When she was a child, Donna Moodie emigrated with her family from Jamaica to Chicago, where her mother, Marjorie, was known for throwing big dinner parties—“the kind where tons of people are sitting on the floor with a plate on their lap,” says Moodie. Her mother explored all sorts of cuisine—Italian one week, French the next. This proclivity for mixing and matching food and filling the house with friends so influenced young Moodie that she opened Marjorie in Belltown in 2003 (it moved to its current home in 2010: Capitol Hill, 1412 E Union St.; 206.441.9842; marjorierestaurant.com) as an homage to her fête-loving mother. The menu at Marjorie “looks to different points of the world for ethnic inspiration,” says Moodie, from India to France to the Caribbean while maintaining a seasonal Northwest influence.
Jerk, a traditional Jamaican spice mixture, is one of Moodie’s specialties. But the term “jerk” is as ubiquitous a descriptor as “stew” is—no one family or cook will make it the same way, although most versions share a common base of chilies and warming spices, such as cinnamon and clove. “We make our jerk spice with cumin, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice and fresh, hot Scotch bonnet peppers,” says Moodie. “I also add honey and lemon like my mom did, which is not traditionally used.” These ingredients are puréed together until thick and paste-like before being used as a rub or marinade.
At the restaurant, Moodie abides by a sense of adventure in the kitchen, which results in cultural mashups that would make her mother proud. Take the jerk chicken flatbread: The dough is rolled out and an aromatic black bean purée spread over it. Then it’s topped with jerk chicken, more pepper sauce, baked and finished with shaved cabbage and a yogurt-based dressing. This jerk chicken flatbread veers toward the topping-heavy, so use caution when eating it with your hands. Of course, traditional plates also make appearances, such as jerk pork, served with sweet, creamy mashed yams to offset the meat’s spiciness.
While dishes evolve, and come and go from the menu, there is a long-standing, deep reverence for jerk. “It’s probably the ultimate spice combination from Jamaica, which is my origin. It’s special,” says Moodie.
“Let the jerk sit on the meat at least 24 hours,” instructs Moodie. The acid from the lemon helps tenderize the meat, and a long marination time makes for super flavorful meat. “You can’t overdo it,” says Moodie.
Best way to eat jerk?
The spiciness of jerk can wake up palates fatigued from winter vegetables, roasts and braises. Liven things up with jerk-rubbed meats. For Moodie, however, the ultimate way to indulge in jerk is during the warmer months, outdoors with friends. After moving away from the beaches of Jamaica, Moodie spent summers at the coast with her family, where a lunchtime meal of jerk chicken was a daily affair. Her mother would bury the jerk chicken in the ground under hot coals in the morning, cook it for several hours, and it would be ready for lunch. “You unbury it, have all the sides ready, and sit around and eat—it’s all a part of street food culture in Jamaica.”
Not up for burying the bird?
You can make jerk chicken at home, no problem. At Marjorie, the staff mimics the traditional way of burying and roasting jerk-marinated meat by roasting it in the oven. “We cover it tightly and roast it on low heat, slowly, which doesn’t dry out the meat like a grill would.”
Image by Maria Billorou
Jerk chicken flatbread: black beans, Cotija cheese and Jamaican jerk chicken, topped with pineapple, habañero, cilantro and lime slaw
Donna’s Basic Jerk Spice Mix Recipe
¼ cup honey
¼ cup canola oil
2 Tablespoons brown sugar or raw sugar
1 Scotch bonnet pepper or habañero, split, deseeded
Juice of 1 lime
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground clove
½ teaspoon pimento
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
¼ medium-size onion
2 cloves garlic
1-2 scallions, roots removed, chopped
1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
» In a food processor, add all ingredients and purée until smooth and paste-like. Store in sealed container in the refrigerator for as long as 1 month.
» To make jerk chicken, cut chicken into pieces and coat well with jerk. Refrigerate overnight, or for up to 48 hours. Grill or roast, as desired.