Go hot and sweet for summer with grilled jerk chicken, watermelon salsa

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Jerk spices and watermelon salsa provide an interesting twist on traditional grilled chicken breasts.  MATTHEW MEAD/ASSOCIATED PRESS
MATTHEW MEAD/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Jerk spices and watermelon salsa provide an interesting twist on traditional grilled chicken breasts.

It’s barbecue season, and chicken is the ideal candidate to get you grilling.

Why? Chicken is light, it easily picks up the marinade of your choice and it cooks quickly. But this recipe is not your everyday grilled chicken. This is spicy Jamaican-style jerk chicken.

“Jerk” refers both to a unique blend of seasonings and to a method of slow cooking.

It is said to have been invented by Jamaica’s Maroons, slaves who escaped from Spanish-owned plantations when the British took over and established free communities in Jamaica’s mountainous interior.

The Maroons hunted wild boars, then preserved the meat with a spice mix that contained a hefty amount of salt. When it was time to eat, the meat was cooked in a pit or grilled slowly over a fire. Eventually, Jamaicans began to cook all kinds of meats jerk-style.

Jerk seasoning consists of a base blend of scallions, thyme, allspice (known as pimento in Jamaica), Scotch bonnet chilies, salt and, typically, cinnamon or nutmeg. This might look like an awful lot of ingredients to slice and dice, but that’s not the case. Toss them all into a blender, pulverize everything to a paste and you’re good to go.

But you do need to be careful when you’re messing with those Scotch bonnets. I advise wearing gloves. Seriously. A cousin of the habanero, Scotch bonnets are serious chilies. I call for a whole chili here, but you can use less if you want to tamp down the heat. Happily, Scotch bonnets aren’t solely about heat; they also are uniquely flavorful – like a cross between a mango and chili – with a wonderfully fruity scent. If you can’t find Scotch bonnets, use a habanero. If you can’t find either, reach for a jalapeno or serrano.

I left the skin on the chicken to prevent it from drying out while it’s being grilled, so when you marinate the chicken be sure to put the spice paste under the skin and on top of it. If you want to cut calories, you’re welcome to discard the skin after you’re done grilling.

The watermelon salsa will balance the heat of the chilies. All by itself, of course, ripe watermelon is one of the top reasons to love summer. But they happen to be plenty healthy, too. They’re full of water, which makes them an excellent hot weather thirst-quencher, and they’re a great source of lycopene, vitamin C and beta-carotene.

And these days you don’t have to buy mega-melons. There are plenty of smaller versions available. At the supermarket, look for a melon with a large yellow spot on the bottom. The bottom of a watermelon is the spot where it was resting on the ground. If that spot is white or green, the watermelon is unlikely to be fully ripe. Once your melon is home, don’t store it in the fridge until it’s sliced.

GRILLED JERK CHICKEN BREASTS
WITH WATERMELON SALSA

Start to finish: 1 hour, 15 minutes (45 minutes active),
plus 24 hours of marinating

For the marinade

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

8 scallions, white and green parts, coarsely chopped

1 to 2 (to taste) Scotch bonnet chilies, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons lime juice

1½ tablespoons ground allspice

1½ tablespoons English-style mustard (such as Colman’s)

2 bay leaves

2 large cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons dried thyme

4 chicken breast halves (4 pounds total) on the bone with the skin, each cut in half

For the salsa

2 cups diced seedless watermelon

1 cup diced seedless cucumber

2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot

¼ cup finely shredded fresh mint

3 tablespoons lime juice

2 teaspoons packed brown sugar

Salt

In a blender, combine 4 tablespoons of the oil, the scallions, chilies, soy sauce, lime juice, allspice, mustard, bay leaves, garlic, salt, sugar and thyme. Blend until the mixture forms a fine paste. Transfer the mixture to a resealable plastic bag. Add the chicken and turn it to coat well on all sides. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours and up to 2 days. When ready to cook, heat the grill to medium.

To make the salsa, in a medium bowl, combine the watermelon, cucumber, shallot, mint, lime juice and sugar. Season with salt, then set aside.

Remove the chicken from the marinade. Discard the marinade. Using an oil-soaked paper towel held with tongs, oil the grill grates. Add the chicken, skin side down, and grill for 10 to 15 minutes. Turn over the chicken, then grill for another 10 to 15 minutes, or just cooked through. Transfer the chicken to a plate, cover with foil and let rest 5 minutes. Serve each portion topped with some of the salsa.


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