Welcome back to the kitchen. This week we are all suffering from the cold. As we near the darkest time of the year, I think it would lift our spirits to keep cooking these spicy, exotic dishes we’ve been playing with the past few weeks. But instead of India this time, I’m thinking of heading to the West Indies for recipe inspiration.
We are entering into the ripe season for citrus fruits. While these aren’t local, I am also a proponent of using ingredients when they are at there peak. And let’s face it: an orange is just never going to grow well in Wenatchee. But there are certainly some ingredients common in Caribbean cooking that are available here, like onions, garlic, beans, and even hot peppers. And I am particularly excited to have found a great source of local, organic chicken
So this week I want to try to make a Jamaican feast with spicy jerk chicken and a side of rice and peas. This is a truly classic meal. Jamaica was a major slave colony, and it is said that Jamaican cooking fuses African culinary traditions with Taino or Arawak Indian ingredients.
Rice and peas are actually the Jamaican version of beans and rice, and the dish is so ubiquitous and popular it is the unofficial national dish of Jamaica, and sometimes called the coat of arms. Jerk chicken is a sweet and spiced marinated grilled chicken, another very popular dish. But because it is so cold out, we will opt for an oven baked variety today.
So let’s get started first with the jerk chicken. There are several recipes for this, some more complex than others, and you can certainly speed things up by using a pre-made Jamaican jerk seasoning mix or rub. But for this recipe we will make up a sweet, tangy, and spicy marinade and let the meat sit in this jerk juice overnight:
3 scallions, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 or 2 fresh Scotch bonnet or habanero chilies, stemmed and seeded (be careful about not touching your eyes, these are very fiery peppers!)
¼-1/2 cup fresh lime juice (the juice of three or so ripe limes)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons ground allspice
2 teaspoons black pepper
3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup chopped cilantro (this is not a traditional ingredient, but I love the flavor. Cilantro is optional)
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger (again, this is my addition, and not necessarily traditional)
We will also need about 5 pounds of chicken, cut into portions
Put all of these marinade ingredients into food processor or blender and liquefy until nice and smooth. If it doesn’t seem like there is quite enough liquid, add a dash of orange juice or water to the mix.
The chicken is probably too much to fit into one large zip top bag, so divide the pieces between two or more bags as needed. Now pour half the Jamaican jerk marinade over each bag of poultry and squeeze out the excess air before sealing the top. Shake the chicken marinade bags and place them in a pan in the fridge to soak up flavor overnight. Turn the bags over once or twice to make sure all sides get equal bath time.
This would also be a good time to start soaking your dried kidney beans for the rice and peas side dish.
Ok, with the chicken all nice and marinated, let’s drain the juice and place the pieces in a greased pan to bake at 350 degrees for about 35-40 minutes. We’ll need to remember to turn over the chicken partway through. Of course, to get the full smoky flavor and experience of jerk chicken, grill it over an open fire somewhere near the beach… with the sun shining overhead… and a fresh pina colada in your hand… wishful thinking right? The oven will have to do for now. Remember to cut into the meat and make sure it isn’t drying out or overcooking.
So with the chicken in the oven, let’s get to what I consider the star of the meal: the rice and peas. This is a fairly simple dish with coconut milk, spices, dried beans, and rice. But don’t be fooled by its simplicity; this is one of those delicious staple dishes I would be happy to live off of for many years.
These days I understand it is most common for Jamaicans to use red kidney beans in this dish. These are commonly available here as well, and are even grown in abundance in the Palouse region of Washington. But rice and peas can use any variety of dried beans, like black eyed peas, mung beans, or appaloosa beans which are mostly grown in the Eastern pat of the state. I recommend going with whatever beans you can find that are Washington grown.
Like most long time national dishes, there are several variations on Jamaican rice and peas. The most important things are to soak the beans long enough that they are tender (or just cheat and use canned varieties) and to balance that similar spicy and sweet flavor from the jerk chicken with the creaminess of coconut milk. Our version today uses chicken stock, but it could just as easily be done with water or veggie stock. So for our rice and peas we’ll need:
16 ounces chicken stock, veggie broth, or water
1/2 cup coconut cream
or 1 cup coconut milk (which is probably easier to find around here)
2 scallions, finely chopped
1/2 cup white onion, chopped
bonnet or habanero pepper (left whole, this bright orange chili is very spicy, so don’t cut into it unless you want this dish to be very fiery)
So to get started with this delicious, hearty side dish rinse and sort beans, picking out any stones, and place in a large stockpot. Cover the beans with several inches of water and soak overnight. You can sort of fake this process by bringing the beans to a boil for 5 minutes or so, then remove from the heat, cover, and allow to sit undisturbed for 1 hour. Next, drain and rinse beans.
Now bring the beans to a boil with the chicken stock, water, and coconut milk. When things are really boiling, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 1 1/2-2 hours or until beans are fully tender and creamy, but not falling apart mushy.
Now add the thyme, allspice, scallion, onion, garlic, scotch bonnet pepper, brown sugar, uncooked rice, salt and pepper, and stir. Check the level of liquid over the rice and make sure there is at least one inch of liquid (if not, you may add water or broth to cover). Bring everything to a boil and stir, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until rice is tender. Nice work, I think it’s time to eat!
Don’t forget about our jerk chicken, which I set aside and covered in foil once I was cooked through. Give each person a plate piled high with rice and peas and a piece of chicken. This smells incredible and really evokes the Jamaican spirit. Yum! I think I might whip up a quick fresh orange and red pepper salsa with sliced oranges, red pepper, a sliced jalapeno pepper, some chopped red onion, some minced cilantro, a big squeeze of lime juice, and some salt. This will help brighten up the jerk chicken even more.
Another traditional Jamaican side dish is cabbage, often stewed with curry. But we will have to save that one for another day. Nice work everyone! I think we have successfully fought back the winter blues and the food blahs with this exciting Caribbean meal.