Coffee & Jerk Marinated Chicken Skewers

Monday, December 12, 2016

I've reached a point in winter that I don't usually feel until well after the holidays - a touch of the seasonal blues. I blame a bad cold that lasted a week too long and these consistently gloomy skies. Today called for a pick-me-up in the form of "fake it til' you can make it authentically" jerk chicken skewers with a touch of coffee added to the sauce. It's a flavor profile I've been cooking with all year long, mostly for braised beef short ribs and oxtail, but it also takes well to the grill. Cooking food from warmer places in the world always brightens my mood a little bit, so these spicy nuggets of tender marinated chicken thighs were no exception.

I've had the real deal jerk chicken before from the Jamaican spots in South Florida but most memorably on the beach in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. It is the messy, smoky, lip numbingly spicy chicken from the jerk hut at our resort that I often yearn for, and one day I will definitely tackle that project. (Traditionally, jerk chicken is smoked over pimento wood and leaves for a layer of flavor that's pretty hard to replicate using other setups on the grill.) This is not that recipe, but it satisfied a winter itch that needed to be scratched. The good news? My homemade sauce is good no matter how you cook the chicken. My secret is a little coffee added to the blend for color and richness, plus an umami boost from a bit of tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce. (Note: I no longer keep soy sauce on hand due to Whole30, so I use liquid coconut aminos instead.) The method in this recipe works indoors, provided you have a decent grill pan, preferably cast iron. Of course you could most certainly adapt the process if you do have the access and energy to fire up your grill!

I served the jerk chicken skewers with coconut braised collard greens; a recipe very similar to my oven-roasted greens. For the sake of not waiting on me to get up another blog post, you can follow that post and simply add some fresh ginger along with the garlic and onions, then stir in a tablespoon of curry powder instead of paprika. Pour in a can of coconut milk before adding the greens and cook as directed. It's really simple and I love the creamy texture of the greens after they roast for an hour. Along with the greens, I fried a batch of plantains and cooked some basmati rice, replacing half of the water with coconut milk.

Coffee & Jerk Marinated Chicken Skewers


For the Coffee Jerk Marinade:
1 bunch fresh scallions
1 tbsp allspice berries or 1 tbsp ground allspice
1 tsp black peppercorns or 1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 tbsp finely ground coffee
6 garlic cloves
2" knob fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 to 4 scotch bonnet peppers, stemmed and seeded (or scotch bonnet pepper sauce, to taste)
2 tbsp fresh thyme, woody stems discarded
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce or liquid coconut aminos
2 tsp liquid smoke (optional)
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
1/4 cup coconut palm sugar (or brown sugar)
Zest of 1 lime
2 tbsp neutral cooking oil, or as needed (such as grape seed, canola or safflower)

For the chicken skewers:
3 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 cup Coffee Jerk Marinade, recipe above
Neutral cooking oil, as needed
Juice of 1 lime

Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours or up to 24 hours if marinating overnight
Yield: Serves 4
Special Equipment: cast iron grill pan, wooden skewers, blender or food processor, zester, spice grinder (optional), instant read thermometer, silicone basting brush

Note: Scotch bonnet peppers can be hard to find outside of international markets. Sometimes you can get fresh habanero peppers, which look similar and are equally as spicy but I don't think the flavor is the same. In a pinch, I've found scotch bonnet pepper sauce (as pictured above, top center bowl) to be the better substitute even though you'll need a ton of it. Look for that in the international aisle of your store near the Jamaican products, or near the hot sauces and marinades. Scotch bonnets are extremely spicy, so if you aren't used to that kind of fire start with one pepper and see how you like it. I don't think you get the full jerk experience without really going for the heat, but that's up to you! You can also use more or less sugar to balance the heat. Use caution when touching scotch bonnet peppers with your bare hands. Ideally wear some plastic gloves to handle them, but either way wash your hands really thoroughly. You do not want to forget and touch your eyes later! 

Grind any whole spices first, unless you're certain your blender is powerful enough to pulverize them. (My Vitamix works just fine for spices, another reason why I love it!) Combine all of the marinade ingredients in the blender and puree until smooth. For the lime, just add the zest at this time and reserve the lime for juice later. If you need a little more liquid, add a couple glugs of cooking oil to the blender to get it moving. You'll need one cup of jerk sauce for this recipe, so set that much aside and freeze any leftover sauce for another day. 

Chop up the chicken thighs into 2" chunks and transfer to a large bowl. Toss with one tablespoon Kosher salt (roughly 1 teaspoon of Kosher salt per pound of meat if you are scaling the recipe up or down.) Add 1/2 cup of the jerk marinade and toss to coat well. Reserve the remaining 1/2 cup for basting. Cover the chicken and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight. 

Before you're about to grill the chicken, soak your wood skewers for fifteen minutes so they don't scorch as easily. Skewer the chicken pieces; a few chunks of chicken on each is enough. Push the chicken down so it's packed tightly on each skewer. 

Preheat your grill pan until it's just shy of smoking. Preheat your oven to 375° F. Oil the grill grates with neutral cooking oil. Working in batches, grill the skewers for 5 minutes on one side, then flip and grill another 5 minutes. Using a silicone brush, baste lightly with the extra jerk sauce as you flip. Try not to move the chicken around too much so that it develops a good sear. The chicken should stay on the grill until it reaches an internal temperature of 165° F; spot check with an instant read thermometer. Repeat with remaining skewers, oiling the grate in between batches. 

As each batch is finished, place the grilled skewers on a clean, lined heavy baking sheet. Once they're all arranged on the pan, baste with any remaining jerk sauce and transfer it to the oven. Cook for ten minutes or until the color of the sauce darkens and the chicken is caramelized and charred in spots. With dark meat, you don't really have to worry about overcooking in this amount of time. I don't recommend substituting with breast meat for that reason.

If you're grilling using traditional methods, set up your grill for two-zone cooking. Oil the grates. Cook the skewers on the cooler side of the grill first until the meat is cooked (165° F), flipping halfway through. Baste occasionally with the extra sauce. Finish the skewers on the hotter side of the grill, flipping constantly to sear and caramelize the chicken.

After all the chicken skewers have been grilled and finished off in the oven (if cooking indoors), squeeze them with fresh lime juice. Serve hot!

These bowls hit the spot! I filled the bottom with the coconut braised greens, added a scoop of rice, some fried plantains and then those spicy, tender, coffee jerk sauced chicken skewers. Now if only a spontaneous trip to Jamaica was this easy...

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  1. Thanks for sharing...I am a lover of Jerk and will certainly try out your recipe!