Jerk is the traditional barbecue of the West Indies. I learned about jerk from my early exploration of spices. I’m not sure how I found them, but I used to buy all my bulk spices from Rafal Spice Company in Detroit. Sadly, they are no more. Rafal had a little letter-set printed catalog with all sorts of cool things to explore. I was always trying new things from them. It was one of the first great leaps forward in my cooking to use fresh whole spices. Rafal carried a range of red peppers, up to what was at the time considered to be really hot, the bird chile. Of course, these days, bird chilies are relatively mild in the world of ghosts, scorpions, and reapers.
I loved getting those boxed shipments. They smelled so good, and I knew the resulting dishes, pickles, and sauces were going to be excellent. I wish I had saved one of their catalogs because they had some funny, clever enticements in there to try new things. I like trying new things. I got some Walkers Wood Jerk Sauce. It was tasty. It wasn’t really all that spicy, so I jazzed it up with some hot sauce I got from Rafal, the hottest sauce they offered, Jamaica Hell Fire.
That was back before I thought about making my own hot sauce. I was addicted to that Jamaica Hell Fire. That was, until the producer was destroyed by a hurricane. It came back years later, but it just wasn’t the same. By then I was making my own hot sauce anyway.
I dreamed of traveling to the islands and sampling jerk at the source, and eventually I did just that. It was excellent. I learned the three main flavors of the sauce are onions, pimento (what they call allspice), and hot peppers. Thyme, salt, and other spices round it out. I had all the ingredients, but I did bring home some authentic pimento from the islands.
The last element of jerk has to do with the cooking technique. It is typical barbecue, low and slow. A bit of smoke to mellow things, too. Around this time, I was working on building up my barbecuing, grilling and smoking skills. I added jerk to my repertoire.
Jerk was a summer thing. Onions are found year ’round, but fresh tropical chilies from the garden were strictly a summer seasonal.
Well, as you may notice, I tend to take things to excess one in awhile, and pepper growing is no exception. I took to preserving the crop in every way possible. One of the best ways, assuming there’s room, is to simply wash the peppers and freeze them whole in a bag. If you look in my freezer today, you might easily find 10 gallons of peppers. They all get eaten; nothing goes to waste.
It then occurred to me to make a large batch of the jerk sauce and freeze it in portions sized for a meal. That’s about a cup of sauce. This sauce freezes quite well, and the taste of summer is then available all year.
- 16 White Onions (baseball size), chopped fine in food processor
- 50 Green Onions/Scallions, both green and white parts, chopped fine in food processor
- 80 Mixed red, orange or yellow habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers, seeded, chopped fine in food processor
- ½ Cup Fresh Thyme leaves
- ½ Cup Fine Korean sea salt
- ¼ Cup freshly ground Allspice berries
- ¼ Cup freshly ground Black Pepper
- 1 T freshly grated Nutmeg
- 2 T Saigon Cinnamon
I coarsely chop the onions and scallions, then pulse 10-15 times in the food processor in batches. The mince should be fine, but not a puree. Peppers are easily cored when frozen. Use a knife to remove the stem, and then use the tip to pop the seed core out. It’s ok if a few seeds get in.
Combine everything in a large bowl. This makes about 6 quarts (24 cups). I portion it in 1 cup vacuum bags and freeze. Don’t be scared by the 80 peppers; it’s not as hot as you might think.
Now you can have jerk whenever you want it for an instant trip to the islands. Just take a bag out of the freezer. It thaws in no time. Rub on ribs, chicken, fish, whatever! Marinate over night, then cook on a low and slow barbecue.
Traditional jerk uses the wood from the pimento, but I don’t have any here. I use my normal oak, apple, or pecan woods. We also have a bunch of sassafras trees, and their wood imparts a nice mellow sweetness to the food. If you have access to sassafras, give it a try.