Scotch bonnets. One of the world's hottest chillies they strike fear into my heart. At Brixton Market - a fabulous place that couldn't be more different to Borough - they sell them for £1 a scoop to their largely African and Caribbean clientele. I'm terrified to touch them and people around me are buying them 30 or 40 at a time. They are very pretty things ranging in colour from a pale orangey pink to vivid startling reds. They have a sort of crumpled flesh and tend to be as long as they are wide - usually about 3cm. They twinkle brightly in big multicoloured heaps all round the market, the sight of them always somehow cheering, particularly in winter. Until this weekend I have never bought any, not once in the twenty five years I have been going to Brixton. Whenever they are mentioned it is always in the context of how hot they are, always garlanded too in exhortations to be careful when handling them, wash hands thoroughly, don't touch your eyes or any other sensitive bits for a long time, indeed wear gloves when handling to be sure you'll survive!
The hottest pepper grown commercially they are simply talked of in terms of 'intense' and 'extreme' - for the fiery flavor and their famed heat. The heat comes from capsaicin, among the most pungent naturally-occurring substances in the entire plant kingdom, and can be detected by humans in minute quantities. In the USA, police sometimes use a solution of capsaicin, as an alternative to "CS" spray, for subduing criminal suspects. Cruel, if you think about it, but bound to be effective.
Obviously not as adventurous as I'd like to believe I am, all the above put me off as if even touching them would break me out in blisters. But this weekend I wanted to try a new recipe for jerk chicken from the Levy Roots series on the beeb and if there is one common factor in all of the gazillion recipes for jerk it is scotch bonnet. I'd planned to make this dish in the week last week but somehow it didn't happen though the chicken was in the freezer. Then I found a nice sounding recipe for tarragon chicken and nearly cooked that instead - chickening out of the challenge as it were. But I really did like the sound of the hot sticky jerk marinade, so I girded my loins and bravely went to my local veg shop where I bought some onions and a single crinkly scotch bonnet. Just one. The woman serving weighed the onions, looked at the pepper shrugged and threw it in with the onions. At least if it burnt me to death I hadn't paid for it!
So braver than a brave thing I cut my little orange beauty in half. I was surprised at how good it smelled - a delicate floral aroma. Lovely. Reassured, I discarded the seeds and chopped it roughly meaning to use it all, then scraped half of it into the blender with the other ingredients. Figured better to start slow! I left the chicken in the fridge overnight and roasted it Sunday for lunch with rice and peas. The heat was definitely there but so was an amazing flavour - hot, sticky, sweet. Intense even.
4 spring onions, green part only, chopped
1 Scotch bonnet chilli, chopped
3cm/1¼in piece root ginger, chopped
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
100ml/3½fl oz cider vinegar
3 tbsp clear honey
2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 pieces chicken
Blend all of the jerk marinade ingredients in a food processor until they form a smooth paste.
Place the chicken pieces into an ovenproof dish and pour over the jerk marinade, turning them to coat thoroughly in the marinade. Cover the dish and chill in the fridge for at least four hours, or ideally overnight, turning the pieces over every 2-3 hours.
Heat the oven to Gas 5/190C/375F. Put the chicken into a baking tray and bake for about 40 minutes, basting occasionally with the remaining marinade, till the chicken is blackening and decidedly fragrant.
This was really tender and juicy and fab with rice and peas. Hot? Yes but not as hot as many things I have eaten and the falvour was brillliant. I think the only thing that would seriously improve it is to cook it over fire - this would be one of the great barbecue marinades, great with pork too.
It's good when bravery pays off! Next time I will use a whole chilli.