger
1 TBSP sugar
1/2 bunch fresh coriander (leaves only)
1/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup peanut oil
2 cups chopped scallions
4 Scotch bonnet or Habanero chilies, stemmed
For the Chicken:
6 pounds mixed chicken breasts, thighs, legs
3 bay leaves
1) Place all marinade ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth.
2) In a large bowl, toss the chicken pieces with the marinade. Divide the chicken and marinade between 2 heavy-duty zippered-top plastic bags. Seal the bags pressing out the excess air, and let the chicken marinate for at least 6 hours and up to 2 days.
3) Prepare a charcoal fire on one side of the grill or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes, then turn off one set of burners. If using a charcoal grill, toss 3 Bay leaves on the coals if desired. Grill the chicken away from the fire, in batches if necessary, and cover if possible, until golden brown with bits of blackened skin, about 1 1/2 hours, turning every now and then and basting with leftover jerk marinade. During the last 30 minutes of cooking, keep the chicken breasts skin side up so the meat is farther away from the heat source and stop basting. If the chicken pieces are blackening too quickly, it means your fire is too hot and you should either keep the cover open, push the coals further away, or lower one of the gas burners. Transfer the jerk chicken to a platter and serve.
Note: Usually they hack up the chicken after it is cooked, so it will be easier to eat. I hack up my chicken pieces before they even marinate so they will cook more quickly.