"Jerk from Jamaica: Barbecue Caribbean Style," by Helen Willinsky

Pros: Subtle, complex, delicious flavors; easy recipes
Cons: None
Rating: 5 out of 5

Review book courtesy of 10 Speed Press


For a long time Chronicle Books was my favorite source of cookbooks; 10 Speed Press is swiftly joining it. I received “Jerk from Jamaica” in the mail on Saturday, and my husband and I couldn’t resist planning a feast for the next day. Already I’m singing the praises of this book, and I just can’t get enough of the leftovers.

When we make recipes from cookbooks we always rate those recipes with our own system, so that when paging through years-old books we’ll know which recipes are worth making again and which aren’t. Each recipe we made from this book got absolute top marks–and we’re rather picky after ten years of cooking together.

Helen Willinsky grew up in Jamaica, studied cooking in Europe, and ran a resort in Jamaica; she includes family recipes, traditional recipes, and recipes that blend older Jamaican elements with newer ingredients and traditions. She strikes a beautiful balance, one so many authors fail to achieve, between introducing us to traditional methods and ingredients and yet making it possible for us to enjoy Jamaican flavors in our own kitchens even if we don’t have access to a grill or all of the traditional flavorings.

You’ll need access to some sort of barbecue grill or the equivalent in order to get the most out of this cookbook, it’s true, but it’s certainly worth buying even if you don’t have that. Oven directions are included for many recipes, and there are even adaptations to the slow cooker and other such conveniences. A few sources for ingredients are provided, as well as substitutions using more commonly-found items.

I’ve found one of the marks of a truly accomplished cook to be the ability to create a dish with complex, subtle flavors out of a surprisingly short list of ingredients, and this is something at which Mrs. Willinsky excels. Take her jerk rub, for example, which uses simple onion, scallions, and hot peppers as a base, with just a few extra spices and herbs; it would be easy to assume that the result would taste primarily of heat and onion. Instead it lends a delightful flavor to dishes it’s used in that doesn’t even trigger my dislike of onion.

Another surprise was the rice and peas dish; it’s a staple of the Jamaican diet and, again, a simple recipe that yields subtle and exquisite flavors (although it calls for white rice, it’s easy enough to substitute red rice to great effect if you’re trying to go whole-grain). I was absolutely delighted to find recipes in here for both baked and fried plantains–I haven’t had plantains in years, and I’ve longed for a chance to use them since noticing that our local grocery store carried them. Finally last night I got my wish.

Chapters include basics and seasonings; pork; chicken and fowl; seafood; beef, lamb and goat; side dishes; desserts; drinks; and resources. Each chapter starts off with a bit of history or explanation of the place of that ingredient or area of cooking in Jamaican cuisine, and many of the recipes also include wonderful tidbits of history, folklore, or childhood memory. This is a very colorful book that beautifully conveys the flavor of Jamaica on every page, and enables you to do a remarkably good job of replicating it in your kitchen. Whether you want jerk chicken, jerk fish, jerk lobster tails, a jerk beef stew, curry goat, rum custard, or rum punch, you’ll find it (and so much more!) in here.

The quality of the recipes is right up there with the Sugar Mill cookbook, but this book focuses primarily on a simpler, narrower type of cooking. It’s easy to whip up these recipes with little advance notice, but they’ll satisfy your tastebuds for days on end. If you’re looking for something new to do with your grill, this will certainly qualify!

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