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Melissa Thompson’s jerk prawns
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Jerk is serious business in Jamaica. Its roots are sewn into the island’s history and while you can jerk many things including chicken, pork, lamb and fish, you must do it properly. Jerk describes the seasoning – rich with pimento (known as allspice in the UK), Scotch bonnet chillies and salad onions – but also the cooking method: over fire and with smoke. These things are non-negotiable to be authentic, although my jerk prawns can be cooked on a griddle pan or under the grill if you don’t have outside space.
In Jamaica, pimento wood is used, but it's hard to come by in the UK. So instead, I use bay branches, plus soaked pimento berries, which recreates the flavours brilliantly.
Serves: 4 as a sharing plate
1 tbsp allspice berries
Few short branches from a bay tree, or use 2 x packs bay leaves
For the salsa
¼-½ Scotch bonnet chilli, finely chopped, to taste
1 lime, juice
For the jerk prawns
4 unwaxed limes, zest and juice
3 salad onions, roughly chopped
5cm piece ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
1½ tbsp allspice berries, ground with a pestle and mortar
6 cloves garlic
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground or freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 ½ tbsp runny honey
10 thyme stalks, leaves picked
1 Scotch bonnet chilli, deseeded if preferred
Splash of red wine vinegar, or water, to loosen if needed
800g No.1 Whole Madagascan Tiger Prawns, heads on or off
1. Soak the allspice berries in a little water for 20 minutes. If using bay branches, wash them in plenty of water, then shake dry. Cut the limes into 8 wedges each, then wrap in a piece of wet paper towel to stop them from browning.
2. To make the salsa, split the avocados, remove the stone, scoop out the flesh, roughly chop and add to a bowl along with the Scotch bonnet pepper, lime juice and season. Keep covered, in the fridge, until ready to serve.
3. Add the lime zest and juice, plus all the ingredients for the jerk marinade into a blender and blitz until smooth. Adjust the quantity of Scotch bonnet chilli depending on the heat tolerance of the group you’re cooking for. Season. Add a splash of vinegar or water to loosen the marinade to help it blend, if required.
4. Using a pair of scissors, cut the shell along the back of the prawn until you reach one segment before the tail. Repeat until they are all done. Devein each prawn with a toothpick. Lift the vein, then gently pull it out with your fingers. You may find that some have visible veins and some don’t.
5. In a large bowl, mix the prawns with the marinade, ensuring the mix gets all over the prawns, including into their shells, through the cuts down the back. Cover, put into the fridge and leave to marinate for 20 minutes while you light the barbecue. Either pile the charcoal onto one half of the barbecue and light it, or, if using a chimney, light the coals and then once white hot, pour them out onto one half of the barbecue.
7. Drain the allspice berries. Place the prawns on the rack of the barbecue, on the opposite side from the heat source. Then place the bay branches or leaves on the other side directly over the fire and scatter with the berries. Close the lid and cook for 5 minutes.
8. Open the lid. Push the bay branches or leaves to the side, then move the prawns directly over the coals. Keep an eye on them, turning regularly until the shells start to char and the prawns turn fully pink and are opaque and cooked through, taking 1-2 minutes. Serve them on a large platter scattered with lime wedges and with the salsa in a bowl, so everyone can get stuck in.
If you can’t get hold of bay branches from your garden, use a couple of packs of bay leaves instead.
If you buy the prawns with their heads on but would like to remove them before cooking, simply pinch behind the head with finger and thumb and twist it away with the other hand.
No outside space? No problem. Cook the prawns either under a preheated grill or on a hot griddle pan for 5-8 minutes, turning halfway through.
Typical values per serving:
This recipe was first published in August 2021.