Versatile, delicious and brainlessly easy roasted chicken thighs—here with herbes de Provence. Recipe of sorts below.
We didn’t overindulge this New Year’s Eve. We really didn’t. But we did undersleep. We actually got home a little before one in the morning, sober as judges [or at any rate as sober as they're reputed to be], because Nick’s, the no-cover Wicker Park bar that reliably delivers a decent mix of live blues and R&B most weekends had gone all unannounced private party on us. The door guy was apologetic, but someone apparently threw enough money at Nick to keep the riffraff out for one night.
So instead, we ended up taking a nice long walk in the snow in this bar-packed neighborhood, entertaining ourselves with a running commentary on our overserved, underdressed [talking hypothermia risk here, not style] fellow pedestrians. There were some spectacular examples out and about, hailing cabs in sparkly tank tops, shivering jacketless in doorways on cell phones, slushing through snow in perfect little pointy heels that probably cost the earth and are now in ruins… I wanted to yell, “This is Chicago, people. It’s winter!” But apparently it’s hipper to walk around hunched up and teeth chattering than to—oh, I don’t know—put on a jacket?
Eventually, even in our sensible layers, we got cold. So we headed for the El. Every New Year’s Eve, the Chicago Transit Authority does this great thing, making rides on all subways, Els and buses one penny—free, if you have a transit card. We made our way home too sober to be ushering in a new year and with our downstairs neighbors’ party going full tilt, with the volume set “at 11.” They are really, really nice, really, really quiet neighbors at all times, so we figured this party was a gimme.
We settled in with some champagne, slices of Marion’s wonderful pear cake and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night DVD on the telly, cranked loud enough to sort of be heard over the interesting music mix from downstairs—Kanye West, Johnny Cash, David Bowie and [ten points if you know this group's single hit] Ram Jam, to give you an idea. By the time their party wound down and we’d achieved the proper champagne dosage, it was around 3:30 in the morning.
Oh, yeah. This was supposed to be about roasted chicken. Well, originally, it wasn’t. I had another dish planned for my first post of the year, something that’s nice and easy to make, but requires a little planning ahead. I was so not ready for that. By the time I dug the car out [as I said, "This is Chicago, people. It's winter!"] and made my way to the grocery store, I was totally operating at half speed and looking for something auto-pilot simple, but still real food. Hence, herb-roasted chicken thighs.
A whole roasted chicken can be a festive thing of beauty for company dinners, a wonderful centerpiece for the table. But many home cooks stress out [and not totally without reason] over the breast cooking faster than the legs and thighs, achieving crispy skin without the bird drying out, timing it to the rest of the meal and any number of other culinary landmines. We seem to have overcome many of these issues with the addition of a Staub La Cocotte oval roasting pan to our kitchen that, as Marion says, creates a mini-environment in the oven, roasting the chicken evenly and beautifully.
But for speed, ease and sheer versatility, give me some chicken thighs to roast. They cook quickly—about 45 minutes once they’re in the oven—and they readily pick up the flavors of any spices, herbs or other flavorings you use. [Stuff the cavity of a whole chicken with anything you like and you'll be lucky if the legs and thighs even hint at the flavors.] And maybe best of all, they make great leftovers. Heat and eat them as is or cut them up and add to a pasta sauce, some mac & cheese, some stir-fried vegetables… They also can be turned into this delicious, spicy chicken salad.
What follows is not so much a recipe as it is some guidelines and variations—and just a reminder that they’re really easy to make [and hard to screw up] and delicious to eat.
First, the basics. You can roast any chicken pieces, but chicken thighs are the most forgiving. Unlike breast pieces, they don’t dry out easily. Whole chicken legs or separate thighs and drumsticks are also good.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF or 375ºF. Using kitchen shears, trim away excess fat from thighs. Season on both sides with salt, pepper and whatever herbs and seasonings you choose—see Kitchen Notes below for some ideas.
Coat the bottom and sides of a baking dish or pan with a little olive oil [see Kitchen Notes]. Arrange thighs skin side up in pan [again with the Kitchen Notes]. Don’t crowd them—use an additional pan if needed. Place baking dish on middle rack of oven and roast, basting at least once with pan juices—the first time at about 20 minutes. By this time enough of the fat in and under the skin as well as in the chicken itself will have been rendered, naturally basting the meat. Brushing the chicken with these pan juices will help the skin brown nicely.
At about 40 minutes or so, check the chicken for doneness. First, if the skin is golden brown, that’s a good sign the chicken is done or nearly so. Insert an instant read thermometer into the thickest part of the biggest thigh, avoiding the bone. The chicken is done if it’s at least 165ºF. Alternatively, pierce a thigh with a sharp knife blade—if the juice runs clear, it’s done. If it’s pinkish or reddish, let the chicken roast a bit longer and check again.
Transfer to a serving tray and tent with foil to keep warm while you finish the rest of the meal. And honestly, if the rest of the meal is coming together more slowly than it should be, just turn off the oven and leave the chicken in its pan inside. I’ve done this for up to 15 minutes with no ill effects. Unlike more fragile chicken breasts, thighs won’t dry out.
Variations on a thigh. Here are a few ways to season chicken thighs for a whole range of flavors. Be sure to season thighs on both sides—the skin side for appearance as much as anything else and the underside for truly helping the seasonings to impart their flavor throughout the flesh. If you have fresh herbs, they’re great, but dried herbs work very well in roasting. For a pan of 8 to 10 thighs, I usually use maybe a couple of teaspoons of dried herbs. If you’re using fresh herbs, up the amount—their flavors aren’t as concentrated as dried varieties. And bruise fresh herbs with a rolling pin or by crushing them lightly in your hands to release more of their oils.
Herbes de Provence. This is my go to—this lovely French herb mix is delicate, fragrant and delicious.
Rosemary. Okay, this is a go to choice too, probably my favorite single herb. As a variation, add a little chopped garlic to the pan about halfway through the roasting process. If you add it before the chicken has produced pan juices, it’s likely to burn. You can also add a little lemon juice then, if you like.
Tarragon. Another great herb. If you like, add some lemon juice partway through the roasting process. You can also lay thin slices of lemon on each thigh, brushing them with pan juices to keep them from burning.
These are a few ideas to get you started. I’m sure your comments will offer many others. I’d also love to hear ideas for leftovers.
Juicy’s only skin deep. Resist the temptation to skin the chicken before roasting—this is the source of much of the juiciness and flavor of roasted chicken. Serve it with the skin too—it looks better that way. You and/or dinner guests can remove the skins on your plates. If you insist on serving it skinless, flip it over so the herb-coated underside is up; this also looks better than the plain, skinned thigh.
Oiling the pan. Am I the only one out there who hates so-called non-stick sprays? Over time, I find that they actually cause sticky build-up in fry pans and on baking dishes. Just drizzle a little oil in the pan and smear it around with a paper towel. Done.
Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 1/2/08
Remembering Oscar Peterson. Count Basie said of this virtuoso jazz pianist, “Oscar Peterson plays the best ivory box I’ve ever heard.” A live album, Summer Night in Munich, shows just what he meant, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?
Fight lung cancer. Drink up. Just added to the list of the health of benefits of wine? Reducing the risk of lung cancer. Seriously. Read more at WTF? Random food for thought.