January 11, 2007

Come to the Dark Side

There was a point during the 1990s and even early in this decade where, with the exception of the occasional dalliance with chicken wings to chase down a beer, my wife and I never ate chicken.

In our early, poor, culinarily clueless days together we had bad experiences with “quick and easy” meals that relied on boneless chicken breast. They universally sucked, so we quickly abandoned cooking chicken at home. Even as we became more food savvy, it seemed like sheer buffoonery to order chicken, even if it sounded particularly good, at any restaurant that had equally attractive meat or seafood dishes. Really, how good could it be compared to mussels and frites or a perfectly prepared flank steak topped with a remarkable country mustard sauce?

Our re-introduction to chicken came in the form of a roasted whole chicken we prepared in our first-ever house. It was, remarkably, delicious (the chicken, not the house). Some herbs and butter concocted into a paste and rubbed under the skin, some more herbs and lemon halves jammed into the cavity. The result was a juicy, succulent bird—something I didn’t know was possible. [More recently we have roasted some whole organic chickens we got from some local farmers and they are by far the most tasty chickens I've ever had.]

After success with whole chickens (well, really, my wife’s success), I was lured into making some recipes that relied strictly on dark meat – legs and thighs. We’ve been hooked on the dark ever since.

It’s funny, because I think we, like many Americans, had been conditioned to believe that dark meat was bad for you (it isn’t; one cup of diced chicken thigh has about 150 more calories and 2-3 more grams of fat than an equivalent amount of white meat -- not negligible, but not unmanageable) or that it didn’t taste as good as the ubiquitous “100% white meat” meals trumpeted in advertisements for fast-food and chain restaurants. But thighs, in particular, are just bursting with flavor, and both legs and thighs lend themselves extremely well to the bold flavors used in Asian and Indian cooking. In my opinion, they also are far easier to cook and less likely to become dry.

We wasted many years as chickenless 20-somethings. Thankfully, we have been wiser in our (cough … early) 30s.

Thai-style chicken thighs and legs (adapted from the June 2006 Food & Wine)

[Note: This is one of those dishes where you do the bulk of the little work there is the night before, because for the best results, the chicken should marinate over night. That said, I’ve made it a few times after letting the chicken marinate for just a few hours and it was still darn good.]

  • Heaping 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • Teaspoon or so each of salt and pepper
  • 6 chicken thighs
  • 6 chicken legs

Combine the cilantro, fish sauce, canola oil, garlic, coriander hoisin sauce, salt, and pepper in a food processor and blend until pretty smooth. Mix the chicken with the marinade in a freezer bag or a big bowl or dish and let it marinate over night in the fridge.

The original recipe called for grilling the chicken skin-side down on a charcoal grill, pushing the hot charcoal to either side and grilling the chicken in the middle, not directly over the hot coals. We have a gas grill with two long burners, so I get the grill pretty hot and then turn down one of the burners a little and put the smaller pieces over the lower flame and the bigger pieces where I can fit them. It’s worked pretty well and typically takes about 30-40 minutes to get crispy, juicy chicken.

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