If you’ve perused the original Picky Eater files, you know that bland food is my jam. Roasted potatoes, fried chicken tenders, buttered toast. The browner the food, the better, and Heaven forbid a flavor be too assertive.
But wanting to be a better cook means that I’m (slowly) learning to appreciate bolder flavors and how they work together.
And that slow education took a big leap this week when I cooked Jamaican jerk chicken for dinner.
First of all, having never eaten or cooked jerk chicken before, I needed to do some light research to figure out what even went in it. To give some history behind this famous dish, the “jerk” technique of cooking was the result of African slaves brought to Jamaica who then fled to the mountains and used what spices and peppers were at their disposal to cook and survive. The Kitchen Project provides a solid, brief history of jerk’s origin.
It’s hard to think about a famous food originating from such cruelty, but it would be pretty vapid of me to ignore it and pretend like all delicious food came from the pleasant experience of a young woman experimenting in her Massachusetts apartment. I appreciate the complexity of this dish all the more for having even a basic understanding of its origin and how that’s been built upon since.
So for my first try at cooking it, I landed on using (mostly) Cooking Classy’s jerk marinade recipe, which calls for habanero, lime juice, ginger, garlic, allspice, and thyme, among a few other ingredients blended in a food processor. I also added ground cloves, which I saw in some other jerk chicken recipes, because I didn’t have nutmeg.
Not sure if you noticed, but none of those ingredients are exactly mild in taste. I just listed seven bold ingredients that all went into one food processor. And then I ate the resulting marinade. BIG LEAP, PEOPLE.
I won’t lie: as I put the chicken thighs in the fridge to marinate for a couple hours, the perfume of allspice and habanero that filled my apartment scared me a bit. I was already trying to figure out what snacks I had on hand in case I didn’t finish my dinner.
The best I could come up with was making extra rice. (For those who read last week’s tahdig disaster, you may be surprised to read that I made rice again so soon. This Rice-A-Roni, in all its unnatural, chemical-agent-infused glory is the only rice I don’t consistently screw up and is a must when cooking new meals that I may very well screw up.)
Come dinnertime, with my idiot-proof rice on the stove, I took my marinated chicken out of the fridge and heated up my grill pan. True to form, I did not screw up my rice (shout out, Rice-A-Roni), but it turns out the main was just as delicious!
Spicy (hi, habanero!), zesty from the lime juice, and super fragrant from the spices and herbs, this jerk chicken packed. a. punch. The charred grill marks also gave great caramelized texture and extra flavor to an already-flavorful dish. The allspice and cloves really came through in both smell and taste, which I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy (and still might decrease the quantities a smidge next time around), but they weren’t over-powering.
That’s the best part about this complex marinade. There are so many strong flavors that complement each other perfectly instead of competing. The acidity of the lime cuts the pepper’s heat, and the many spices work together to create multi-dimensional seasoning.
From reading several jerk chicken recipes, it’s clear that although peppers, allspice, and thyme are mainstays, there are a few variations with the rest of the ingredients, including making a dry rub instead of a wet marinade. Dry rubs using cayenne and chili powder can make the spice level of the dish more flexible for those seeking less heat and can instead accentuate the other dried herbs and spices.
I loved the smoky juiciness that came from my wet marinade but would love to hear about others’ experience using different starting points for their jerk chicken for my next go-around. That’s right—I will be making this one again! I swear, I’m surprising even myself with what I’ve been eating lately! Who knew I actually liked food??
If you’ve got a favorite jerk seasoning or marinade, let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @thepickyeaterchronicles. And if you’ve never made this one before, try Cooking Classy’s recipe above, swapping out the habanero for a small amount of cayenne if spice is a concern. Let me know what you think!