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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 02:31 pm

What a jerk!

New Jamaican restaurant offers taste of the Caribbean in Springfield

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Jamaican cooks marinate meats with a seasoning that includes allspice, thyme, garlic, and chilies.
PHOTO BY KRISTIN EDDY/MCT
Untitled Document Jerk. Even the name’s fun — it could’ve been created by fast-food marketers trying to come up with a product name appealing to adolescents. Jerk originated centuries ago in Jamaica when maroons — runaway slaves — fled to the hills to escape their British masters. Wild boars were their main food source. Because the maroons were constantly on the run, they couldn’t always hunt, and so they developed a method of preserving the meat with available ingredients: Scotch bonnet peppers, salt, and allspice. Allspice isn’t a blend of spices, as its name implies, but the berry of the allspice bush/tree. In the Caribbean it’s called pimento, though it bears no relation or resemblance to the pimiento, the sweet red pepper stuffed inside olives.
Origins of the term “jerk” are lost, but theories abound. There’s a Spanish word, charqui, for South American sun-dried beef. It’s undoubtedly the origin of beef “jerky,” but Jamaican jerk is quite different. Perhaps it’s because the meat is jerked (a.k.a. turned) on a grill, or because the meat is pulled (jerked) off the bone. Eventually pork became the most common jerked meat; today, though pork’s still popular, chicken is the main choice. Whatever its origin, there’s more to jerk than a cool name. Rightfully Jamaica’s most famous dish, it’s not just spice-tingly delicious; it also takes advantage of a wealth of Jamaican aromatics: spices (especially that allspice), garlic, and byproducts of the island’s sugar cane plantations, molasses and dark rum. Scotch bonnet peppers are among the world’s hottest, something I found out the hard way during a Jamaican trip years ago: Wandering down the beach, we found a tiny shack/restaurant with palm-frond umbrellas shading plastic tables, each with a jar of orange and red pickles. After ordering, I popped one into my mouth, where immediately all hell broke loose. Eons passed until our Red Stripe beers arrived. I quickly downed mine and my husband’s, as well as our children’s soft drinks. The Scotch bonnet (and its close cousin the habanero) are more than just heat, though: They have a unique flavor that’s essential for true Caribbean flavor. Jamaica and jerk chicken recently arrived in Springfield with the month-old Jamaican Taste carryout restaurant. Owner Omege James and her compatriots make wonderful jerk chicken, plus a rotating list of other delectable traditional specialties: brown stewed chicken, curried chicken or goat, and oxtail. Appetizers and sides include fried plantains and dumplins [sic], beef patties (a Caribbean riff on the British meat pie), rice and peas (a.k.a. kidney beans), and steamed cabbage. In many ways jerk is similar to Southern barbecue. There are infinite variations: dry rubs, wet rubs, marinades, sauced, unsauced — no two are alike. I’ve tinkered with jerk recipes for years but only recently came up with a method that duplicates that special flavor found in Jamaica. Though the rubs, marinades, and sauces differ, Jamaican jerk is grilled over allspice/pimento wood — something not available in central Illinois. Soaking whole dried allspice berries and then throwing them onto hot coals gives the jerk that unique Jamaican flavor. Yes, the list of ingredients below is long, but it’s mostly a bunch of spices. The brining and marinating take a couple of days, but the actual prep time is short — and the results are well worth the effort. The chicken may be cut into individual pieces, quarters, or halves for marinating and grilling, but my current preference for this or any other grilled or roasted chicken is leaving it whole and using the “beer can” method. Empty the can (how you empty it is your business) and fill it about two-thirds full with marinade drained from the chicken. The steaming marinade infuses the chicken with extra flavor and keeps it moist. Making jerk is fun and perfumes the air with spice and smoke. Some sultry summer days when cooking is just too much effort, though, I’ll be making my way to Jamaican Taste to bring the Caribbean home. No problem, mon!
Jamaican Taste (2232 E. Cook St., across from the post office; 217-523-0568) is open Monday-Friday.

Food Fantasies (1512 W. Wabash, 217-793-8009) sells spices in bulk. That’s always a good thing, especially when you are buying a large quantity (e.g., the allspice for smoking) or a small quantity of something that you don’t routinely use.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
JERKCHICKEN
One chicken 1 cup kosher salt 1 gallon cool water
Marinade 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/4 cup chopped garlic One Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, pickled or fresh     (or more to taste) 3 tablespoons chopped ginger 1/2 cup chopped onion, not super-sweet 1/4 cup Myers’s Rum 1/4 cup unsulfured molasses 2 tablespoons lime juice 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar 1 tablespoon dark-brown sugar 2 teaspoons ground allspice 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
For grilling 1 cup whole allspice
Glaze 2 tablespoons Myers’s Rum 1/4 cup mild (unsulfured) molasses 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar 1 1/2 tablespoons dark-brown sugar 1 tablespoon lime juice Two large cloves of garlic, minced
The morning of the day before you plan to serve the    chicken, put the water in a pot and completely dissolve the salt in the water. Place the chicken (be sure to remove the giblet package) in the brine, making sure that the chicken is submerged by weighting it with a plate or lid. Refrigerate for at least four hours. Put the whole allspice for smoking in a resealable plastic bag and add a fourth of a cup of water. Squish out the air, saturating the allspice, and let the bag stand. Remove the chicken from the brine and drain it. Combine the marinade ingredients in a blender or food processor and purée them. Put the mixture in a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag and add the chicken. Squish out any air, then seal the bag and turn it several times to ensure that the chicken is thoroughly covered, and refrigerate. The chicken should marinate for at least 24 hours but no longer than 48 hours before grilling. Turn the chicken several times while it is marinating. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator two hours before grilling and let it come to room temperature. Combine the glaze ingredients in a small skillet and simmer until the mixture is reduced to a syrupy glaze. Prepare a medium-hot grill fire if you are using the beer-can method or a medium fire for cut chicken. Place the chicken on the grill and throw a fourth of the soaked whole allspice onto the hot coals. Cover the grill and let it smoke. Throw another fourth of the allspice onto the fire every 10 to 15 minutes. Cook until the chicken is     completely done. Remove the chicken from the grill. If you are using the beer-can method, use tongs and hot pads to carefully remove the can. Lay the chicken on a flat surface and, using kitchen scissors, cut the chicken in half along the backbone and breastbone. Return the chicken to the grill, skin side down, and cook until the skin is crisp, about five minutes. Brush the inside surface with the glaze. When the skin is crisp, turn the chicken over and immediately brush it with the remaining glaze. Turn the chicken over again and grill for about a minute to set the glaze. Let the chicken rest for a few minutes, then serve it.
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