My Favorite Street Food

There’s something glorious in the way the sights, smells, sounds, and taste of Jamaican jerk chicken combine to make the ultimate street food experience. It’s a common sight in Jamaica to see men setting up their jerk pans on busy street corners near congested bus stops. Laughing with each other, the jerk men expertly splash kerosene to fire up their dusty black coals.

A raucous serenade – horns noisily honking, taxis and buses jostling for passengers, streetlights popping and fizzing as they come on one by one – sets the evening atmosphere.  The jerk man’s outdoor restaurant is simple: his grill is made from a 50-gallon steel drum cut lengthwise and outfitted with hinges to open and close.  He fills the bottom half with coal and places a grate, cut to fit, on top of his grill pan. With a spout installed on the cover, the smoke wafts over the evening breeze, enticing customers even when the grill is shut.

All the jerk man needs to finish setting up shop is a small side table with his chopper, cutting board, and extras. Jamaican hardough (or hard dough) bread soaks up the juices that escape from the deliciously smoky and charred chicken meat.  Add bottles of street condiments – pepper sauce and watered-down ketchup – and he’s ready for business.

The most popular jerk men have secret chicken recipes that their legions of loyal customers swear by. Preparations and seasonings are confidential; even if I knew the formula, I probably wouldn’t share with you, either.

Click here for Jomo’s Jerk Seasoning

 

000_00051I know that they use fresh herbs, spices and generous doses of Scotch bonnet pepper to make a wet marinade to season chicken cut into quarters. I know that the meat is usually prepped the day before, and stored in five-gallon buckets so all the flavors of the marinade can permeate the meat.

I know that the distinctive heat that plays across the tongue and tickles the senses comes from the Scotch bonnet pepper essential to all good Jamaican jerk. The complex nuances in flavor that slide in under the heat of the peppers come from that seductive berry called pimento (known more popularly as allspice). But how each jerk man combines his ingredients to make his offerings  so delicious remains a jealously guarded secret.

The heavily seasoned chicken quarters are laid out on a hot grill and cooked slowly with the cover closed. This slow-cooking process allows the skin to become crispy and charred on the outside with the meat remaining juicy and succulent on the inside. The smoke streams from the spout in the cover, and the sizzle of meat as juices hit the hot coals announces to all that the food is ready. Customers wait impatiently as the jerk man, ever the showman, judges the time right to lift the cover and reveal perfectly cooked pieces of meat.

Customers are asked their preference of “leg and thigh” or “breast and wing” as the jerk man expertly removes a done piece. He places it on a cutting board, chops it up for you, and wraps it in a sheet of aluminum foil. This can be had with your choice of ketchup or pepper sauce, or even a combination of both. If you are willing to pay a little bit more, you can get two or three slices of freshly baked hard dough bread added to your meal.

This prize, this piece of sizzling hot chicken meat wrapped in “foil paper”, can be eaten on the spot or taken home to be consumed at a more leisurely pace. It’s not uncommon for people to buy half a jerk chicken or more to bring home as dinner, especially on a Friday evening.

This street food is so popular that enterprising jerk men will set up shop near nightclubs or popular events. They wait expectantly for the steady stream of tired and hungry partiers who want to reduce the effects of too much alcohol. Even at two in the morning, sales can be brisk with the jerk man trying to keep up with the demands of hungry customers as they catch a quick bite before going home.

I, on the other hand, prefer to buy my chicken on a Friday evening, when I know that my regular chicken man has set up his usual spot close to my bus stop. Tired after a day in school, I approach him expectantly, my bag on my back, my tummy rumbling, and my feet plodding wearily on the pavement. I know he sees me because he looks up, smiles and waves a friendly greeting as smoke drifts out the spout of his jerk pan.

Swapping a few jokes, I order a “leg and thigh” and wait in anticipation as he prepares chicken and hardough bread – no extra gimmicks, just the way I like it . My first few bites are wolfed down too quickly to taste anything, and it takes a minute or two for me to satisfy my hunger rush and savor my food.

My next bite tears through the crisp skin and into the meat that envelops my mouth with the silky heat of the peppers. The juicy meat falls off the bone and the spices cloak my nostrils with familiar warmth akin to a passionate embrace. This is heaven, manna from the skies as I take another bite and the full force of the peppers and spices burn away the last vestiges of hunger.

As I mop up the remaining juices with my hardough bread and lick my fingers, my bus careens to a halt, obviously in a hurry to discharge its passengers. Throwing my empty foil paper in the garbage, I thank the chicken man and join the line for the bus, sated and happily humming to myself as I prepare to go home.

Feeding the Wolf – Fettuccine Alfredo with Shrimp, Broccoli & Lots of Garlic

The wolf is gray

The wolf is hunger

The wolf is primal

Feed the wolf!

IMG_5638 copyThe question of the wolf has been on my mind for quite some time. I’ve been struggling to explain what the concept of the wolf means to a cook. Obviously, it’s not a literal description of an animal with hair, fur, claws, and teeth. In my mind, the wolf is figurative; he resides in a deeper, darker place. I like to think of the wolf as hunger. Our desire to eat and feed lets the wolf loose; it hunts and does what it will.

In pursuit of food, we’re all reduced to our basest instincts. Cooks deal with this transformation every day; we are professionally trained to feed the wolves. In exposing this truth, it bears well to remember that the wolf resides in all of us. Even cooks succumb to the gut-wrenching pangs of hunger. We cook for the hungry and in turn are fed.

Wolves can be particular creatures and hard to please. They roam far and wide in search of a meal, and there’s no telling where a wolf may choose to feed from one day to the next. In fact, it’s the wolf’s discerning palate that keeps people like me employed.

My own wolf likes to roam the tiny kitchen in my apartment. He particularly likes to rummage through the pantry, opening one door and another, touching a can here, looking at a jar there. Sometimes I’ll come home late at night and find the wolf staring longingly into the refrigerator. The light casts shadows around me and I feel his presence in the shadows. I’m quiet in this moment, somehow caught in the reverie of longing. His eyes look up and meet mine. I hear a plaintive whine and I know the wolf is hungry.

In moments such as this, when haste is expedient, cook it fast and serve it hot. Here’s a recipe that I’ve used many times to keep the wolf sated and content.

 

Fettuccine Alfredo with Shrimp,

Broccoli & lots of Garlic

2 qts of water

1 tsp salt

8 ozs fettuccine pasta

1 head of fresh broccoli cut into small florets (about 2 cups)

 

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1)  Bring the water to a boil. Don’t add the pasta yet; I like to blanch my broccoli first. It saves a step and reduces the amount of time and pots to clean.

2)   Cook the broccoli in boiling water for about two minutes then use a slotted spoon to chill the broccoli in a bowl with water and ice cubes.

3)  Drain the broccoli and set aside.

 

4)  Time for the fettuccine pasta. Add 2 tsp. of vegetable oil to the boiling water. Add the fettuccine and stir every two to three minutes to keep pasta from sticking. It should take about 11-12 minutes to cook al dente.

 

SHRIMP ALFREDO SAUCE

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 ½ lb. of shrimp, peeled and deveined

 5 cloves garlic, minced

Fresh basil (8 -10 leaves), julienned

3 tbsp. of vegetable oil

1 lemon

Pinch of salt and black pepper

16 oz. of heavy cream

¾ cup of Parmesan cheese

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 5) Marinate the shrimp with the garlic, oil, salt and pepper and a small amount of basil. Keep most of the basil to add at the end just before serving.

6) In a small saucepan heat the heavy cream and reduce by half. This is important: the cream should be reduced until it is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Whisk in ½ cup of Parmesan cheese and stir until cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Remember, Parmesan cheese is salty, so be careful with seasoning.

7) Drain the shrimp thoroughly. This is important. Make sure to get a large saute pan extremely hot and add the marinated shrimp. Stir quickly for a minute before adding the cheese sauce.

8) Add the broccoli and stir well

9) Add the cooked fettuccine pasta and the rest of the fresh basil; stir to coat the pasta in sauce.

10) Sprinkle the rest of Parmesan cheese on each portion before serving.

 

And if you feel as I do, howl at the moon.

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Recipe for Temptation

Just in time for Valentine’s Day… or anytime you want to put some sizzle back into your life.

MISS NEW YORK STRIP!!!

Methodically covering your body with kosher salt and pepper, my fingers caress you.

Enjoy this medium-rare feeling like a sauna, a hot grill get your juices flowing;

never cook you to death, you sexy young thing.

Always a tease with your racy grill marks, so seductive in my mouth, succulent between my lips

Together against all odds – I don’t care what people say – I’m your baked potato to my last breath.

Miss New York Strip, 16-ounce red vixen, inch-and-a-half thick, tantalizing sizzle

Even better than southern swine, dressed up with a glass of red wine

Aphrodite in the flesh, naughty girl, slathered in butter, smoking hot, so tempting, delicious sin

To find a knife and fork my only desire.

  ♥

A Bowl Of Pepperpot Soup

No Jamaican cook has ever professed to like the cold; in fact, winter is our least favorite time of the year. Snow and ice are beautiful, but only when it’s an ice carving at the all-you-can-eat buffet. Kids view the changing weather with anticipation and glee, because it means holidays are coming with snow angels, sweets, and presents.

Not so for cooks. In our eyes, garden greens become gold and then turn brown as Jack Frost’s icy hand stretches across the land. With the cold comes an inevitable sense of grief that spreads like a psychic ripple, a collective sentiment that spreads from cook to cook as the cupboard goes bare. Gone are the vibrant and bright colors of papaya, mangoes, tomato and watermelon; instead we make do with a larder reduced to hardy winter vegetables.

A warm-weather chef requires inspiration when faced with a seasonal menu featuring kale, collard greens, cabbage, Swiss chard, Brussel sprouts, beets, pulses, and gourds. But a little love and a bit of technique transform these mundane ingredients into dishes that satisfy the soul and warm the heart.

Winter vegetables are not crowd favorites, but we all have to eat them. It’s a good thing these vegetables are rich in minerals, fiber, and vitamins, because they taste best slathered in fatty meats like bacon, oxtail, smoked turkey neck or salted pig tails. There’s no shame in admitting that duck cassoulet, a classic French stew with creamy white beans, luscious duck confit, smoky French garlic sausage and slab bacon, is as tedious to make as it as it is delicious to eat. That’s the beauty of cooking in the wintertime: we crave dishes that stew for hours in the crock pot until all the ingredients coalesce into a flavor bomb that tantalizes the taste buds and keeps us warm.

The same can be said for Jamaican pepper pot soup, a tantalizing mélange of callaloo, spinach, pig tails and salted beef and shrimp that’s the perfect companion to a favorite book, pajamas and fuzzy socks. There are several versions of this soup, including a Philadelphia version that features tripe. One thing all versions share is the ingenious use of available products. This recipe uses smoked turkey necks and salted pig tails. Kale takes the place of callaloo, which in this dish is the perfect way to eat our winter vegetables.

No Jamaican cook has ever professed to like the cold, but we tolerate the frigid weather – because all cooks will admit, soup just tastes better in the wintertime.IMG_7022

Jomo’s Jamaican Pepper Pot Soup

2 quarts smoked turkey neck stock (see below)

1 lb. smoked turkey neck meat, shredded

½ lb. yellow yam (cubed)

12 small spinner dumplings

2 carrots (cut into rounds)

1 cup coconut milk

1 bunch fresh kale

¼ lb. raw shrimp

1 tsp. kosher salt

Smoked Turkey Neck Stock

4 quarts water

1 lb. smoked turkey neck

1 salted pigs tail

4 stalks fresh thyme

½ Vidalia onion (large dice)

2 stalks green onion (scallions)

4 pimento (allspice) seeds

2 cloves of garlic

1 Scotch bonnet or habañero pepper (whole, do not pierce or cut)

Spinners (little flour dumplings)

2 oz. flour

1 oz. cold water

Pinch of salt

Method

A good soup is built from the bottom up. In other words, don’t rush it; take the time to do it right. The foundation for this pepper pot soup begins with an aromatic stock made from the smoked turkey necks.
Four quarts of water, smoked turkey necks and aromatics – salted pigs tail, Vidalia onion, thyme, garlic, scotch bonnet pepper, scallions, pimento seeds – are simmered in a stock pot for three hours. The onion is diced but everything else is added whole so it will be easier to remove when the stock is done. Don’t be afraid of the scotch bonnet pepper, the key is not to pierce the skin during cooking. A whole scotch bonnet pepper adds just a hint of smoky heat to the stock creating an added dimension to the soup.
After three hours of simmering, the stock should be reduced by half and all the meat should be falling off the bones. Strain the turkey stock. Remove all the meat from the turkey bones and the pigs’ tail and set aside. Discard the other aromatics.
Make the spinners (flour dumplings) in a small bowl and set aside. I like to use a fork to bring the dough together. Pour half the turkey stock into a smaller pot and place it on the stove. Turn the heat down to a slow simmer. Pinch of a piece of dough (no larger than an olive). Place the dough between your hands and gently rub them together back and forth, (the dough should look like a tiny cylinder). Drop each finished “spinner” into the simmering broth.
Peel carrots and cut them into rounds; add to the broth. Peel the yellow yam and cut into cubes; add to the broth.
Add the coconut milk to the broth.
Use your fingers to remove all the kale from the stems and set aside. Place the remaining turkey stock in a blender and add the kale leaves. Blend at high speed for a few minutes. Add kale puree to simmering soup and cook for thirty minutes, adjust seasoning if necessary.
Add shrimp to the soup and simmer for another minute before turning off the heat.

Serves 6

 

Escoveitch – My Kind of Pickle

Pickling is described as a method of preserving food by anaerobic fermentation in brine or vinegar. Archaeological evidence shows this method of food preservation has been around for thousands of years. The cucumber seed first traveled from Northern India along the banks of the Tigris River, where it ended up in ancient Mesopotamia: now Iraq, Kuwait and Syria. Anthropologists believe that the Mesopotamians began preserving their cucumbers in brine; a technique that spread the popularity of the cucumber through much of Europe.IMG_5489

 

Pickling began out of necessity. It was a way to preserve food in an era when refrigerators didn’t exist and fresh food spoiled quickly. The high ratio of salt and vinegar in the brine extended the edibility of fruit, meat and vegetables. The salty, sour taste of pickled foods also served to disguise any “off” flavors that may have developed during long storage.

It can be argued that pickles helped early explorers circumnavigate the globe: in fact, Christopher Columbus wouldn’t have made it to the New World without rationing pickles to his sailors. These pickled vegetables, the sailors’ only source of vitamin C during long voyages, prevented them from getting scurvy.IMG_7154

 

The technique of pickling has spread worldwide and just about every culture has some beloved version of a pickled vegetable. South Korea has kimchi, Germany has sauerkraut, and Japan has umeboshi (pickled plums). In the U.S., it’s nearly impossible to find a hamburger or hot dog without a dill pickle garnish. Crisp, crunchy, sour, sweet, flavorful: the unique characteristics of pickled foods have a legion of devoted fans. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American eats 8.5 pounds of pickles a year.

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It’s possible to pickle just about anything.  The range of ingredients, vinegars, and spices that can be used in the pickling process is only limited by your imagination. One of my favorites to make and eat is escoveitch.  Escoveitch is a Jamaican version of the Spanish escabeche. This spicy vinegary pickle was introduced to the island by Spanish conquistadores in the 15th century. The Spanish loved fried foods and brought the technique of making escabeche as they colonized the New World. IMG_7159

Jamaicans have adapted this recipe by using local ingredients such as pimento and scotch bonnet pepper to make this recipe their own. Traditionally, large fish such as kingfish and bonito were cut into steaks then fried the night before, marinated with escoveitch and eaten for breakfast the next morning. Nowadays any fish can be given the escoveitch treatment, even tilapia. IMG_6521

 JOMO’S RECIPE FOR ESCOVEITCH

The main ingredients used to make escoveitch are Scotch bonnet pepper, pimento seeds, carrot, white onions, chayote and white distilled vinegar. Most Jamaicans will have a jar of homemade escoveitch sauce in the refrigerator because it’s so easy to make. You’ll need a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, preferably one that can hold 2 cups of liquid. Adding chayote (cho cho) is optional; this recipe works just fine with or without it.

2 -3 scotch bonnet or habañero peppers

1 carrot (peeled and cut into thin rounds or batons)

1 white onion cut into thin rounds

1 chayote (peeled and cut into batons)

1 sprig of thyme

3-4 pimiento seeds (allspice)

2 cups white distilled vinegar

1 tbsp. kosher salt

 

Method

Cut one of the Scotch bonnet peppers in half to give the pickle some heat. Add carrots, Scotch bonnet or habañero peppers, white onions, chayote and pimento seeds in alternate layers until the glass jar is full. Heat the vinegar and pour into the glass jar until full. Tightly seal the jar and store in the refrigerator for at least a day before using.