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Jerk: Jamaica's answer to American barbecue

by Kenda Robertson
It may not have the plate presentation of sushi, a fancy name like tandoori or require expensive, exotic seasonings like saffron, but jerk cooking has been making its way into restaurants across America and throughout the world since the 1980s. This rustic, traditionally Jamaican home cooking and unique seasoning method is the Caribbean's answer to American barbecue. In fact, jerk is so popular it's considered the fast-food favorite in Jamaica today.

Though traditionally cooked in open-ground pits, half-cut steel drums are commonly used as makeshift "grills" in modern Jamaica. Throughout this region known for it's Blue Mountain coffee, you'll find vendors hovering over smoky fires in jerk huts, slow cooking their uniquely flavored delicacies.

With many theories on where the jerk name came from, the most popular is that it's a variation on the world charqui, a Spanish term for jerked or dried meat, which eventually became jerky in English. Another possible origin links it to the act of jerking strips of meat from an animal carcass, since whole hogs were originally used in the process. But wherever it gets its name, it's the flavor that delivers the legend created by the Arawak Indians and the Maroons centuries ago.

The jerk experience is a combination of culture, authentic flavors and slow cooking. Though the slow-smoke method is an age-old Caribbean practice used to cure meat, by marinating or rubbing meats, seafood, and even vegetables with the right seasonings and then slow grilling them over wood, jerked foods take on a spicy-sweet flavor and tender texture that's unmatched. Famous for its fiery hot mixture centered around the Scotch bonnet chili pepper, considered one of the world's hottest, jerk is like a carnival of flavors that come together in your mouth.

Jerk foods are easy to make with a good recipe and an understanding of the necessary ingredients. Rubs and marinades are created with three primary seasonings: the Scotch bonnet chili pepper, ground Jamaican pimento allspice (made from the berry of the evergreen pimento, which is native to the West Indies and South America), and thyme (either leaves or ground). In addition, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, and scallions contribute to the spice base. To create a paste as a combination rub and marinade, cooking oil, vinegar and soy sauce can be added with brown sugar, onions and dark rum as options (see recipe). The spice can then be adjusted by diluting the mixture with soy sauce, vinegar or other liquids. Ready-made jerk seasonings are also available and can be combined with fresh ingredients to create your own favorite combination of savory flavors.

Jerk Chicken Skewer

Pork or beef can be marinated for up to two days, chicken for one, but no longer since the seasonings will start to cure the meat and change its texture. Fish and other light foods should only be marinated for a few hours, and shrimp (and vegetables) may only need a slight rub to soak up the flavor of the jerk spices. If using a dry rub, it's best to put the meat in a sealed bag to prevent drying. With a wet marinade, dilute the jerk paste with water, soy sauce, vinegar, or rum (Beer makes a good addition to the shrimp marinade) and place in a shallow container. Be sure to turn the meat so each side is thoroughly marinated. Once the food is fully flavored, it's time to fire up the grill and start smokin'.

Firing up the grill
You don't have to dig a pit or use an oilcan to get the authentic Jamaican jerk flavor, but it's best to use pimento (from Jamaica) or torch wood, if it's available, in your gas or charcoal grill. If not, oak or mesquite is a good replacement. Never use charcoal or gas alone. You won't get the wood smoke flavor that's so much a part of the jerk experience.

Soak the wood in water for several hours so it won't burn, and then place it over a hot gas grill or smoldering coals. The wet wood keeps the fire from getting too hot and creates the smoke needed to flavor the food. If the fire is too hot, the meat will char outside and still be raw inside. Since jerk cooking is a slow process, it's important to let the flavor gradually cook through.

There are several ways to determine when the meat is done. Experienced cooks can judge by touch - if it's well done, it should be firm. Fish should be white and firm to the touch; poultry should be cooked until the juices run clear and the meat is tender; pork should reach about 145 degrees Fahrenheit when checked with an instant-read thermometer. Because of the tenderizing of the seasoning combined with the slow-cooking process, you can even overcook most meats and still have a tender product (just be careful with the lighter meats and seafood).

Though summer is the best time for grilling, if the weather isn't right outdoors, a stove-top or water pan smoker made up of a stack of pans may be the answer to jerk cooking indoors. The bottom pan holds the soaked wood chips while the pan above it holds water, vinegar, rum, beer or anything else you want to add to flavor the jerk-spiced meat.

It's easy to bring the delicious flavors of the Caribbean to your table. With a little planning, some basic knowledge and an adventurous palate, jerk cooking is something the whole family can enjoy.

Jerk Recipes

Jerk Seasoning Recipe
Makes 1 cup
This is a medium-hot paste (rub). For a hotter paste, add more peppers and/or use entire pepper; for a milder rub remove the seeds and membranes in the peppers before grinding them.
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 c. finely chopped scallions
2 t. fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon ground thyme)
2 t. salt
1 t. ground Jamaican pimento (allspice)
1/4 t. ground nutmeg
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
4 to 6 Scotch bonnet peppers
1 t. ground black pepper
Optional: 1 t. light brown sugar or 1 T. dark rum

Mix ingredients together with a food processor until smooth.
To create a marinade add 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon cooking oil, and 1 tablespoon cider or white vinegar.
Add water as needed.
Dry rub can be stored in a closed container in refrigerator for about a month.

Jerk Chicken Wings
Serves 4
Use jerk rub/marinade recipe above.
18 Chicken wings, trimmed

Marinade: In a large shallow dish arrange the wings in a single layer and spoon marinade over them, rubbing it in (use rubber gloves). Cover and chill wings. Marinate at least 1 hour (preferably overnight), turning once.
Cook: Arrange the wings on prepared grill, lightly brush with jerk marinade, turn after 15 minutes and grill for another 15 minutes or until cooked through.

Jerk Potato Salad
Serves 6-8
3 lbs. red-skinned or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
4 cooked bacon slices, chopped
1 c. mayonnaise
1 T. fresh thyme, chopped
1 T. dry mustard
1/2 t. turmeric
Pinch of cayenne pepper
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
4 small gherkins, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped fine
2 T. jerk sauce (use recipe above or commercially prepared)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped fine
Garnish with fresh parsley

Cook potatoes in large pot of boiling salted water for 25 minutes or until just tender. Drain and cool. Cut potatoes into cubes. Put the cubed potatoes into a large bowl.
In a separate bowl, mix mayonnaise, dry mustard, turmeric, cayenne pepper and chopped thyme.
Separate egg yolks from the egg whites. The yolks may be discarded, or mashed and added to the final mixture. Mince the egg whites. Add the bacon, the mayonnaise mixture, egg whites, celery, pickles, onion and jerk sauce to potatoes in bowl and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and more jerk sauce, if desired. Garnish with parsley.
May be refrigerated (covered) up to one day ahead.

Jerk Shrimp and Pineapple Salad
A blend of sweet, sour and spicy notes produce a captivating array of flavors while fruit juices temper the fire of the jerk seasonings.
Serves 4
1 c. unsweetened pineapple juice
3 T. fresh lime juice
1 t. lime zest, grated
1 T. canola oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 t. dried thyme leaves
1/2 t. dried oregano leaves
1/4 spoon cinnamon
1/4 t. ground allspice
2 T. jerk sauce (use recipe above or commercially prepared)
20 shrimp, large shelled & de-veined
3 c. cooked white rice
16 oz. canned black beans, drained & rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
2 c. pineapple chunks
6 scallions, 2 inch pieces
1 head Boston lettuce
4 lime slices for garnish

In a small saucepan, bring pineapple juice to a boil over medium-high heat; cook until reduced to one-third, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in lime juice and zest, oil, garlic, thyme, oregano, cinnamon and allspice. Let cool to room temperature.
In a shallow dish just large enough to hold the shrimp, whisk together jerk sauce and a little less than half the pineapple juice marinade (1/4 cup). Add shrimp and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
In a large bowl, toss rice and black beans with the remaining marinade. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Prepare grill as indicated (see Peter's Tips). Remove the shrimp from the marinade. Add pineapple chunks and scallions to the marinade, turning to coat. Thread skewers with shrimp, pineapple and scallions; brush with the remaining marinade. Grill, turning once or twice, until the shrimp are cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes.
Arrange a bed of lettuce on a large platter. Spoon the rice-and-bean salad on top. Slide the shrimp, pineapple and scallions from the skewers onto the rice; garnish with lime slices.

Chef Peter Olsacher
Peter's Jerk-Cooking Tips
Chef Peter Olsacher was born in Austria, a far cry from Jamaica, but his love for Caribbean flavors took him to the islands where he spent many years learning the tricks of the jerk trade. He recommends the following:

  • Use oak or mesquite wood, if pimento wood isn't available - never use charcoal or gas alone.
  • Soak wood in water for at least 2 hours before grilling to keep it from burning and to create a good smoke.
  • When using a gas grill, keep the temperature low.
  • Use a coffee grinder to grind whole allspice berries.
  • Marinate meats in a shallow pan or sealed bag.
  • Rub the jerk paste on with your fingers to get full coverage.
  • Don't marinate too long or the seasonings will change the meat's texture.
  • Adjust and dilute your marinate with soy sauce, vinegar, rum or beer.
  • For milder seasoning, remove seeds and membranes from the Scotch bonnet, or use a milder pepper like the jalapeño or serano (though it won't have the authenticity and intensity of the jerk flavors).
  • Keep the jerk rub in a sealed bag or container so it doesn't dry out.
  • Don't store jerk rub more than a month.

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