Fiery Jerk Chicken & Fish: A taste of Jamaica just in time for 'cue season (INCL. recipe for sauce that will leave you salivating!)
By Joyce White
Jerk also reigns supreme here in New York City during the summer in parks and backyards, especially in Brooklyn, which boasts a large Caribbean population. Over the years I have spent hours fiddling with jerk rubs and sauces in my own kitchen, trying to duplicate the delectable offering I have enjoyed over the years in its country of birth.
But on a recent visit to Jamaica I finally realized that jerk shares this quality with American barbecue: There are regional influences and personal preferences. For example, I grew up in Alabama on chicken and spareribs and swabbed with a fiery tomato-based sauce and smoked in a pit over a limb or two of hickory wood. Then one summer during my teens I visited Detroit and, lo and behold, I was served 'cue laden with a hot, vinegary sauce -- and that was good too.
A few years ago during a stay in Negril, Jamaica, at the lovely Tree House Resort, I was reminded of the many jerk variations while peering over the shoulder of the chef there as he fired up the jerk pit. And just like my Uncle John, who would ban everybody from the kitchen when he was making his "secret" 'cue sauce, the Tree House chef wouldn't give me his exact recipe either, but he got me started with the basics.
Right away I learned that all jerk experts agree -- and not on much else -- that the marinade or rub must have four primary ingredients: the tiny berries Jamaicans call pimento (we call it allspice here in the States), scallions, thyme, and the hot, hot chili peppers known as Scotch Bonnet.
Scotch bonnets pack a lot of heat, similar in firepower to the habanero, which is popular in Latino markets and is also fine in jerk, too. If you can't stand the heat of very hot peppers, use jalapeno, manzana or poblano peppers, which aren't as fiery but still provide a bracing flavor
Once the basic ingredients are in hand, imagination comes into play. Try adding ground or grated fresh ginger, lots of crushed garlic, and spices such as cinnamon, paprika, nutmeg and cloves. You can also add a splash of vinegar, cane juice, rum or beer, or a squeeze of lemon or limejuice, as well as a dab of dark molasses, brown sugar or soy sauce, or a couple tablespoons of oil for a smooth texture.
The jerk sauce can be simmered for a few minutes to blend flavors, or you can simply whirl all the ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth and start swabbing away. Similarly, while some jerk lovers marinate the chicken or meat for several hours or overnight, others do so for only 30 or so minutes or not at all.
Chicken is a the preferred meats for jerk, but I often brush a whole fish or a slab of salmon or wild Pacific trout with jerk sauce and grill in my kettle smoker.
In Jamaica, jerk is often 'cued up in a makeshift cooker made from a steel drum. The cooker is filled with charcoal briquettes and topped with wood chips or chunks from the same pimento tree as the berries. For best results, the chunks or chips should be soaked in water for at least an hour to impart smoke rather than ignite a fire.
Pimento wood is not readily available in the United States, so I use apple, maple, pecan or cherry wood as a substitute. Some jerk lovers in the States use hickory and mesquite wood, but I find the rather strong flavor from the smoke can overpower the spicy, subtle marinade.
On a recent visit to Jamaica, I journeyed to Port Antonio in pursuit of the quintessential jerk, and on the recommendation of a local patron headed right away to Little David's Jerk Centre in Boston. "The best," said Steve, the manager of the lovely Mikuzi guesthouse.
Little David's Jerk Centre is an open air hut, and Steve and my son and I sat sipping Red Stripe beer as the maestro fidgeted about at his grill, swabbing and turning, studying the meat, paying us no mind.
Then Little David placed before us plates laden with jerk chicken, rice and peas, and the fried nuggets made from cassava called bammy that reminds me of Down South hush puppies, plus a salad on the side. I bit into the jerk, and my reward was crisp yet moist and tender chicken, that offered a fiery combination of herbs and spice but a mellow flavor, precisely tuned.
"I use no oil and I don't cook my jerk sauce," said Little David, piling up our plates. "I split the whole chicken in half down the middle, the long way, and rinse and clean with water. Then I let the chicken drain for about 30 minutes, and I don't pat it dry with towels either. If you want to, you can marinate the chicken for a few hours or overnight, I don't.
"When I am cooking, I swab the chicken with the jerk sauce, put on the grill and turn and swab the chicken every five minutes or so. I cook the chicken for about 30 minutes or until it is done. Other people do jerk their way and I do my jerk my way: healthy, natural and full of flavor."
Here's an adapted version of Little David's divine jerk.
LITTLE DAVID'S JERK CHICKEN
Split the chicken lengthwise down the middle into two pieces. Trim away and discard excess fat and overlapping skin. Rinse the chicken with cold water and place in a colander to drain for about 30 minutes. Don't dry off the chicken. Sprinkle the chicken all over with the salt. (You can brush a little oil all over the chicken, if desired.)
Place the chicken in a large glass bowl or casserole and pour over about 1/2 cup of the Jerk Sauce. Using your hands, rub the chicken all over with the marinade, including under the skin. (Wear disposable plastic gloves, if you have sensitive skin.)
If desired, cover the container and marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for about 4 hours or overnight, rubbing briskly two or three times as it marinates to intensify flavor. When you are ready to fire up the grill, have on hand about 1 1/2 cups water-soaked wood chips or 2 or 3 fist-size wood chunks. I use a 22-inch kettle smoker, which fits perfectly on my patio.
Build a cooking fire starting off with 40 to 50 briquettes or 3 pounds or so of lump charcoal. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and let warm up for about 30 minutes -- no longer -- while the charcoal is heating up.
The charcoal is ready for cooking when it turns grayish white, and you can hold your hand above the rack for 3 or 4 seconds. Then, spread out the charcoal a bit, but not all the way to the side of the kettle. Spoon 1/2 cup more of the jerk marinade into a bowl and thin with a little vinegar or water or beer to use or oil for swabbing, mixing well. Have available a brush and long handled tongs.
Generously oil the grilling rack and place the chicken on the rack, skin side up, the two halves not touching. Set the rack of chicken in the kettle or on the grill.
Grill the chicken uncovered for about 25 minutes, turning it over every 4 or 5 minutes and swabbing lightly with the marinade. Don't skimp on turning the chicken; if you do, the chicken will char and the skin will turn black. If the charcoal flares up, sprinkle or squirt with a little water.
After 25 minutes of cooking, using the tongs, push the charcoal to the edge of the kettle or grill, forming a ring or sort. Top the charcoal with the water soaked wood chunks or chips. If more charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal are needed, add 8 to 10 briquettes or two or three cups of lump charcoal and push into the ring around the edge of the kettle.
Cover the kettle with the lid and cook the chicken, turning over and swabbing every 5 minutes or so, for 20 to 25 minutes longer, or until the chicken is fully cooked and its juice runs clear when cut at the bone with a knife.
When the chicken is done, transfer to a serving platter.
LITTLE DAVID'S JERK SAUCE
Little David provided me with the ingredients listed in this recipe and told me to put the sauce together by "feel." As a parting gift, he gave me a jar of his jerk sauce, which still sits in my fridge as inspiration. Tastes just like mine -- just kidding!
MAKES: About 1 3/4 cups
Pour all of the above ingredients into a blender or food processor. Whirl on high speed or process until very smooth, adding a little more water or beer if needed to make a smooth juicy paste. If not ready to use, spoon the sauce into a jar and store in the refrigerator. The sauce will keep for several months.
GRILLED SALMON OR TROUT, JERK STYLE
This dish is also delicious made with the delectable wild Tasmanian ocean trout, which looks and tastes much like wild salmon and comes from the Pacific. (It's also less expensive than wild salmon.) The jerk sauce imparts a lovely burnished flavor to fish, and should be brushed on right before it is grilled -- the fish should not be marinated in the spicy sauce, which can "cook" seafood.
Makes: 4 servings
Brush or rub the salmon or trout all over with the salt and about half of the jerk sauce. Brush a grill pan or fish pan that is at least 13 by 9 inches with about half of the oil, saving the remaining oil. Scatter on about half of the lemon slices. Place the fish in the pan on top of the lemon or lime slices. Top with the remaining lemon or lime leaves and the remaining oil.
Build a cooking fire using about 40 charcoal briquettes or about 2 1/2 pounds hardwood lump charcoal.
Once the charcoal is ashy, spread out in single layer but keep briquettes touching so fire doesn't go out. Add a large handful of well-drained, water-soaked wood chips or a couple chunks of wood.
Set the pan of salmon or trout on the cooking grill in the kettle. Cover the kettle, leaving the bottom and lid vents open.
Grill the fish 6 to 8 minutes. Using large metal spatula and mitten, carefully turn the fish over. Brush the fish with the remaining jerk sauce.
Cook the fish for 5 or so minutes longer or until done. To check for doneness, cut into fish with a sharp knife. It is done when flesh is no longer translucent but opaque and juicy. Don't overcook; the fish will continue to cook once off the heat.
Transfer the fish to a warm serving platter and garnish with parsley or watercress.
NOTE: If you grill fish often, you may want to buy a fish basket, a flat gadget designed for holding fish in place on the grill. A cast iron grill pan, rectangular in shape also works. In Jamaica, many chefs place the fish on a piece of oiled mesh that looks like a door screen and fire up.
Charcoal briquettes that require a starter are best for grilling; they burn longer and give off fewer fumes than the self-start variety.
Some grilling aficionados now frown on charcoal briquettes and prefer hardwood lump charcoal, which has less filler. But bear in mind that lump charcoal gets super hot, burns quickly, sparks a lot and flares easily. So have available a bottle of water with a spray tip to dampen flames.
If using a kettle-style grill, before cooking, open the vents, bottom and lid, so that air can circulate and prevent the fire from going out. Have on hand long-handle tongs; thick, well-insulated long cooking mitts and a good basting brush for mopping the food as it grills.
To prepare the grill for cooking, pile the lump charcoal or briquettes in the center of the grill grate, ignite with starter fluid and let burn until ashy, about 20 minutes. Or, better still, use a charcoal chimney to start the fire. The chimney looks like a can with a handle and has holes in the side. Simply crumple several wads of newspaper, stick in the bottom of the can, fill with charcoal and ignite. Let burn for 15 or so minutes and dump into the cooking grate.
You'll need to add more briquettes or lump charcoal after cooking for about 30 minutes. For best results, add 5 to 10 charcoal briquettes to each side of the kettle every 40 minutes or so.
If you are using hardwood lump charcoal, start off with about 3 pounds or so and at the end of 30 minutes, add another half-pound of hardwood lump charcoal to each side of the grill fire, bearing in mind that you have to watch lump charcoal even more closely when using, because it can char chicken very, very quickly.
Caveat: Grilled foods have to be turned frequently to prevent charring and burning, so don't wander off. Keep a fire extinguisher or pan of water or sand nearby. Keep the grill area clutter-free and keep children away from the hot grill. And Happy Summer!
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To comment, please click here. Interested in a private Judaic studies instructor for free? Let us know by clicking here. Joyce White is a New York-based freelance writer and author of two cookbooks, "Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections from African-American Churches," and "Brown Sugar: Soul Food Desserts from Family and Friends," both published by HarperCollins.
To comment, please click here.
Interested in a private Judaic studies instructor for free? Let us know by clicking here.
Joyce White is a New York-based freelance writer and author of two cookbooks, "Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections from African-American Churches," and "Brown Sugar: Soul Food Desserts from Family and Friends," both published by HarperCollins.