Jamaican Spice -- Cooking That'll `Jerk' Your Palate

BE CAREFUL WHOM YOU'RE calling jerk. It may be your new favorite barbecued meat.

The dictionary defines jerk as "a quick pull," or "a foolish person," but that's because Webster isn't up on one of the latest cooking passions to sweep across the U.S. It's called Jamaican jerk and it dates to the 17th century in the Caribbean when stranded African slaves called Maroons captured wild boar and cooked them over a fire, using the hot native spices and herbs. Let's just say it wasn't for the faint of heart.

The use of the marinade, based around fiery little peppers and the native allspice, eventually worked its way into mainstream Jamaican cuisine. Sheila Lukins of Silver Palate fame and author of the recent "All Around the World Cookbook" writes of her early experiences with jerk: "In Montego Bay I spent lots of lunch times at the Pork Pit, sitting with the locals at green picnic tables under palm trees heavy with ripe coconuts eating jerk pork and chicken. Along with the pork and chicken, I devoured yellow yams roasted in foil and deep-friend cornmeal crullers."

Lukins soon found that no one was willing to share the secret recipes and the only way to duplicate the dish at home was to pay $30 there for a jar of the sauce. (Local cooks can relax; jerk can be found today in Seattle shops for as low as $4 a jar.)

Jerk is most commonly used on pork and chicken but also can be spread on ribs or fish before grilling or even added to vegetables. It also can result in a fabulous potato dish (see recipes on page 17). Marinating times range up to 24 hours before cooking.

Today, jerk pork and chicken can be enjoyed in many American restaurants, particularly on both coasts. And, apparently, it has found its way into the home kitchens of many a Seattle resident. The Market Spice shop in the Pike Place Market, which sells a brand directly from Jamaica, reports "it's flying out of the shop these days."

One local restaurant that has made it a signature dish is the year-old Marco's Supperclub, owned by a husband-and-wife team, Marco Rulff and Donna Moodie. Moodie is from Jamaica and has fond memories of dining on jerk there. Although her family later moved to Chicago, she spent summers in Jamaica and especially remembers having jerk at beach parties.

"It was just great," she says. "The little roadside stands by the beach would cook the jerk over hot coals or sometimes buried in the ground. The jerk was served with yams and it was delicious. It was just part of going to the beach."

The jerk chicken at Marco's has Moodie's name attached on the menu and it has become one of the Belltown restaurant's most requested dishes. "We wouldn't dare take it off the menu," she says. At Marco's the crisply grilled chicken filets are served over a fluffy bed of whipped yams and topped with freshly steamed greens such as chard or collard.

"It's Mom's secret recipe," says Moodie.

The very heart of Jamaican jerk, according to experts, is the little, lethal pepper called Scotch bonnet. Without it, many say, jerk can't be authentic. The pepper is grown on the island and is virtually impossible to find in this country, although Marco's has managed to obtain it. The other necessary ingredient is allspice, which for some unexplained reason is called pimento in Jamaica. Very often the meat is grilled in a layer of the leaves of the allspice tree and, just as frequently, the wood from allspice is used in the grill fire.

The rest of the ingredients of jerk vary but generally include clove, scallions, cayenne, nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, orange juice, vinegar and sometimes soy sauce. The result is a heavenly, highly aromatic sauce that is spicy, hot, sweet and sour all at the same time.

The best method for home cooks (short of flying to Jamaica to obtain Scotch bonnet peppers) is to use the prepared mixture now found in many specialty shops. The Market Spice shop sells the Busha Browne's brand, believing it to be the most authentic. Made in Spanish Town, Jamaica, it comes in a sauce for marinating and basting or the seasoning paste. The sauce is $5.50 for a 5 1/2-ounce bottle and the paste is $3.95 for a 4-ounce jar. Another well-made brand found on the local market is Neera's, selling for about the same price and coming from Arizona. It has much the same ingredients as the Busha Browne's except using habanero chilies, a common substitute for the Scotch bonnet.

Many cooks believe the paste adheres to the meat better. It also can be toned down in heat by combining with oil or even yogurt.

Jerk Chicken 4 servings 2 tablespoons Jamaican jerk spice paste 2 tablespoons cooking oil, such as olive or vegetable 4 whole chicken breasts, split 1. Mix the jerk seasoning paste with the oil until it becomes the consistency of mustard or mayonnaise. If you prefer it less spicy, add more oil. 2. Pat the chicken dry. Rub the jerk marinade over the chicken thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate overnight. (Note: Use care not to touch your eyes while handling the seasoning. Wash hands thoroughly afterward. If your skin is sensitive to such spices, use rubber gloves when applying the marinade.) 3. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in a roasting pan and put into a preheated 350-degree oven. Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes, basting occasionally. 4. Finish the chicken on a grill (charcoal or gas), basting with marinade. It will require only about 15 minutes of additional cooking on a medium hot grill.

Jerked Spiced Potatoes 2 to 4 servings 1 large onion, chopped 3 tablespoons cooking oil, such as olive or vegetable 1 tablespoon Jamaican jerk spice paste (more if desired) 2 large white potatoes, diced Using a heavy frying pan, brown the onion in the oil until soft. Add the jerk spice to the onions and incorporate well. Cook for two minutes longer. Add the potatoes, cover the pan and cook 45 minutes longer, stirring occasionally.

Tom Stockley is a freelance writer and Seattle Times wine columnist. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times photographer.