Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Weekend Away with the Lads

It has been many days since I wrote in this space.

Sometimes it gets a bit tiresome to rush my dinner preparation so it can be photographed in the brief window of natural light before the sun sets. When the kids are in bed, and the day is done, I sit down, gather my thoughts, and attempt to string together a few words; words to describe the most mundane of daily occurrences – cooking supper. Not only that, but the words have to be interesting on some level, lest the reader succumb to a boredom-induced coma.
Further to this delay in posting has been the fact that I have been away with the lads up in the North Country i.e. Muskoka. This annual trip is a diversion from the pressures of family, children and careers. Where excessive drinking is not just allowed but encouraged, protein is the only food group and belching becomes an exhibition event. And yet, we men are not savages and philistines; we cooked some fine food at the cabin, and that is what I wish to write about in this space.
To note, although I did have a camera with me, I did not have the wherewithal to photograph the food. I probably would have been tarred-and-feathered by a rogue’s gallery of weekend warriors for such a thing. So, no photos. If you haven’t clicked away to 101cookbooks.com by now, then please, read on.
We men, being a regimented bunch, had split food preparation into smaller squads. The lads in my 'feed squad' were not due to arrive till late on the first night, so I was on my own for the first supper. This is always a fine opportunity to experiment with recipes, so I decided to cook something I have not done in a long time: jerk chicken. I accompanied this with a tropical mango salad (with a bit of Thai influence) and to complete the fusion, I made an Indian style yogurt raita to cool the palate from the fiery jerk seasoning.
A note about jerk chicken: years ago at an old job, I worked with a group of wonderfully boisterous Jamaican women who all swore to have the best jerk chicken. They would bring it to the office for lunch and special occasions in their 1970s-style corning ware. I have sampled them all, and frankly I thought they were all delicious (albeit unbelievably spicy). These women never used pre-made spice mixes or jarred jerk paste. They made everything from scratch. It is from them that I learned the most important flavor profiles of jerk chicken: the allspice berry (they call it ‘pimento’), thyme, scallion and chilies. Sometimes they use soy sauce, but not always. Scotch bonnet is the traditional (and most ideal) chili to use. It is extremely hot, but has an almost fruity note. I have replaced scotch bonnet peppers with jalapenos to tone the fire down. I know the girls at my old job would probably suck their teeth at me for that replacement, but as long as the other flavourings are there you can get a very good approximation to the real McCoy. To be perfectly honest, I simply couldn’t get my hands on the scotch bonnets.
Jerk Chicken
1 whole smallish sized chicken, spatch-cocked

To make the marinade:

1 palmful of whole allspice berries
2 scallions chopped finely
1 thumb size piece of ginger, peeled and chopped roughly
2 sprigs’-worth of fresh thyme
25 ml of neutral oil such as canola
2 hot peppers (such as jalapeno, habanero or scotch bonnet), chopped
1 pinch of dried red chili flakes
15 g brown sugar
The zest of 1 lime
A pinch of Maldon or other flakey salt (you will season the chicken generously later, so you just need a small amount of salt at this point)
A few grinds of coarsely cracked pepper

Put all the ingredients for the marinade except the oil into a pestle and mortar and start bashing it up until it starts to resemble a paste, then pour in the oil, a little at a time, and bash intermittently between oil additions. Eventually you will end up with a chunky-ish paste that is very fragrant (feel free to taste it – it will be very hot). Now take your spatch-cocked chicken and pat it dry with paper towel. Slather the marinade all over the chicken, and even try to work a good amount of it under the skin. Rubber gloves may be useful for those with sensitive skin. Once the chicken is well coated, put it into a non-reactive dish or plastic zip bag and get it into the fridge. The longer you marinade, the stronger the flavor will be. Ideally, you do this the night before and let it marinade over night. When you’re ready to cook, don’t wipe the marinade off. There is no garlic to burn and go bitter and the sugar will caramelize nicely, so keep in on there. Season the whole bird generously with salt and then get it on to a medium grill, breast-side up. A spatch-cocked bird has a sort of natural trestle of cartilage and bones underneath it that will protect it from the direct heat of the grills. It will stay in this position for about two thirds of the cooking time. Grill this way for about 35 minutes (BBQ lid down), then flip the bird gently and give the breast and skin some grilling on a very gentle heat for about a further 10 minutes (keep an eye on flare ups). If in doubt, use an instant read thermometer to confirm doneness. Get it off the grill and let it rest for a solid 10 minutes before you even think of cutting it up. Separate the chicken into its four respective quarters and serve.

I accompanied the chicken with a mango salad and a yogurt raita. Simply do this: get a ripe mango or two and slice into long thin strips, mix in a some sliced red onion, some finely chopped ginger, one finely chopped finger chili, some toasted cashews, some fresh cilantro and mint, roughly chopped, and a dressing of lime juice, a pinch of sugar, sesame oil and a dash of soy sauce. No measurements, just adjust for your taste. Along with that was an Indian-style raita which is basically some thick yogurt with a clove or so of chopped garlic, salt and chopped herbs such as cilantro and mint.

Dinner was an affair for sharing, so there was much sampling going on, and I dare say the men liked the bit of ‘fresh’ I brought to the table.

Several other recipes were attempted over the weekend including an entire beef brisket cooked down with peppers, tomatoes and Mexican beer to create a sort of chili. Details on that coming next post.

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