I was excited to be invited recently to a birthday party in Jamaica. That is, until I realized my work schedule wouldn’t permit me to go.
To console myself, I made a batch of jerk chicken, put on some reggae music, turned up the volume and called a few friends. Since the weather wasn’t quite right for grilling, the jerk went into the oven instead, filling the house with intoxicating aromas.
Jerk, for the uninitiated, is the spicy grilled meat specialty for which Jamaica is famous, though it is made all around the Caribbean. Originally created by former African slaves, it has developed over four centuries, with influences from Arabic and even Asian cuisines finding their way into the dish. The pungent marinade includes lots of allspice (called pimento in the islands), black pepper and clove, but gets an even bigger kick from ultra-spicy yellow Scotch bonnet peppers, similar in shape and intensity to habanero chilies.
In Jamaica, jerk is everywhere, and the meat, which can be chicken, pork, goat, lion fish, wild boar, even lobster, is slow-cooked on branches of green pimento wood laid directly over hot coals. This adds an extraordinary flavor and complements the sweet spices.
Traditional accompaniments are savory rice with crowder peas or red beans, plantains, sweet potatoes or yams, and a fried cornbread called festival. I had the idea to make my rice with coconut milk and fresh spring peas, which may not please purists.
Purists will also no doubt say that you can’t call it jerk unless it is cooked over live fire and enhanced by the smoke, which can be done in a hinged oil-drum barbecue (or a Weber if you must).
With the arrival of warm weather, there’s no reason not to cook it the right way, unless, like me, you are rained out and dreaming of a sunny Jamaican day. In that case, an oven will have to do.
For a printable copy of the recipes, click the links:
allspice, thyme, garlic, chilies, scallions, peppercorns, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, soy sauce and lime juice in a blender or food processor and grind to a rough paste.
PUT chicken in a baking dish, add seasoning paste and coat chicken well, using a spoon. Cover and marinate, refrigerated, for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.
HEAT oven to 350 degrees and bring chicken to room temperature. Turn chicken once more in marinade to coat well, then put baking dish in the oven, uncovered. Bake chicken for 1 hour or until well browned and juices run clear. Put dish under the broiler for a minute or so to char chicken slightly. Remove and serve with coconut rice, if desired. Yield: 6 servingsCoconut Rice with Peas 2 tablespoons coconut oil 1 cup finely diced onion 2 cups long-grain rice, washed and drained 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon grated ginger 1/2 cup coconut milk 1 cup cooked peas 3 tablespoons toasted coconut
PUT coconut oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and let cook until softened and lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
ADD rice, salt and ginger and stir to coat. Let rice sizzle for a minute, then add coconut milk and 2 1/2 cups water. Bring to a simmer, then turn heat to low and put on a tight fitting lid.
COOK for 20 minutes, then turn off heat and let rest 10 minutes. Fluff rice and stir in peas. Transfer to serving bowl and garnish with toasted coconut. Yield: 6 to 8 servings