Maggy Button: A local cuisine worth taking home


Christmastime found my son, David, and me in Negril, Jamaica. Once we had decided we wanted to go away for Christmas, the big question was: Where should we go?

After bantering places back and forth for weeks, we turned the matter over to the experienced hands of my travel agent friend, Barbara. Her mission? To find a place that would appeal to a recent college graduate and an I’m-counting-the-years-’til-retirement couch potato. She came up with four options: the U.S. Virgin Islands (which David had expressed an interest in), Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Cancun, Mexico and Jamaica.

I quickly ruled out the Virgin Islands -- too expensive. David ruled out Punta Cana -- too much political instability. I left the choice up to him and the winner was ... Jamaica!

Jamaica is beautiful. One of the first things we saw exiting the airport in Montego Bay was a tree loaded with ripe bananas.

On the shuttle to our resort, the road wound in and out of small towns along the western coast. As beautiful as the view along the coastal road was, the extreme poverty struck us.

The main streets of the towns were run down and the shops were nothing fancy. Despite being only a few days before Christmas, there were no Christmas lights in the shop windows and no large lighted Christmas tree in the town square. The homes lining the roads were one-room plywood shacks huddled in clusters.

The Jamaican people are beautiful people, inside and out. The stereotypical "No worries, mon" philosophy is the general rule. The men I met, called me "my lady" and were quite charming. (I was warned they love middle-aged blondes in general, but I prefer to think it was my personality that awed them.)

I talked to many of the Jamaicans I encountered. I became friendly with a waitress in the resort dining room, Shanea, who is about 30 years old. She has four children, a 7-year-old, 3-year-old twins and a 9-month-old baby who was living with an aunt on Grand Cayman Island because Shanea couldn’t afford to take care of her. The government-mandated internship she was serving, three to six months long, to become certified to work in a restaurant, is unpaid -- and the minimum wage is $50 a week.

She had to travel an hour by bus to get to work. Yet, after we had discussed how she and her mother made traditional Jamaican Christmas cakes, she brought me a large slice wrapped in a napkin. LaToya of the Blue Mountain Coffee Shop, just down the street from our resort. She called me "the mama." We brought back some of LaToya’s coffee that she hand roasts in a drum over an open fire behind the coffee shop shack.

There was also Smokey Joe, who owns a jerk chicken stand on the other side of the resort. He is the third generation to own the stand. Wrapped in aluminum foil and served with a thick slice of bread, the chicken was fantastic! (The best in all of Jamaica, according to his business card.) And while I flirted my best with him, he wouldn’t give me his jerk chicken recipe.

On his Facebook page is a link to his recipe, as printed in Relish magazine. I wonder if the reporter who did the story was blonde.

It obviously has been adapted for home use. Smokey Joe’s grill is a converted 55-gallon drum and there were no zip-top bags in sight. A few Rastafarians with dreadlocks drinking Red Stripe beer, but no zip-top bags!

Smokey Joe’s Jamaican Jerk Chicken

For the best flavor, try using whole allspice berries and black peppercorns and crush them with the bottom of a heavy pot or in a coffee mill before adding to the processor. Use jalapeños in place of Scotch bonnets for less heat.

1 bunch of green onions, cut into 2-inch lengths

4 garlic cloves

1 (2-inch) piece of peeled fresh ginger, cut into discs

1 tablespoon (heaping) fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 whole cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 to 3 Scotch bonnet or habanero chile peppers, stems and seeds removed

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1/2 cup soy sauce

Juice of 4 limes (6 tablespoons)

1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil

4 skin-on, bone-in chicken leg quarters or 1 (3-pound) chicken, cut into quarters

Place all ingredients except oil and chicken in a blender or food processor. With the processor running, slowly add a thin stream of oil until the mixture becomes thick. Save 1/2 cup of the marinade for drizzling over chicken during cooking.

Place chicken and larger amount of marinade in a zip-top plastic bag and marinate at least two hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Prepare the grill.

Remove chicken from marinade; discard marinade. Place chicken on the grill, searing the first side (about 3 to 5 minutes). Turn, drizzle with reserved marinade, and sear the other side. Move chicken to an area of indirect heat (such as the grate above the grill or off to the side) and cook until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Use a grill pan on the stovetop if preferred.


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