Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jerk Chicken

What can be more Jamaican than Jerk Chicken? Or maybe reggae and Bob Marley? Actually none of them were known during the summers of 1964 and 1965 that I spent in Jamaica as a student working on my thesis research. But as it turns out, all three were just getting started then. Jerk cooking, or 'jerking', emerged from earlier methods of roasting meat over slow wood fires, methods that go back to the pre-Columbian Native American inhabitants of the island. However jerking took on its current form among roadside vendors in rural Jamaica in the late 1960s doing dry rubs on pork, goat, or chicken with allspice, chilies, and other seasonings then slow-cooking the meats over wood or charcoal in oil-drum barbecue grills.

Allspice, the dried berry of the Jamaican 'bay' tree (whose leaves are made into 'bay rum', a soothing old-fashioned after-shave lotion), is the only spice that is native to the Western Hemisphere. It is one of the seasonings that seems invariable with jerk chicken and pork. The other invariable is hot chile, the 'Scotch Bonnet', which is similar to habanero. I use cayenne for convenience. After allspice, chiles, and of course salt, the recipes vary widely.

I developed my spice combination for our restaurant and deli in Athens, but have also tested it at home. I've only used it with chicken. (If I were seasoning pork or lamb, I would leave out the salt for the marinating so it doesn't toughen the meat, and then sprinkle generously with salt just before slow grilling.) In terms of grilling the chicken, I actually do it in a moderate oven on an upper shelf rather than over a fire. It may not have a woodsmoke flavor, but it tastes rich nonetheless.

This recipe, much reduced from our restaurant's volume recipe, will serve six. It can either be made with a large whole chicken cut into halves or quarters, or six smaller leg quarters. For most moistness, the chicken should have the bones in. Keeping or removing the skin is optional. The rub should be applied 12 to 24 hours before cooking.

A spicy dish like this from Jamaica cries out for beer (Red Stripe is brewed on the island). But a hearty red wine, not too refined, would also do well, something like a zinfandel or merlot. The chicken goes well with a seasoned rice dish and spicy sautéed cabbage.

Jerk Chicken Tim

Season the chicken one day ahead:
1 whole chicken, about 5 pounds, or 6 leg quarters or drumsticks plus thighs totalling about 5 pounds

Rub/Marinade:
1 tablespoon regular salt
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
1-1/2 teaspoons garlic salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon celery seed powder (not celery salt)
3/8 to 3/4 teaspoon cayenne
1-1/2 tablespoons vinegar or lime juice
3 tablespoons canola oil

If using a whole chicken, cut it into halves or quarters by splitting the breast bone and the back with a sharp, heavy knife. Cut off part of the back bones to simmer with the neck and excess skin for broth. Clean the chicken pieces well, and pat dry with paper towels. Remove skin from the chicken, if desired (use it for the broth), slash the flesh in a few places so the marinade can penetrate.

Mix the rub/marinade ingredients, not including the oil. Rub well into the chicken on all surfaces, including into the slashes. Finally, rub everything with the oil. Marinate chicken in the refrigerator, moving it around from time to time and basting it well with the accumulated juices.

Set the oven for 360 (or 350 if convection roast). Arrange a 'cake' rack on a sheet pan so the chicken will be above the pan. Start the chicken pieces upside down on the rack (and discard the accumulated marinade). Roast for 15 minutes, then turn the pieces over. Roast a total of 45 to 55 minutes, depending on thickness. The chicken should be fairly well cooked, and show no pinkness or pink juice when a knife tip is inserted and twisted in the thickest part of the meat.

While the chicken can be served warm with dinner, it also makes good picnic food when chilled.

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