This Smoky, Citrusy Grilled Bass Is an Homage to My Great-Aunt's Jerk Seasoning

August 11, 2018

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My philosophy as a chef is to cook the food of who I am. When I say that, I mean that I am cooking the food of the African diaspora—because that's my makeup, it's in my DNA. My mom is Puerto Rican and West Indian, and my dad is African-American. I grew up watching my grandmother cook in the kitchen, realizing she was having more fun with food than I was with cartoons, and I started to gravitate there. I would stand on step stools and help her—or I thought I was helping her—peel carrots and onions and celery while she was making her own stock. I was always cooking as a young child, from the age of five or six, and then at 14 I got my start in the industry with my first job as a dishwasher.

Now, after spending time cooking in Ghana and 15 years working as a chef, I'm able to bring all of these elements together on the plate. It isn't just about the ingredients that I'm using; there's a true story in each dish. That's definitely the case with this citrus jerk-marinated sea bass with fonio. This recipe takes you on a journey: The jerk seasoning is from the West Indies—you mostly would see that in Jamaica, maybe in Trinidad and Barbados too. The fonio is from West Africa. Okra—people believe it's from the American South—but anywhere you see okra, it always points back to West Africa.

This was one of the most popular dishes on the menu while I was working at The Cecil, a restaurant in Harlem that has since closed, but it was actually inspired by my great-aunt's jerk seasoning—when you're trying to cook the food of who you are, you have to go back to your relatives and ask for the recipes of your childhood.

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So when I was working at The Cecil, I called my grandfather and asked him if he knew the recipe. He said, "Well, you need to call my sister." Maybe she'll pick up the phone, and because she's 98 years old, maybe she won't. Thankfully, she did. She told me, "Don't worry; come to my house in Queens and you can get the recipe. I don't know where it is, but I'll give you some of the ingredients and then you can work it out from there."

After I figured out how to recreate the jerk seasoning, there were a few different ways the dish evolved. At the restaurant, we made a jerk paste that went on the bottom of the fish that we served. But when I was working on my cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven, I had to figure out how to make this dish accessible for the home cook—because not everybody has the kitchen-grade appliances you need to blitz all that product down to a paste. So I came up with a jerk marinade that gives you the same flavor, without a need for all of the professional equipment—I love to offer something for everyone.

When I started to develop the marinade recipe, playing around with different quantities and tweaking the ingredients; I felt like it was missing something. Then I realized, "Where's the citrus?" I thought there needed to be citrus in this to brighten it up, and that's how we got to have orange juice, lemon juice and zest, and lime zest in the marinade.

I think for anyone that invites friends and family over for dinner, this dish is an opportunity to show off a bit and flash your skills in the kitchen. Most of them have probably never had fonio, an ancient West African grain, so you'll be introducing them to something new. They'll probably say, "Oh my God, I've never roasted fish like this. You put the cast-iron pan in the oven and then you pulled it out and then you threw the fish in it and then you threw it back in the oven and it came out perfect."

This recipe is your moment to shine: You can cook a big pot of fonio, throw it on an amazing platter, put the fish on top, and invite people to eat it family style.

Photo by Julia Gartland

The Difference is in the Details

A dish like this can be intimidating to make for the first time. But that shouldn't stop you from giving it a try—especially if you're armed with these tips and tricks for mastering the recipe:

Meet fonio, your new favorite grain.

Fonio is an ancient West African grain that I had all the time when I was in Ghana. It grows mainly in West African countries, but it has a very relatable taste and texture—it's similar to couscous or millet. You can buy it on Amazon and find it in many Middle Eastern and Indian stores, but the best place to find fonio is in a West African market. There are many such markets in New York City, so it's easily accessible here, but there's also a fonio farm in Portland and one in New Jersey. If you are able to buy it from a local market, it'll only cost like two bucks for a pound. I also think fonio multiplies by about 20 when cooked, so if you're on a budget, you're good.

Do your prep work.

For people cooking this recipe at home thinking, "Oh my God, oh my God, it's really hard. That's a lot of ingredients,"—don't worry, just prep a day ahead. I would recommend gathering all of the ingredients for the marinade the day before and put them in little food storage containers. I always do this so that on the day I'm cooking, everything is already prepped out and it's super easy; you're just taking the ingredients and throwing them in the blender. I also make sure that my fish is already cut, so day-of I'm just marinating the fish in the fridge for two hours. The fonio you can also cook the day before, and then you can bring it back to the pan and sauté it.

Don't over-marinate the fish!

It might seem counterintuitive, but certain meats and fish—like this sea bass—shouldn't marinate for too long. Why? If you let the fish sit for longer than two hours the salt and citrus in the marinade will start to break down the fish and "cook" it—similar to the way ceviche works. If that happens, the fish won't be firm and you'll run the risk of "overcooking" it before it even hits the cast-iron grill pan.

Think of the recipe as a foundation, not a rulebook.

If you want something light, but can't find sea bass, you could use the same method with scallops, shrimp, or even bronzino. But I wouldn't do this with swordfish, tuna, or salmon because it's too fatty. If you're looking for a more budget-conscious alternative to sea bass (or just don't like fish all that much to begin with), you could use the same marinade and swap in chicken—I'd just say let it marinate for more than two hours.

For those folks who aren't big fans of okra, you can substitute it with another vegetable, like zucchini or squash. But I do believe that the fonio with the tomatoes, garlic, and onions should stay in the dish no matter what. It's a very versatile dish if you're just using it as a foundation.

With a few riffs, you can make this dish any time of year.

The brightness of the citrus and the light, flaky texture of the fish make this dish perfect for the hotter months. Still, that doesn't mean you should toss this recipe on the back burner once fall rolls around; to keep the flavors seasonal, all you need to do is make a few ingredient tweaks. In the fall, I would do butternut squash, asian pear, garlic, and onions with the fonio; in the winter, you could even try blood oranges and a deeper root vegetable, like celery root; in the spring, or even in the summer, if you didn't want these ingredients, you could swap in peas and corn. Use the ingredients you like best, but I think you just need something hardy and sweet.

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JJ Johnson

Written by: JJ Johnson

James Beard-nominated chef, cookbook author, and co-founder of InGrained Hospitality