Words by Chris De La Rosa
Chris De La Rosa is an authority in all things related to Caribbean food. A native of Trinidad & Tobago now based in Canada, Chris has catalogued hundreds of the best recipes from across the Caribbean on his website, CaribbeanPot.com, the most popular source for Caribbean recipes on the web, as well as in two books, The Vibrant Caribbean Pot and The Vibrant Caribbean Pot, Vol. 2. In the first of his guest columns for LargeUp, Chris recounts his quest to Jamaica in search of the perfect jerk, and shows us how to JA-mericanize your July 4th, with your own variation on the Jamaican classic.
My trip to Jamaica was supposed to be my “jerk odyssey.” Yet, somehow I encountered disappointing jerk and drum-pan chicken at all the popular spots I was told I had to try. Steamed red snapper, with crackers and bammy along with the customary curry goat with rice and peas were stealing the culinary show for me, at this point.
On Day 6, as we were heading to go to cliff diving at Rick’s Cafe in Negril, we were forced to stop at a small joint at the side of the road to use the facilities, when my “spidey” senses alerted me to something temptingly delicious in the air. We had stumbled onto Supreme Jerk Centre in Westmoreland. From the marinade and the slow cooking on the pimento wood to the perfect homemade peppersauce, this place provided my senses with what I was hoping for: The ultimate Jamaican jerk experience. The tender pieces of pork and chicken were done to perfection, with layers of flavor from the sort of steam grilling they achieved by covering the meats with metal sheets and pimento leaves. To this day, when I speak praises of ‘good jerk,” this place is mentioned with the highest esteem.
If you’re like me and you’d like to have a little bit of the islands this July 4th, but you don’t have access to pimento wood, coals nor the leaves to recreate the authentic Jamaican flavors with your jerk chicken or pork . . . here are five tips to achieving the ultimate jerk.
1. Make Your Own Homemade Marinade
The stuff you get prepackaged in the grocery store can be good, but it’s usually loaded with artificial ingredients and sodium. Get fresh herbs and spices and make your own. This way you can control what goes in it, and you can get creative with flavors.
2. Marinate Overnight!
For maximum flavor, I’d recommend marinating your meats, chicken or pork, overnight. However, if you’re pressed for time, as little as two hours will make a big difference. I would also recommend stabbing the thickest parts of the meats so the marinade can really penetrate through and create an infusion of that rich jerk flavor.
3. Grill On Coals and Baste With Marinade
If you can, try to grill on a coal fire and throughout the grilling process use some of the marinade to baste the meats so they remain moist. I like adding half a bottle of Caribbean beer (Red Stripe, Carib, Stag or Banks – actually any lager would work) to the marinade. I find it adds even more island flavor to the finished jerk. If you’re not into alcohol, some apple, orange or pineapple juice will work just as well.
4. Keep It Low and Slow
Don’t rush things . . . chill and enjoy time with family and friends. An indirect heat will work best as the sugars in the marinade will burn very fast over high heat, and you end up with charred chicken, which will not be fully cooked inside. Do it island style — just chill!
One of the reasons I love using coals is due to the lovely smoky flavor your grilled meats take on. To add that unique “pimento” flavor, unique to Jamaican Jerk—even if you’re grilling on a propane flame—I recommend making a smoke pouch. Basically soak some fruity wood, like cherry or apple, in water and place on tin foil. Add some pimento berries to it too. Wrap into a pouch. Poke some holes with a fork and place on the side of the coals or propane flame. As the wood burns along with the pimento berries, you’ll understand why I recommend doing this.
That trip to Jamaica left me with two distinct memories and one piece of unfinished business. The first memory is the jerk pork I had that day six on the long drive from Kingston . . . just when I was about to give up on my odyssey. And the drive through Fern Gully. Imagine driving through a scene from the best fairy tale you read as a child. Simply magical! The fact that I kinda chickened-out diving at Rick’s café is a distinct memory, too. However, I shall go back and will conquer those cliffs! Now, here’s the recipe to my own version of a classic homemade jerk marinade.
Classic Homemade Jerk Marinade
5 scallions (green onions)
6 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 scotch bonnet peppers
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup vinegar
1 onion (large)
1/2 cup orange juice
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon grated ginger
Remember to wear gloves when handling scotch bonnet peppers, and to wash your hands immediately after with soap and water. If you cannot source scotch bonnet peppers, I would recommend using Habanero peppers. I quite like the fruity flavor with its heat. If you’re concerned about the raw heat of the peppers, don’t include any of the seeds or the white membrane surrounding the seeds.
I like adding about ¼ cup of rum in my marinade as well, but only when I’m marinating for 2 hours or less.
You can substitute apple or pineapple juice for the orange juice as well. If you want a different, more subtle flavor, you can go in with either honey or maple syrup as well. One teaspoon of either is enough.
Place all the ingredients (rough chopped) in a blender or food processor. You have the option of processing until smooth or leaving it a bit chunky, as I do.