Certain foods trigger vivid memories. Mexican mole reminds me of spending Christmas with my college exchange host family in Queretaro. A croque madame with a gooey yolk brings me back to my honeymoon in France with Paul. And spicy jerk chicken rushes me back to my days working as a wire service reporter in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
There, in the congested Caribbean city, I lived in a spacious rented house near the top of a stretch of road dotted with tamarind trees. The street unwound like a lazy measuring tape down a long slope onto the city’s Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant roundabout lined with prestigious government buildings. The nearest grocery store, stocked with staples as well as my coveted imported wine and dark chocolate, taunted me from a mile down the hill where the sidewalk occasionally disappeared into dirt and rocks. I owned no car at first, so hiking to the store and back required time and energy that, in the hot tropical sun, left me pooped for the day.
I muscled up the hill bottles of red wine, chocolate bars, and chicken thighs, distributing the weight evenly between two plastic bags so they didn’t dig into my palms. Luckily, a bottle of Walkerswood jerk sauce added little weight and lasted a week. I slathered the marinade – loaded with scotch bonnet peppers, nutmeg, and thyme – on the chicken pieces. As the chicken baked, I sipped my hard-earned red wine and watched small, green lizards scurry across my kitchen walls (welcome to the Caribbean!). Eventually, I plunked down a few hundred bucks to buy a used car and could drive to the store whenever I wanted. Still, I made that jerk chicken every week.
I later learned that authentic jerk chicken is barbecued, usually over pimento (allspice) wood, to instill a smoky flavor into the meat. My version brings the job inside to the oven just like I made it in Trinidad, and turns the Scoville rating down by a few clicks by swapping scotch bonnets for serranos, making this dish more wine friendly. If you like your mouth on fire, use scotch bonnets or habaneros. The serrano lime slaw cools your mouth slightly while holding court with a touch of heat and loads of lime flavor.
Jamaican Jerk Chicken
8 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon backed brown sugar
3 serrano chiles, stemmed and seeded
6 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2-1/2 tablespoons grated lime zest (from two limes)
1 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and diced
In a Cuisinart or blender, blend all ingredients until it forms a smooth paste. Place the chicken in a large, sealable plastic bag along with the marinade and shake until the chicken is evenly coated. Leave to marinade at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and place the baking rack in the middle of the oven. Line the broiler pan bottom with foil to make clean-up afterward easier (do not line the top with foil as the fat will not drain properly). Remove the chicken from the marinade and place the pieces on the top section of the broiler pan. Bake for 35 minutes, then switch the oven to broil on high. Broil the tops of the chicken for 5 – 10 minutes, moving the pan around as necessary to ensure even browning under the flame. Keep an eye on it to make sure your chicken gets crispy without turning black (it can happen fast!).
Serrano Lime Slaw
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 serrano pepper, seeded
4 green onions, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
2-1/2 tablespoon honey
1/3 cup canola oil
Salt and pepper
1 store bought package slaw greens (4- 5 cups)
Combine all ingredients, except the slaw greens, in a blender and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Place slaw greens in a large bowl and toss with the dressing. Season with salt and pepper and let sit 30 minutes before serving.