I had decided to barbecue chicken for the Fourth of July, but what flavor. A last year, I made this dish for my sister Karen, but I was overly cautious with the spices. This time I took my own advise and bumped up the spice level to four tablespoons. To go with the meat heavy main I made several vegetable sides—corn, grilled vegetables and a couscous salad. For a patriotic desert, I served strawberries, whipped cream, and blueberries.
Note: This was an culinary eclectically diverse meal—a Caribbean main, a Mexican corn side, a Middle Eastern grilled vegetable side, and Israeli salad, and and American desert.
Daughter Eilene had been working on an archeology dig on the Hamilton plantation in the Caribbean Island of Nevis. While there, she developed a taste for their jerked chicken, which is very different from the other islands. To bring the flavor home she brought me a bag of their spice blend.
It is difficult to guess what is in this spice blend—as it is ground quite finely. In appearance it is a bright yellow/orange powder, but when I put it on the damp chicken it turned a more reddish color. In taste, it is not the fiery blend of spices one usually associates with Caribbean jerk spice. One spice I do not think it has is a lot of hot pepper powder, although there may be some sweet paprika in the mix. Sampling the raw spice, the dominate flavor is salt with a few flakes of what I believe is bay leaf. From the color, I think the main seasoning is turmeric, but the way it changes color in the presence of moisture makes me think that there is a fair amount of saffron in the blend.
Note: Nevis is the only source for this spice blend, but—with the popularity of the play Hamilton—the island has become a tourist destination. My daughter assures me that every market on the island carries this spice for local consumption.
I was very cautious the first time I used this jerk spice—between the saltiness and being unsure of its heat profile I did not want to burn my sister’s mouth. I used a tablespoon and a half for the whole chicken. I did not need to worry, this is a very mild jerk blend. If anything the chicken was a bit under salted. Eilene’s comment was that while good, it was “not red enough.” Last time I suggested using 3-4 tablespoons for a whole chicken. However, you or a friend must go to Nevis to do your shopping for the key ingredient.
Note: I could not imagine a dry chicken holding onto that much spice on its own, so I mixed the spice with melted butter to make a sticky paste.
After Dinner Note: While four tablespoons of spice seems like too much, it was actually the perfect amount. This was a very mild but flavorful seasoning. The color came out with the redness that Eilene remembered from when she was on Nevis. My Wife has a student who is going to this years dig and I plan to request a new supply of the delightful jerk spice blend.
Karl’s Nevis Barbecued Jerked Chicken
1 whole chicken, quartered
4 Tbs. butter, melted
4 Tbs. Nevis Spice Blend
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp. Kosher salt
1. Cut the chicken into four pieces.
Tip: Remove the backbone and wing tips. Separate the breast and legs. Starting from the inside of the bird, divide the breasts in half cutting through the keel bone and cartilage along the center line.
Note: Frequently for a dish like this, I like to remove the keel bone, ribs and any other bones that might pierce the marinade bag.
2. Pull the skin away from the meat, but leave it attached, if you can.
Tip: Lightly prick the skin over the fatty deposits on the thighs and at the thick end of the breasts.
Note: This allows the render fat a way to escape and will give you a crisper skin.
3. Melt the butter in a small cup and stir in the jerk spices, pepper, and salt to form a thick paste.
4. Liberally smear the spice paste over the meat and skin.
Tip: Pull the skin away from the meat and spread the paste thickly over the meat. Pull the skin back over the meat and lightly spread the seasoning over the skin.
5. Put the chicken pieces in a seal-able, gallon plastic bag.
6. Press the air out of the bag and seal it tightly and marinate for at least 2-4 hours in the refrigerator.
Tip: Over night is better.
7. Set the chicken on the counter an hour before you plan to start cooking.
Tip: A room temperature bird cooks more evenly.
Note: Set the chicken on a lipped baking tray and pull the skin over to cover the meat. It may be necessary—especially on the breasts—to pin the skin down with toothpicks broken in half.
8. Build a bi-level fire in your barbecue.
Tip: For gas grills: Turn on all of the burners five minutes on their highest setting before cooking and then turn off one side.
9. Lay the chicken pieces on the cool side of the grill.
Tip: Placement of your chicken pieces is important. The legs take longer to cook than the breasts and the thickest part of the breast takes longer than the thin trailing end. Even the cool side of the grill is hotter neat the hot side. Place the legs with the thighs closest to the heat with the leg portion pointing away. Place the breasts with the thick part toward the heat and the thin part as far as possible from the heat.
10. Insert a constant read thermometer into the breast—near the wing joint—and close the grill.
11. Set the thermometer alarm to 135º F.
Tip: As the fat and juices render from the chicken it will smoke as it hits the flame guards, but they will not ignite and flare up.
12. Move the chicken to the hot side of the grill—skin side down—and close the grill.
Tip: This should give you some good grill marks.
Note: Much of the fat will be rendered at this point, but there should still be enough to get some good smoky flavor without too many flare ups scorching the meat.
13. Reset the thermometer alarm to 155º F
14. After 5 minutes, check to see if the skin is golden brown.
Tip: If the skin is not done to your liking, give it another two minutes and check again.
15. Flip the chicken pieces—skin side up—and close the grill.
16. After 5 minutes, check to see if the bottom of the chicken pieces are burning.
Tip: If not, check them every two minutes until the alarm goes off.
Note: If the bottoms of the chicken is starting to singe, move the pieces to the cool side of the grill until they have reached 155º F.
17. When the alarm sounds, transfer the chicken to a plate and lightly tent with aluminum foil.
Tip: You want to keep the chicken covered, so that it will finish cooking, but you do not want to seal in the steam, which would make your skin soggy.
18. Let the meat rest for 10 minutes.
19. Cut the chicken pieces into portions and transfer them to a serving plate.
Note: I was using a very large chicken and I separated the leg from thigh and cut the thigh in half along the bone. I crosscut the breast into six pieces.