Jerk is a style of cooking native to Jamaica. Some people believe the term comes from the word charqui, a Spanish term for jerked or dried meat, which eventually became jerky in English; others claim it’s related to the constant turning or jerking of the meat to load it with the spice blend and cook it thoroughly. What I love about this version, other than the fact that it’s a breeze to make, is that it’s got distinct Caribbean flavor without being too spicy or exotic for less adventurous palates. I made it for a big family gathering on Sunday night and everyone, from my picky six-year-old daughter right on up to my 93-year-old grandfather, enjoyed it. (Of course, my grandmother claimed it was “the best chicken she ever ate” but take that with a grain of salt — she doles out praise very liberally when it comes to her grandchildren.)
As you can see from the ingredients — like soy sauce, all spice, nutmeg, Asian 5-spice powder and a Scotch bonnet pepper — Jerk chicken is a perfect example of Caribbean cooking, which is a unique blend of African, European, Indian and Asian flavors.
Begin by making the marinade. Combine all of the ingredients except for the chiken in a food processor and process until the vegetables are finely pureed.
Place the chicken and marinade in a Ziploc freezer bag and let it marinate in the refrigerator at least eight hours or overnight.
When you’re ready to eat, preheat your grill to medium-high. Cook the chicken until the skin is brown and crispy, then turn the heat down or move the chicken to a cooler part of the grill to finish cooking.
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Grilled Jerk Chicken
- 1 small yellow onion, cut into large chunks
- 2 scallions, quartered
- 1 Scotch bonnet or Habanero chili pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 1 teaspoon Asian five-spice powder
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup soy sauce (use gluten-free if needed)
- 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2-1/2 to 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (thighs, drumsticks or breasts)
- Make the marinade: In the bowl of a food processor, combine all of the ingredients except for the chicken. Process until the vegetables are finely puréed and the mixture is relatively smooth (the texture will be slightly gritty). Place the chicken pieces and the marinade in a large Ziploc bag; squeeze air out and seal tightly. Mash the chicken around to coat evenly with the marinade. Place the bag in a bowl (in case of leakage) and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or overnight. Allow the chicken to come to room temperature before grilling.
- Preheat the grill to medium-high heat. Lightly dip a wad of paper towels in vegetable oil and, using tongs, carefully rub over the grates several times until glossy and coated. Place the chicken on the grill skin side down, making sure it is well coated with marinade for maximum flavor (discard any leftover marinade). Cover and cook, turning occasionally, until the skin is browned and crisp but not charred, about 10 minutes. Turn the chicken pieces skin side up and either turn the heat down to medium-low or move the chicken to a cooler part of the grill. Continue cooking, covered, until the chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes more. Serve immediately.
- Note: Be extremely careful when working with Scotch Bonnet or Habanero peppers. They are extremely hot and if you touch your eyes, it will be very painful. Wear disposable gloves or be sure to wash your hands well when you’re done. You can use more or fewer peppers depending on how fiery you like your chicken.
- Note: I recommend using bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks for this recipe, mostly because the flavor is better but also because they are much easier to cook on the grill. Bone-in chicken breasts can be tricky; if you want to use them, look for smaller ones so they won't burn on the outside before the inside is fully cooked. Or you can start them on the grill and finish them in the oven.