Sunday, 1 July 2012

Jerk chicken

While Brixton, the neighbourhood in which I’ve lived for 7 of the last 10 years, is home to Poles, Columbians, Portuguese and Anglophone Africans, its largest minority, and certainly its most prominent one—in both historic and culinary terms—is from the English-speaking Caribbean—the West Indies, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica. The main square is named for the Windrush, the boat that brought Jamaicans to British shores in 1948. (The new arrivals were sent to temporary homes set up on Clapham Common, and came to nearby Brixton to utilise the Labour Exchange.) Dozens of green grocers and corner shops sell the staple ingredients of Caribbean food: scotch bonnet chillies, thyme, pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, coconut milk, curry powders and rice, while fishmongers have tall piles of red snapper and other tropical varietals and the butchers do a good trade in mutton and slow-cook cuts. There are some modest take-away joints, selling chicken stews, rice and beans and such unpromisingly named dishes as mannish water and hard food, and on dry, mild days, charcoal-filled oil drums let off a fug of jerk chicken-scented smoke.

Yet despite this proximity and abundance, we very rarely cook or eat any Caribbean food, nor, if I’m perfectly honest, have we expressed particular curiosity about learning more about its ingredients, variations found from island to island or which Brixton joints serve up the best versions of classic dishes. I don’t expect that this is all about to change, but some conversations with the owner of a new Brixton joint, Brian Danclair, about what he finds exciting about the food of the islands, prompted us to see what we could do, sans oil drum, to make a credible jerk chicken.

We picked up some pale ales from Market Row Wines (less authentic than Red Stripe, but arguably tastier too), chicken wings from the farmers’ market and got to work on the marinade. The next evening, we made coconut rice dotted with a mix of gungo peas, black eyed peas and kidney beans, sautéed some greens and put the chicken under the grill until it was well-browned and reasonably crispy. The result? Complex, spicy and a lot of fun to eat, all for very little cooking or shopping effort.

Next up? Brown stew chicken or, should Ginger Pig get back its supply of cubed goat, curry goat.

Jerk Chicken
Adapted from Food Stories
Total time: 25 hours; Active time: 30 minutes
Serves 3-4
Special equipment: plastic gloves; food processor

If you have a proper barbeque, by all means use it, referring to Food Stories or another good source for guidance. I relied on the grill in my oven, starting on a lowish temperature (say 150C), with the rack half-way down to get the meat cooking through, then raising both the rack and the temperature to get the skin crisp, and to encourage caramelisation. Particularly with larger cuts of chicken, you could also try roasting, then finishing off under the grill.

1 kg chicken thighs or meaty wings
4 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
5-6 spring onions
3 scotch bonnet chillies
100g dark packed brown sugar
1.5 tablespoons allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
Juice of 2 large limes
1 tsp salt
Black pepper

Rinse the chicken, pat dry and place in a large Ziploc bag. Peel and roughly chop the garlic cloves. Strip the thyme from its branches. Cut the spring onions into large pieces, removing the bottom core. Place these in the food processor.

Wearing plastic gloves, cut open the scotch bonnets and remove seeds. Place the chillies in the food processor. Add the sugar, spices, lime, salt and pepper. Mix to a smooth paste, scraping down sides as necessary. Pour into the bag with the chicken, seal and shake well to coat.

Refrigerate for 24 hours.

When you’re ready to cook, allow the meat to come to room temperature.  If using a grill, preheat to 150C and remove the rack.

Shake or brush off the excess marinade from the chicken and place on foil or a foil-lined tray on the rack.  Position the chicken in the middle of the oven and grill gently for about 10 minutes, until the chicken is somewhat cooked and the skin beginning to turn colour. Over the following 10-12 minutes, raise the temperature and rack height to finish. Good caramelisation is desirable, but watch carefully as the sugar in the marinade will make it susceptible to burning. Check that the juices run clear before removing.

Serve immediately with rice or rice and beans, and sautéed greens. Leftovers can be stripped from the bone and served cold.

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