Saturday, October 28, 2017

Making the Jerk

This started when I grew Habanero peppers without a clear purpose.  I liked the looks of them, knew they were hot, and figured they would fit right in with the serranos, poblanos, jalapenos, and those little red cherry peppers I grow.  They didn’t.

The jalapenos are mild enough these days to be used in most anything.  Serranos go great with tomatillos and onion for a Verde sauce, and poblanos can be used instead of bell peppers for kick.  All of them go well in chili.  They’re useful all around peppers.  Sort of like Zobrist for the Cubs.  You can play him almost anywhere.  But the Habaneros are a different story.

I’m not a good judge of peppers because I like hot food a lot and tolerate spicy heat well.  I knew the Habaneros were a problem when I had my family to the house for the annual McClure wiener roast and golf outing years ago.  The golfers used to come early and I’d make breakfast for them.  Usually omelets.  I used habaneros in a nephew’s omelet, one of the more adventurous nephews too.  He took one bite and looked at me as if I’d poisoned him.  They don’t travel well, the Habaneros.  You have to be careful how you use them.  Aside from some insanely hot Thai peppers I grow from time to time, they’re the hottest thing in the garden. 

Then I made a Christmas trip to Jamaica with my family and got hooked on Jamaican Jerk.  We were in Negril.  I began asking the locals where they went when they wanted great jerk chicken and the nearly unanimous choice was Bourbon Beach.  We made a pilgrimage there and found a no-name beat to hell shack on the beach with a sheet metal and palm frond roof, a single wall behind the kitchen, an open-air homemade bar and stools in the sand.   A pile of wood was on the beach next to the stove.  The kitchen, such as it was, was mostly a built up brick and concrete block fire pit with wire refrigerator shelves suspending halves of chicken above a wood fire.  On top of each chicken half was a brick.    Behind the bar a barrel of ice held cold bottles of beer.  The menu was jerk chicken, rice, and Red Stripe Beer. 

The only choice available was whether you wanted half a chicken or a quarter.  My son and I each had a half.  My wife and my son’s friend ordered a quarter.  Upon hearing the orders the young man behind the bar took the bricks off three chicken halves and placed two on tin plates.  The last half he placed on a board, and whacked it violently with a giant cleaver.  The two recently separated quarter pieces jumped up and settled back on the board.  He put the quarters on two more tin plates, added a spoon of rice to each, and ladled up four small bowls of jerk sauce from a stone crock by the fire.  I figured the sauce would have been baked on the chicken.  Not at this joint.  

As locals came to the bar and ordered up jerk chicken I noticed that the young man ladled the jerk sauce directly on their plate, covering the chicken and rice.  Evidently they’d learned to let the tourists control their own destiny spice wise.  My wife tentatively dipped her fork in the sauce and had a sample.  She went sparingly, dipping forkfuls of chicken lightly in the bowl of jerk sauce.  I dumped the bowl on my plate.  It was delicious.  I decided I had to figure out how to make it.

The deal with hot food is that pure heat means nothing.  Within the hotness there needs to be flavor, preferably lots of flavors that hit you at different times.  That’s what good jerk sauce or jerk marinade has, complex flavors and of course, heat.  This jerk sauce had it all.  The young man who served it claimed he had no idea what was in it or how it was made.  He just worked there he said, smiling.  We ordered more Red Stripes.   

When I got home from Jamaica I began researching and reviewing jerk recipes on the internet and picked one that made sense to me, made from fresh ingredients.  The recipe I ended up with is a marinade that I use to flavor chicken wings mostly, in a zip lock bag overnight, but also Cornish hens, pork, skirt steak, anything really that you grill.  I think it tastes best to grill whatever marinated meat you choose over charcoal or a wood fire, but you can also add to the marinade and make a table sauce like they did at the joint in Negril. 

It’s labor intensive to make, but I look forward to it.  If you’re going to go to the trouble of making this, you might as well make a lot.   It has a lot of ingredients.  I make enough to have several meals, give some to my kids, and serve at a party or two.  It’s an annual thing now.  I’ve taken to growing my own Habaneros, thyme and garlic.   In fact, I’ve been joined in this deal by a friend who grows Habaneros solely to trade to me for jars of jerk.  I make a double batch and give him about half. It’s a good arrangement.

A food processor and a juicer help the process. Here’s the recipe.  It makes a standard food processor pitcher full.  After the first two ingredients mix up each next thing as you go, making it smooth.

1 5/8 cup vegetable oil.                             Any bland oil except olive   Canola, corn, whatever.

2 ½ cups fresh squeezed lime juice         I think it’s worth it to halve limes and juice them instead    of  buying bottled stuff.  Here’s where the juicer really helps.

40 scallions                                                stalks and all

40 Habaneros                                          Also known as Scotch Bonnets.  I used to cut them and seed them but you run the risk of getting the heat on your fingers, rubbing your eye, hurting yourself in all manner of places in all kinds of ways gloves or not.  They’re mean little peppers. Pick off the stem and throw the thing in whole with the seeds.  Yeah, the seeds make it hotter but what the heck.  If you find it unbearable use 35 next time and throw in a poblano or two in their place.

30 cloves of garlic                                   Get spicy purple garlic if you can.

20 Tbsp. fresh thyme                            That’s about a cup and a quarter.  If you’re growing your own thyme that’s a little more than two plants worth, depending on the year of course.  My thyme did well this year because I planted it in a pot near my wife’s flowers and she kept an eye on it.  Watered it when it was dry.  Next year I’ll grow three.  I was a little short.  Strip the leaves off the big stems with your thumbnail. It’ll make the end of your thumb green for a while but it comes off. 

10 Tbsp. fresh peeled ginger               Half a cup more or less.  Forget the fancy gadgets and scrape the skin off with a teaspoon.  Put the skins on a plate and set it on the counter.  It smells great.  Do this after the garlic and it will take the smell off your hands.  Slice it before you put it in the food processor.

10 Tbsp. dark brown sugar                  Or a half cup packed tight.  About the same.  Close enough.

20  tsp. AllSpice Berries                         That’s a cup.  Not ground allspice, the berries.  I knock them around in the coffee grinder a few times.  Crack a few in half.  You don’t have to.  But if you do your coffee will taste different the next morning.  Change is good.

10 tsp. Kosher Salt                                  Throw it in there. 

You’ve just made the marinade.       That’s what you dump over your chicken wings or whatever you choose to flavor with this Jamaican Jerk and keep in the fridge in a zip lock bag overnight.  If you want to make a jerk sauce, for the table, with or without the marinade, add the following to taste.

Black pepper, with equal parts vinegar and soy sauce.  I don’t know what to tell you about amounts here, other than put the pepper in sparingly, starting with a quarter teaspoon, then add glugs, or dribs and drabs of soy and vinegar till you like it.  Don’t make it too runny or drown it out with the soy.

I can this marinade in pint jars.  A jar does a nice size bunch of wings.  Once it is canned it’s good till you make the next batch, but loses heat slowly after six months.  Even then it’s pretty hot.

Canning the stuff is not nearly as hard as it sounds.  Heat up the jerk and put it in hot mason jars, turn the ring and close the lid half tight, put it in a deep pan just covered with lightly boiling water.  Keep the jars in there about 10 minutes and take them out with tongs.  Put them on your counter on a dish towel.  The lids will pop.  When they pop you know you’re good.  Take the lids off when they’re cool and you’ll find yourself with a future enhanced by the chance of spicy tasty food.
Consider a cold beer.  Hang out by the Weber.  Listen to reggae.  Say “Yah, mon” to someone you love.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Can We Talk About Guns Now?

If you were at the Route 91 Harvest Festival Concert in Las Vegas, inside the barriers erected to keep out the non paying customers, and heard the rapid pop of machine gun fire, seconds before people began dropping around you, bleeding and dying, in a sort of hell pit of death, it would have been natural I imagine to look around for the shooter, for the source of the death and destruction taking place yet again in America.  But who would have imagined it was coming from a hotel 32 floors up, 400 yards away?

Senseless and mass American gun deaths have been, up to now, up close and personal.  A gunman stalking down a school hallway, a killer in a dark movie theater, a man in a college classroom with a powerful weapon, a co-worker at an employer training, a man seated at a table at a church meeting, armed to the teeth with powerful fast firing guns and lethal ammunition.  Up to now your killer has been in front of you.  You are unsuspecting, minding your own business, living in America when your life is taken from you.  You are a soft target of someone’s what?  Rage?  Hate?  Mental illness?  Most often we don’t know. 

In Las Vegas the formula for death changed.  It was long distance, rapid fire, and seemingly anonymous.  I can’t imagine the victims were specifically targeted, that the victims represented anything to the shooter other than a gathering of helpless humans in a vulnerable setting.  Country music fans?  People of all ages, primarily white?  Attacked and killed by a rich white 64 year old male accountant, who made big money in real estate and enjoyed high stakes gambling?  Was he trying to make a point?  Are we missing it?  Was there a point?

We learned today that same man, the alleged shooter, rented rooms at the Blackstone Hotel in July overlooking Chicago’s Lollapalooza.  My sister in law, staying with us for a few days, looked at me with genuine fear in her eyes.

“My grandchildren go to that.” 

She was incredulous.  Is there no end to the widespread fear we experience for the safety of and our loved ones and ourselves in the course of simply living in America? 

Prior to the Las Vegas tragedy, after the death of 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adult school staff at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut, spokespersons for the National Rifle Association argued that the answer to preventing mass slayings and saving lives lies not in less guns in America but more.  Ideas for arming teachers, anonymously supplied with guns, carefully trained, situated throughout the school and able to take down shooters quickly, were touted.  Not less guns but more.  Wait till the killer appears and kill the killer.  More guns in the hands of the good guys.  I have often heard such a proposal calmly and earnestly laid out.  That argument doesn’t work very well in the Las Vegas case.

Had there been armed concert goers carrying concealed weapons among the 22,000 persons listening to country music that night, and quite possibly there were, they were rightfully reluctant to draw them lest they be mistaken for a shooter and would have been powerless to take down this killer anyway.  Shoot a man 400 yards away spraying bullets at you with a high powered rifle on a tripod?  I doubt any sharpshooter in the world could have located and calmly taken out the shooter standing in the chaos of that killing field.  You would have needed a hand-held rocket launcher and I don’t believe we’re allowed to have them.  As far as I know the NRA has not yet advocated the purchase or open carry of rocket launchers.

The NRA has been quiet since the shooting, as has Congress.  I did hear a gun rights advocate suggesting in the media they might barter the abolition of bump stocks, the little accessory that in effect turned Stephen Paddock’s semi-automatic rifle into a automatic machine gun, in exchange for silencers and the expansion of both concealed and open carry laws, tit for tat.  But mostly there is silence on both sides.  The Onion, a satiric media presence, suggests “we are all just hoping these terrible shootings will stop once and for all without circumstances changing in any way or any of us taking even a slight amount of action in response.”

The NRA has stopped saying much actually.  It is now more of political organization, funding sympathetic candidates on the state and federal level and ruining the careers of others who oppose them in even the smallest way by running primary candidates against them.  After shootings they have by and large stopped issuing statements.  Rather they sit back and count their votes.  There have been no votes either by the way.   Nothing to vote on.  Don’t you think it’s strangely quiet?

I believe we will find in the end that the shooter in Las Vegas broke no laws aside from murder.  Preliminarily it appears the guns, the ammunition, the device which essentially turned his semi-automatic rifle into an automatic rifle, were all legal.  He bought at least some of his guns from licensed dealers who found him not unusual, who report he stood out not at all from other gun buyers.  He was a guy in America amassing weapons and ammunition, and apparently that is not rare.  I think we will find him to have no known mental illness, no criminal background, no red flags that could have called our attention to him.  Stopping him by screening or background check would most likely have been fruitless.  The purported perpetrator of America’s largest mass shooting may well be in hindsight a person who offered no hints, no apparent means to identify him, to predict his behavior, to stop his actions.  I could be wrong. 

Ironically in Las Vegas, where what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, there are a number of entertainment themed shooting ranges.  The glitziest, it looks to me, is The Range 702, closely rivaled by Machine Guns Vegas  At both you can book a time for you or your group (corporate events are encouraged) to experience what some call the ultimate adrenaline rush of shooting an automatic weapon.  Check out their websites.  They’re nicely done, complete with video of happy customers blasting away to rock music, then enjoying wine later in the VIP suite, laughing with friends recalling the day.

Turns out the penultimate rush may have taken place in the mind of the man on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, when the shooting moved from the range, where bullets blast through paper targets and fall harmlessly, deflected into sand to real life, where those bullets tear through the bone, muscle, soft tissue of innocent human beings.  Sometimes they pass through one victim and strike another.   58 human beings were killed you know.  36 women and 22 men aged 20-67.  Additionally, 527 were wounded or otherwise injured. 

Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in a blog post following the shooting called what occurred in Las Vegas “the price of freedom.”  He went on to say that “Public safety demands logical gun laws but the issue is so polarizing and emotional…little will be accomplished as there is no common ground.”

Do you believe that?  Do you think that because we are free under the second amendment to purchase and own guns in America the possibility of senseless death erupting from the barrels of those guns, at the hands of American gun owners exercising that freedom, cannot be avoided?

I don’t.

Nor do I believe that debating, designing, and implementing common-sense gun control policy will result in government agents in jack boots kicking in our doors and seizing our guns.  I don’t accept the paranoid stance that enacting even one new law curbing our right to bear arms will cause the rest of our government’s gun policies protecting gun rights to topple like dominoes.  I don’t think that slope is slippery, that we are hopelessly of two minds on the subject, and cannot fashion a logical legislative response to mounting mass gun violence.

Let’s be realistic and clear.  America will never be England.  We have a different history and a different culture.  Long after my kids and I have passed from this earth Americans will be buying guns, hunting, keeping them in their homes for sport, recreation and protection.  I accept that.  Americans at some level will continue to be shot both accidentally and wrongfully, suicide and homicide rates higher than needed, because of our  heritage, our history, and our policies around gun use, chiefly the second amendment to the constitution. But for God’s sake must we accept this  current level of carnage?

I don’t for a minute believe that firearms possessed by the American citizenry are all that stands in the way of being dominated by our government.  I don’t accept loony arguments about the absolute need for unfettered freedom of gun ownership. 

And neither do most Americans by the way.  It’s not our guns that matter, it is our votes. We need sensible gun control laws.  Let’s take a deep breath and demand them from those we elect.  We’re Americans.  Government is there for us.  Do you want this record number of innocent civilian deaths at the hands of our fellow citizens to continue to climb?  Do you truly believe there is nothing we can do to prevent it?

I don’t.  I bet you don’t either.  Let’s begin by talking about it.  Loudly.  To each other, to our legislators.  We owe it to the victims of gun violence and their families across the country to do nothing less.