Jamaican, no fakin'

With Joan Witter's jerk chicken, beans known as peas, and perfect plantains, a Philly block party was never so island-fragrant - or genuine.

Posted: September 13, 2007

Joan Witter strides along Walnut Street just east of the bustling 52d Street corridor and stops at a facade painted with Caribbean flags.

"You can smell the islands in here," she tells me eagerly. And as she opens the door to the Walnut Supermarket, a breeze tinged with salt fish, ripening plantains and exotic spice greets my nose like a trade wind.

As we head inside this sprawling market, it's clear that it caters to a broad clientele, with bulk bins of gari (cassava meal) from Ghana, bags of giant smoked shrimp, and jars of Senegalese peanut butter for the African crowd.

But we have come on a quest for the essence of Jamaica, and the island's ingredients surround us, from barrels filled with incendiary little Scotch bonnet peppers to bags of fragrant dried berries from the pimento tree, also known as allspice. A block party built upon the promise of Witter's famous jerk chicken begins here.

"Famous," of course, is a relative term. But in our Center City neighborhood, where Witter, 53, has been a well-regarded nanny and babysitter over the last decade for half a dozen families (including my own), word of her soulful island cooking is passed along with hungry nods.

So when a friend hired Witter to cook our block a Jamaican feast, I signed on immediately as sous-chef, assistant coconut milker, and jerk pit apprentice.

"There's a heart in cooking," she tells me as we arrive to the market. "You've got to put your heart in it, or it will taste no good."

It also takes an experienced shopper to navigate the store's ingredients - to judge the juiciest coconuts (it should slosh when you shake it to your ear), to pick perfect plantains for frying (speckled like a zebra with ripeness), and to decide what kind of peas (also known as beans) to cook in the coconut rice (red or pigeon). And in Witter's childhood home of Discovery Bay, near Ocho Rios, on the island of Jamaica, it was a frequent topic of discussion.

"My mother, Mavis, was from St. Ann on the north coast where they eat red peas," she said, "but my father, Joseph, was from St. Elizabeth on the south coast, and he only ate pigeons."

Intrigued by the notion of varying regional styles, even in the relative smallness of an island, I opt for the less-familiar pigeon peas, which will be set to soak the night before cooking.

But the rice-and-peas and plantains, simply sliced and pan-fried in oil, are just two of the traditional dishes to anchor our Jamaican meal. Witter will also be preparing three kinds of chicken: two variations of stew (curried and "brown"), and jerk for the grill.

Each fragrant dish has its virtues, but it is the mysterious jerk that most fascinates me. Before this adventure, I'd only known it as a thick and spicy brown paste from a jar used to marinate chicken and pork. But I'm surprised to learn from Witter that it is primarily a puree of fresh vegetables and herbs tinted dark with black molasses.

A truly authentic jerk sauce also includes the blood of the slaughtered animal, says author Jessica B. Harris in her book Beyond Gumbo (Simon & Schuster, 2003), where she also notes the grill pits should be fired with wood from the pimento tree.

We'd use soaked mesquite chunks to simulate the pimento. We'd extract fresh milk from coconuts for our rice, draining the water, then cracking the nuts open with a smack on the back patio concrete.

The blood we'd have to do without.

Otherwise, we compromised very little on authenticity as Witter fed bunches of scallion, carrots, ginger, chocho gourd (chayote), freshly ground allspice, bundles of thyme ("sticks and all!"), fiery chiles, and an astonishing amount of garlic cloves into the whirling blades of my food processor.

"I'm gonna make a Jamaican outta you when I'm done with you," Witter said as she methodically smashed garlic cloves with the bottom of a molasses jar.

When all the ingredients were blended, the vibrant green puree was tanged with white vinegar, then swirled to a deep brown and heady sweetness with molasses. Witter leaned over the bowl and inhaled a deep whiff.

"It smells like everything I dream of," she said. "When I want to go home, I just cook up a batch of jerk."

Of course, making the sauce was just the beginning. Like so much great traditional cooking, the secret lies in the patience to do it right.

"You have to let the jerk get inside the meat for it to taste right," Witter said. "Then you have to cook it slow."

So the chicken marinates for two solid days in the sauce, the flesh sliced with pockets and slathered in sauce for maximum exposure. We grate fresh nutmeg over meat as the coals begin to glow.

When the chicken hits the grill and begins to sizzle, a bright island smell rises up like the sound of a steel drum. The meat, completely tenderized by the marinade's brine, has absorbed the vibrance of the jerk's myriad ingredients - the tang and the deep sweetness, the sparkle of Scotch bonnet heat, and the spice-box aroma of crushed pimento berries.

Surrounded by platters of fried plantains, casseroles of fluffy coconut rice-and-peas, and crocks of island stews, the neighbors gathered around for a feast that evoked the flavors of our friend's home. And it lingered over our Philadelphia block all night like a Jamaican reverie.

Joan Witter's Jamaican Jerk Chicken

Makes 10 to 15 servings

20 garlic cloves, peeled

2 carrots, roughly chopped

11/2 bunches whole scallions

1 large onion, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled, roughly chopped

1/4 bunch fresh thyme sprigs

1/4 each red and green bell pepper, seeded

2 Scotch bonnet peppers, stemmed and seeded

1/2 chocho or chayote, peeled and sliced (see note)

11/2 tablespoons whole

   pimento berries or

   allspice, freshly ground

2 plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

1/2 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup brandy

1/2 cup West Indies-style black molasses

1/8 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup white sugar

10 pounds boneless skin-on chicken breasts

Nutmeg, freshly ground to taste

For the jerk sauce:

1. Blend all the ingredients except the chicken breasts and nutmeg to a coarse puree in a food processor, blending solids well first before adding liquids, salt and sugar.

2. Taste to make sure the sweet, sour and spice are well balanced. The sauce should prickle with heat, but not burn. Add more Scotch bonnet peppers if a spicier sauce is desired.

3. Cover and refrigerate. Can be kept in refrigerator for up to two weeks, then freeze. This makes enough sauce for 15 to 20 pounds of chicken, so you should have plenty left over.

For the chicken:

1. Slather chicken breasts completely in jerk sauce and marinate in refrigerator for two days.

2. Season with freshly grated nutmeg just before cooking. Cook slowly on the grill over medium heat, skin side first, and about 10 to 12 minutes a side. For full effect, cook over wood from a Jamaican pimento (allspice) tree. Well-soaked mesquite wood chips are an acceptable alternative.

- From Joan Witter

Note: Chocho or chayote, edible gourds, are available in Latin or Caribbean markets and some grocery stores.

Per serving (based on 15): 551 calories, 63 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 194 milligrams cholesterol, 582 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Joan Witter's Jamaican Curried Chicken

Makes 6 entree-sized servings, 10 side-dish servings

15 to 18 cloves garlic, peeled

1 large onion, peeled and roughly chopped

11/2 bunches whole scallions

1/2 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1 Scotch bonnet pepper, stemmed and seeded

1/4 each red and green bell pepper

1/2 tablespoon whole pimento berries or allspice, freshly ground

1/4 bunch fresh thyme

4 pounds chicken thighs and legs, bone-in

2 whole garlic cloves, cracked

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons Jamaican curry powder

1 teaspoon whole pimento berries (allspice)

1. To make the marinade: Blend the first 8 ingredients (up to the chicken) in a food processor to a fine puree. (This recipe makes more than double the amount of marinade you'll need, for up to 10 pounds chicken. Reserve extra in refrigerator for up to two weeks, then freeze.)

2. Separate chicken legs from thighs, and slather completely with marinade. Refrigerate for one day.

3. Cook garlic cloves in olive oil over medium heat in a large Dutch oven. When garlic becomes fragrant, after a minute or so, add curry. Let toast in the oil for about five minutes, then add chicken and turn in oil to completely coat.

4. Once chicken begins to lightly brown, after two minutes, add pimento berries and remainder of marinade. Bring to a simmer, lower heat and cover. Cook at a steady simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, until chicken is tender.

5. Check the consistency of stew after 45 minutes, and if it seems dry, add about half a cup of water to thin gravy, and reduce to proper consistency. The gravy should be just thick enough to coat a spoon.

- From Joan Witter

Note: Witter also makes another variation, a "brown-stewed chicken," using the same marinade. Brown the chicken the same way in a Dutch oven, in two tablespoons of olive oil, but replace the curry with two tablespoons of "browning caramel" (a bottled product that is the Jamaican equivalent of Gravy Master). Then add two chopped plum tomatoes, one teaspoon pimento berries (allspice), and one teaspoon chopped fresh ginger. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, in the same method as the curried chicken.

Per serving (based on 10): 262 calories, 21 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 18 grams fat, 94 milligrams cholesterol, 92 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

Joan Witter's Rice and Peas

Makes 10 servings

1/2 pound dried pigeon peas, soaked in cold water overnight

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 scallion, whole

1/4 bunch whole thyme

1 cup coconut milk, fresh (see box) or canned

1 clove garlic

11/2 to 2 tablespoons salt,

to taste

3 cups parboiled rice

1. Drain pigeon peas from their soaking liquid, pick over and discard any discolored peas. Place in a deep pot and cover with two to three inches of cold water. Add baking soda and bring to a boil. Add one cup cold water to circulate the peas in pot, then return to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer for about 40 minutes, until tender.

2. Add scallion, thyme, coconut milk, garlic and salt to the pot and bring to a rolling boil. Stir in rice, cover and return to a boil. Once it boils, lower heat and cook until rice completely absorbs liquid, about 20 to 30 minutes. Fluff and serve.

- From Joan Witter

Per serving: 283 calories, 5 grams protein, 51 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, no cholesterol, 1,180 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Here are two markets for Jamaican spices and produce:

Walnut Supermarket, 5131 Walnut St., 215-472-8410.

Connie's Food Store, 5153 Walnut St., 215-747-8977.

Contact Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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