Feeling hot, hot, hot

Scotch bonnet chili spices up jerk chicken; watermelon salsa calms it down

May 14, 2014 

It’s barbecue season, and chicken is the ideal candidate to get you grilling.

Why? Chicken is light, it easily picks up the marinade of your choice, and it cooks quickly. But this recipe is not for your everyday grilled chicken. This is spicy Jamaican-style jerk chicken.

“Jerk” refers both to a distinctive blend of seasonings and to a method of slow cooking. It is said to have been invented by Jamaica’s Maroons, slaves who escaped from Spanish-owned plantations when the British took over and established free communities in Jamaica’s mountainous interior. The Maroons hunted wild boars, then preserved the meat with a spice mix that contained a hefty amount of salt. When it was time to eat, the meat was cooked in a pit or grilled very slowly over a fire. Eventually, Jamaicans began to cook all kinds of meats jerk-style.

Jerk seasoning consists of a base blend of scallions, thyme, allspice (known as pimento in Jamaica), Scotch bonnet chilies, salt and, not infrequently, cinnamon or nutmeg. This may look like an awful lot of ingredients to slice and dice, but that’s not the case. Toss them all into a blender, pulverize everything to a paste, then you’re good to go.

But you do need to be careful when you’re messing with those Scotch bonnets. I advise wearing gloves. Seriously. A cousin of the habanero, Scotch bonnets are serious chilies. I call for a whole chili here, but you can use less if you want to tamp down the heat. Happily, Scotch bonnets aren’t solely about heat; they also are uniquely flavorful — like a cross between a mango and chili — with a wonderfully fruity scent. If you can’t find Scotch bonnets, use a habanero. If you can’t find either, reach for a jalapeno or serrano.

I left the skin on the chicken to prevent it from drying out while it’s being grilled, so when you marinate the chicken be sure to put the spice paste under the skin as well as on top of it. If you want to cut calories, you’re welcome to discard the skin after you’re done grilling. The meat itself will be plenty spicy.

The job of the watermelon salsa is to balance the heat of the chilies. All by itself, of course, ripe watermelon is one of the top reasons to love summer. But they happen to be plenty healthy, too. They’re full of water, which makes them an excellent hot-weather thirst-quencher, and they’re a great source of lycopene, vitamin C and beta-carotene.

So, jerk and watermelon. Hot and sweet. What could be more summery?

Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows.

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