Jerk chicken is one of those mythical terms I often always am gravitated towards on menus and cook-outs. As a kid, I always thought the name itself was reason enough to order the dish. Being (hopefully) more mature now, jerk chicken conjures images of the tropics mingled with the moistest, vibrant chicken imaginable. The answer to how to make the usual hum-drum chicken actually an exciting meat: a jerk marinade.
Of course there are many other similar types of marinades and sauces to turn chicken’s image upside-down. Thailand’s satays, Armenia’s chicken kebabs, Peru’s wood-fired pollo a la brasa are the first examples that sprout into mind. Jerk chicken is one of the iconic dishes of Jamaica, often part of cook-out parties on the beach or at homes. The marinade is a perfect blend of spice, fruit, and earth from the adobo seasoning added, an element to the marinade that is straight out of Mexico’s marinade playbook for the pork dish al pastor.
Then comes the question, thigh meat or breast meat?
12 garlic cloves and 15 small habaneros in this marinade?To work we go 24 hours ahead of serving time on this recipe based on Bon Appetit’s May 2012 primer on seven of the world’s most iconic dishes.
In regards to thighs or breasts, the family is split always between healthier breasts and the more boldly seasoned tenderness of skin on thighs. Almost always, the split means half and half. Indeed the marinade will be used for half boneless, skinless breasts (two of them) and half skin on thighs (three).
The marinade itself features a chopped red onion (un-cooked), 12 garlic cloves, 10 Scotch bonnet or 15 small habanero chiles, 8 chopped scallions, a small piece of fresh ginger sliced, 2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme, 1 1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon and whole allspice, 1 tbsp kosher salt, tbsp powdered adobo seasoning, and 1/2 tsp of Maggi Liquid seasoning.
Many corners were cut for time purposes pr preferences: regular onion instead of red, no scallions, 1 tbsp of dry thyme instead of double that of fresh thyme, ground allspice in place of whole allspice, and no kosher salt.
Cilantro was used instead of scallions, adding a delightful flair to everything without being overpowering. The 12 garlic cloves and 15 habaneros seemed daunting, especially for a dinner party where spice should be kept low. 6 garlic cloves and 3 fresh jalapenos were used instead. Liquid smoke was used in place of liquid seasoning since we had that in the pantry and the adobo seasoning led me on a wild chase of the local Latin markets. I ended up with New Mexico chile powder, which I was told is essentially the same as adobo seasoning.
The puree after a few pulses in the food processor had the right solid mousse to liquid ratio, about 60-40. It is vital to reserve 1/4 of the sauce for adding on at the table since it is quite addictive and great alone with bread. Be sure to give it a little simmer on the stove to warm u prior to serving.
Meanwhile, the rest of the marinade is ladled over the chicken and (wearing gloves to avoid exposure to hot chiles) massage the marinade into the chicken, along with poking holes in the meat to absorb the sauce.
Let the chicken marinade overnight. The barbeque session should take place over medium to medium high heat, with skin on side to start. You certainly want flames to occasionally lick the chicken. Alternate between having the grill covered and uncovered to add smoke, then release smoke to the skin so they don’t become overly charred. Our version took roughly fifteen minutes, a trio of sessions switching been sides of the breasts and thighs. Most likely, the breasts will need a bit longer, but beware of going too long with them.
Pineapples and asparagus were grilled with the chicken as accompaniments. The adobo powder in the marinade inspired me to add the pineapples as is always served with al pastor. Olive bread was baked to help soak up the sauce and dried plantains for a Jamaican accent. The chicken was excellent, in particular the thighs. The only two improvements would be to bolster the heat and get a bit more crispness to the thighs’ skin. The first certainly can be compensated by the more fruity, intense Scotch bonnets originally intended by the recipe.
With a bold Carmenere from Chile or a lighter Spanish tempranillo with lots of stone fruit, you’ve got the ultimate summer barbeque from the tropics. Of course, a refreshing tamarind agua fresca would hit all the right notes too.