The question I get asked the most when shopping on Rye Lane is, “do you actually eat those chilli peppers?!” This usually comes from a man of Caribbean background of a certain age; they’re always amazed that this little White English girl even knows what jerk is, let alone makes it in her own home. Cue smiles, wistful eyes and tales from the tropics. Don’t even think about asking for a recipe though, it’s a short cut to the end of the conversation.
I don’t claim to have the best jerk recipe out there; I still aspire to the heady heights of Smokey Jerkey in New Cross, but I have learned a thing or two about cooking it through repeated mistakes, research and tips that people send to me. Here are those things, in a list. A list! With bullet points and everything.
– Grind your own allspice berries; makes all the difference. It’s all about freshness with spices; ready-ground have the tendency to taste dusty and lose pungency. Pestle the berries yourself in a mortar, they crush easily and you get to suck up the scent while you pound.
– Use a lot of sugar in your recipe. This tip I picked up from Josh. It was one of those beautiful moments when you work out what your recipe has been missing. I also add a tablespoon of molasses to mine, which gives a dark, sticky quality. Thanks to Laura for that one.
– Don’t ever, EVER be tempted to use different chillies in place of scotch bonnets. SB’s are the cornerstone of jerk flavour; no other pepper has the same fruity tingle. Just be careful when preparing them and de-seed if you like (I do) . There are actually quite a few varieties of Caribbean chilli (e.g. Trinidad Scorpion, Billy Goat, Jamaican Gold), but we only seem to get the one variety here.
– Always marinate overnight.
– Don’t use too much sauce. It’s tempting to leave a thick layer on when you’re grilling but don’t, it will just burn. If you’ve given it a good marinating overnight then the flavour should have seeped right in and all that’s left to do is cook it properly…
– Cook on a BBQ. The major problem with cooking jerk at home is the lack of a cooking drum. This is a barrel turned on its side and mounted on legs, basically (see above). The jerk is grilled over coals like a BBQ.
– This is an absolute blinder of a tip – sent on to me by a reader (cheers Joe). Those tantalising wafts of smoke you get coming from the jerk drums? They come from spritzing the coals – with BEER. This creates more smoke which you can then seal inside with your meat or fish.
– Same reader, second awesome pointer: throw some soaked pimento (allspice) berries into the coals so when you spray them with the BEER, they sizzle and flavour the smoke.
– Cook the jerk on bay leaves, like this.
– And finally, I find it best to use the indirect BBQ cooking method because this recipe has a lot of sugar in it and any direct flame with burn the shizzle out of it. Build your coals in a pyramid shape in the centre of the BBQ, then when they are lit, leave until they turn white. At this point you can move them to the sides of the BBQ, put your meat in the centre of the grill and put the lid on. The heat will circulate inside but there will be no fat dripping onto coals and therefore no flaring. You can also cook large joints of meat in this way.
– And so ends the summary of my jerk-cooking know-how. Now come on, I know there are some tips tingling on your fingertips right now. I can sense it. Tell me.
You can find my current jerk recipe here and I must remind you that The Food Event of The Year is coming up soon – The Jerk Cookout Festival. If you look at my post about it last year, then you’ll see a comment from Joe, who heard a rumour about it being moved to Brockwell Park this year, having outgrown its usual venue – the gardens of The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. Watch this space. I’m all over it.