I should start this by saying my home version of Jerk Chicken is different from the street-food, hot and crisp, that I've eaten in Jamaica straight out of what looks like a metal barrel on its side. Well, it would be different, wouldn't it? It's not that I haven't tried to replicate the recipe, using whole quarters of chicken, with the bone still in and the skin still on, but it hasn't felt right. A domestic oven just doesn't get hot enough, and so although the spiced chili crust gets gratifyingly crisp, the skin doesn't - it can't - and flabby skin is just not to be countenanced. Thus, although the vinegary, limey, rum and spiced marinade makes the meat lusciously tender, you have to jettison its outer casing entirely. This seems too much of a waste to me.
Now, you will rarely find me suggesting breast meat, let alone a breast fillet, so you have to believe me when I say that the heat of the marinade, and the meat's edible carapace work best when offset against the meltingly tender white meat within. And, in turn, I must say that I have never managed to make, or find, white meat that turns out so luscious and succulent. It's a miracle all round. I'm stunned, but grateful. I have nothing to add, save the suggestion that you could consider working the same magic with some lean pork tenderloin as well.
Don't cook this, though, unless you like it hot. And I mean hot. There's no point choosing to cook this and then trying to find a way to tame it, say by taking out the seeds from the chili (though you could if you must). Besides, although it packs a major punch, the sweet, creamy, coconutty rice that just must be served with it, offers the perfect counterbalancing salve.
Slash the chicken breasts, 3 slashes a breast, each cut about 3/4-inch deep on the diagonal. Put in a rectangular dish, slashed-side down. Put all the other ingredients in the processor and blitz to a dark, earthy paste and pour and spread over the chicken pieces and leave to marinate out of the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours or in the refrigerator, (covered), overnight.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Double-line a shallow roasting pan with aluminium foil. Tip into it the chicken with its marinade, slashed side up and roast for 30 minutes.
Take the pan out of the oven, just to pour off excess watery juices. Use a pastry brush and spoon to place any paste back on the chicken and cook for a further 30 minutes, by which time the chicken will be cooked through and tender with a thick fiery crust. You could get started on the Rice and Peas once the chicken's back in the oven for its final stint.
For serving: Pile up each dinner plate with coconutty rice and sit a piece of hot-crusted chicken proudly on top.
Make Ahead Note: Jerk paste can be made 1 day ahead. Transfer to non-metallic bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface. Cover bowl tightly with second layer of plastic wrap and refrigerate. The chicken can be marinated up to 24 hours in advance. Cover dish tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator.
Freeze Note: The chicken in its marinade can be frozen, in a resealable bag, for up to 1 month. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator - put the bag in a bowl to catch any leaks.
Making leftovers right: Should you have leftovers - and don't count on it if you're 6 round the table - refrigerate as soon as cooled and within 1 to 2 days you can simply snip some chicken into the rice and reheat until piping hot. However, I love this in a new form: a thick, coconutty soup punctured by fiery bursts of tender meat. Add some coconut milk and chicken broth to the leftover rice, along with some freshly grated gingerroot and a spritz of lime juice, and heat up, adding the chicken, cut into small strips or small chunks, once it starts bubbling. When the meat's piping hot, season to taste then pour your soup into a bowl (or bowls) and scatter with freshly chopped cilantro and slurp gratefully.
Rice and Peas:
Drain and rinse the gungo peas, and heat the oil in a heavy based saucepan that has a lid. Fry the onion for about 5 minutes, stirring every now and again, letting it soften and brown a little. Then add the chopped chile and garlic, and give everything a good stir around. Now stir in the rice, making sure it is all slicked with oil, then pour in the coconut milk and chicken or vegetable broth and stir in the drained gungo peas. Bring to a bubble, clamp on the lid, and turn down the heat to very low and let it cook gently for 15 minutes.
Check the rice is cooked through and the liquid is all absorbed - give the rice another 5 minutes if it needs it. Sprinkle with the freshly chopped thyme and season with salt if desired, forking it through.
From NIGELLA KITCHEN by Nigella Lawson. Copyright 2010 Nigella Lawson. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.