In an ideal world, jerk chicken would be grilled over an open fire scented with pimento wood, the sounds of sizzling meat mingling with the gentle lapping of waves and a favorite reggae tune.
These days, Clinton “Johnny” Haughton of Montego Bay, Jamaica, owner of Johnny’s Jamaican Grill, makes his excellent jerk in a small kitchen in the Roux Carre food court. It’s a business incubator dedicated to African-American, Caribbean and Latin American food at 2000 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
He’ll join 13 other food vendors, most of whom come from the Caribbean, selling jerk chicken and goat as well as oxtail and traditional sides, such as beans and rice, plantains and callaloo, or smothered greens.
Jerk is a well-spiced, grilled meat that Jamaica is famous for. It has been served throughout the Caribbean for hundreds of years. It is made with everything from chicken to goat to wild boar to fish, slow-cooked over branches of green pimento wood laid atop hot coals.
When Haughton told friends about the pimento wood he’d love to have, they told him he could get it on Amazon.com. (I looked it up and yes, of course you can.)
He scoffed at that: “You put some cherry wood in there and then you get flavor,” he said.
Haughton, like many purists, says that jerk cooked on a gas stove is simply less-than, but one must make do with what one has, even if that means using an indoor grill, frozen Scotch bonnet peppers and commercially ground allspice.
Haughton, who got his nickname from his mischievous ways and the Peter Tosh version of “Johnny B. Goode,” has a ready smile and a rapid-fire delivery. It’s easy to imagine him cutting up at home.
He grew up poor in Jamaica and came to the United States 14 years ago to find work, he said. He was a carpenter in Milwaukee and Atlanta before moving to New Orleans. When the recession hit in the late 2000s, carpentry work dried up, so he returned to something he learned at his father’s side: cooking.
He set up a makeshift kitchen on the tailgate of his pickup truck on Frenchmen Street until he was able to save enough money for a properly outfitted food truck. He quickly gathered loyal regulars, he said.
“If I was late getting there, people would start calling me, asking me where I was,” he said of those Frenchmen Street regulars, some of whom now show up at the window of his Central City grill. (He will remain at Roux Carre until March and then probably return to his food truck. His dream is a restaurant of his own.)Haughton may have an easy-going manner but he learned to take cooking seriously from generations of his family, including his now-80-year-old father, who remains in Jamaica.
“He’d always say, come here and see how I’m doing this,” Haughton said, adding that when he returns home for a visit this summer he plans to learn how to make his father’s perfect fried chicken.
He agreed to demonstrate his jerk chicken method. Like many who learn a dish at home, he cooks by look, scent and taste rather than by strict recipe.
Haughton cut a chicken in half. He washed and dried it, then rubbed it thoroughly with coarse sugar and allspice, which is called pimento in Jamaica.
To get the seasoning into the thick part of the chicken breast, he slit the meat with a sharp chef’s knife. He rubbed a paste of green onions, Scotch bonnet peppers, onion, allspice, nutmeg, sugar, citrus and thyme into the chicken until it was thoroughly coated.
Haughton would then refrigerate the chicken overnight. For our demonstration, he pulled out a different chicken half that he had prepared the night before.
He put the chicken on a hot grill, watching and turning it until a spicy scent filled the air and the chicken skin began to char.
Finally he added a generous squirt of house-made jerk sauce. He moved the chicken to a cutting board and whacked it into smaller pieces with a large cleaver.
“When you do this on a charcoal grill, it is a completely different flavor,” he said, almost apologetically, handing me a dish of his fragrant chicken.
He needn’t have couched the presentation. The jerk was delicious, with a just-right spicy kick.
Haughton, like other food professionals who have come to New Orleans from the Caribbean islands, has learned to re-create the flavors he loves with the resources here. Here’s a look at the scheduled festival food vendors and a sample of the dishes that will be served on Saturday:
- Boswell’s — Oxtail, rice and peas and Caribbean steamed vegetables.
- Island Paradise — Jerk chicken, Jamaican-style rice and callaloo.
- Johnny’s Jamaican Grill — Jerk chicken and curry chicken combo plates.
- Karibu Kitchen — Curried goat with coconut rice.
- Queen Trini Lisa — Trinidadian doubles and barbecue jerk chicken wings.
- Ms. Linda the Yak-a-Mein Lady — Jerk chicken yak-a-mein.
- Central City BBQ — Jerk chicken wings and rib tips.
- 14 Parishes — Curried goat and rasta pasta.
- Cue’s Cajun Corner — Jerk barbecue chicken with jambalaya.
- Irie Nyammings — Jerk chicken with dumplings and Jamaican patties.
This recipe should get you pretty close to Haughton’s version of his homeland’s dish.
If you don’t want to make your own jerk seasoning, Haughton recommends Walkerswood Traditional Jerk Seasoning Hot & Spicy.
If handling fresh Scotch bonnet peppers (or habaneros), wear gloves to avoid stinging fingers afterward. If you want less heat, remove seeds from peppers.
When cooking on an indoor grill, to avoid flame-ups Haughton puts the marinated chicken in a hot oven for about 30 minutes to burn off some of the fat. On an open grill, he skips this step.
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
5 green onions, rough-chopped
1 medium white onion, rough-chopped
2 Scotch bonnet peppers, (or habaneros) seeds removed, rough-chopped
3 cloves garlic, rough-chopped
Juice of 2 limes
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons allspice, divided
4 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
10 sprigs thyme
Rinse chicken pieces and pat dry. Set aside.
Place onions, peppers and garlic in food processor and pulse once or twice. Add lime juice, olive oil and soy sauce, and pulse a few more times. Add 1 tablespoon of allspice, 2 tablespoons sugar and remaining other spices and pulse until a thick marinade forms. (It can be smooth or chunky.) Set aside.
Place chicken in large bowl. Dust chicken with remaining 2 tablespoons of allspice and 2 tablespoons sugar. Rub dry spice into chicken well. Pour marinade onto chicken and with your hands, rub it into the chicken until well-covered.
Cover bowl well and refrigerate chicken overnight, stirring now and then.
Heat grill to about 325 degrees. Place chicken pieces directly on the grill. Place larger pieces over the hottest spots on the grill, with smaller pieces toward the cooler areas.
Move and turn chicken continuously for even cooking. Cooking times will vary, depending on the size of the pieces. The chicken should be thoroughly cooked and slightly charred.
Serve with jerk sauce.
Makes about 3/4 cup
1/4 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
1 bunch green onions, rough-chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger, rough-chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
2 Scotch bonnet peppers, seeds removed
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons ketchup
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
Juice of 2 limes
Place all ingredients in blender and puree. Store in refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to a week.
JERK CHICKEN FESTIVAL
What: The festival blends Jamaican food and music and New Orleans Carnival traditions. Events include a Scotch bonnet pepper-eating contest, with a special fest drink from Bhoomi Cane Juice, made with fresh-pressed sugar cane, ginger, turmeric and lime.
Where: Event space at Central City BBQ, 1201 S. Rampart St.
Admission: $10, plus fees online. Children’s tickets $5 at the gate. Cash only at the gate.
When: Saturday (Jan. 20) from 1 to 10 p.m.
Music lineup: Ammoye, Game Ova Skip, Jam-X Reggae Band, OG Blake Owens, One Love Brass Band, TBC Brass Band, Teki and DJ Megatron and DJ R-Roy.
Information: The festival sold out last year. Visit the festival website to buy tickets, or for more information, visit the Facebook page. Street and lot parking will be available.