Thai Basil Chicken

To say that I’ve been under stress lately would be a gross understatement. I know that many of you feel the same angst related to the stories that plague our newsfeeds, and that alone is enough to make anyone shaky. On top of the stressors of life, things at home have been a little, um, hectic.

Besides the uncharacteristically high pressure of late in my day job (which is usually quiet in June), and beyond the fact that we are now past the 90-day mark since the start of our master bath remodel (with issues still happening every day), I had an unwelcome bit of news this week at my first primary care visit in nearly a decade. It’s nothing serious—at least, not yet—but I am considering the results of my blood workup to be an important wake-up call.

At the risk of TMI, I’ll summarize to say that several key markers are out of whack, and I need to get my act together quickly as it relates to my diet and my overall health. As luck would have it, going through menopause, starting a food blog, and signing up for not one, but two major home renovations during a world pandemic did not have positive effect on my body. I should have seen it coming.

For the first time in my life, a doctor told me that I must make changes, and that was a little scary. There’s plenty of time to turn things around, and I am truly thankful for that, but it means healthier options will be my first choice and decadence is on the bench for a while. I need to embrace regular exercise, too, but that’s another post entirely. Today, I’m focusing on healthier eating. It does not mean that we can’t have pizza or ice cream or some of the other fun things my husband and I love; rather, it only means that I must be more mindful of what goes into those dishes in the first place. Luckily, I do love experimenting!

For me, what makes a meal truly satisfying is variety of texture, big flavor and interesting spices. I’m not suddenly turning vegan or entirely giving up any food groups—I have never been one for a total elimination diet. I can move toward better health with a few lightened-up favorites, more meatless dishes and plenty of vegetables, and that’s what I intend to do. Truth be told, part of the reason I’m telling y’all this is that it builds in an extra level of accountability. Now that you know, I’ve painted myself into a bit of a corner. So here comes the first of several fresh and healthy meals served up at our house recently.

It smells even more delicious than it looks!

Thai basil chicken meets all the criteria I mentioned for a satisfying meal. The texture is amazing and packed with crunchy vegetables, including carrots, broccoli and red bell pepper. The flavor is phenomenal, with a complex blend of spicy ingredients in the Thai-inspired sauce that gently coats the vegetables and lean ground chicken. The signature flavor that gives this dish a little extra “zhuzh” is Thai basil, a fresh herb in the mint family that is similar to the Genovese basil you’d recognize in Italian food, but with a spicy undernote and a hint of anise or licorice. I’ve had an abundance of this ingredient lately, since my husband and I reinstated the Aerogarden that he gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago. This gorgeous herb has taken over the whole dining room, even visible from outside the window because it’s growing through the blinds (which, I suspect, is causing the neighbors to whisper). I prune the plants every couple of days, which only makes them grow faster, and so I needed a dish that uses a lot of Thai basil at once. This recipe is perfect for it!


The prep for Thai basil chicken is easy; it’s just a bit of chopping and slicing of fresh vegetables that have plenty of texture, color and nutrition. The other essential prep is making the sauce. My recipe includes chili-garlic paste for heat, soy sauce and coconut aminos for an umami burst, oyster and fish sauces for a little funky depth, rice vinegar for a slight acidity and a touch of coconut sugar to round it all out. There’s also a bit of corn starch in the mix to keep it silky. If you like Asian flavors even a little bit, you won’t regret having these ingredients in the door of your fridge, and in no time at all, you’ll be mixing and matching them to come up with your own amazing recipes. One final note on the point of these Asian sauces, and this is not a joke. There is an imminent shortage of both sriracha sauce and chili-garlic paste, so you may want to grab a jar of each now to avoid the drought that’s coming on these ingredients. Now, let’s get cooking on this dish!


I used carrots, red bell pepper, onions and broccoli in my recipe, but there are other veggies that would feel right at home here, including scallions, cauliflower, celery, crunchy green beans or snow peas. Sliced fennel would also be terrific, and if you can only find Genovese basil, having fresh fennel in the mix would help fill the gap of the licorice flavor that Thai basil offers. Basically, aim for lots of color and texture and you’ll have a winning dish. The only vegetable I wouldn’t recommend is tomato, which is too soft, and hardly ever used in Asian cuisine.

Cooking the dish is simple, beginning with a little bit of oil in a large, fairly deep skillet or wok. Because this recipe is cooked over medium-high heat, you need an oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut, coconut or canola oil, but you won’t need more than a few tablespoons. Extra-virgin olive oil is not best for this kind of cooking because it overheats easily and turns bitter.


You’ll cook the veggies first, only a few minutes until they begin to soften, then move them to the outside edges of the pan and cook the ground chicken, half at a time. You could use cut-up pieces of chicken breast, also, but I find that ground chicken cooks more quickly and evenly. I normally use a wok when I make this dish, but that is one of the few tools that didn’t earn prime kitchen real estate after our remodel, and the overflow of stuff in the garage is a bit of a nightmare right now. If you have a wok, of course it would be the best vessel for cooking, but any large, sturdy skillet or pan with deep sides will work fine.


After the chicken has lost its pink color, whisk the sauce to mix it up again, and pour it all at once over the pan ingredients. Toss a few times to coat, and you should see the sauce thicken quickly, thanks to the cornstarch in the mix. Add the Thai basil at the very end, and when it wilts down and turns darker green (which takes no more than 30 seconds), this meal is ready to serve!

I’ll be looking for other fun ways to use my Thai basil, and I’m already planning to do something with the shrimp we have in the freezer—maybe a drunken noodle kind of thing? Oh, aaand, I don’t think I have mentioned that I planted a vegetable garden this year, and we have found a new weapon against deer invasion. More on that next time. 🙂

Fingers crossed, we will have fresh zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant soon. Stay tuned!


Thai Basil Chicken

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: average
  • Print

This recipe moves quickly, so it’s best to have your fresh ingredients and sauce ready before you begin. If you have a favorite store-bought, spicy Thai sauce, you could substitute that, using about 2/3 cup. If you cannot find fresh Thai basil, a regular Italian basil can be substituted but the flavor will not be quite as authentic. As long as we are talking substitutions, the chicken could also be swapped out for shrimp or even extra firm tofu cubes. Go on, make it yours!

Ingredients

  • 1 pound ground chicken
  • 1 small onion, halved and cut into slivers
  • 1 large broccoli crown, trimmed and cut into florets
  • 1/2 large red bell pepper, cut into strips
  • 3 small carrots, peeled and cut on bias into thin slices
  • a fat handful fresh Thai basil leaves
  • 3-4 Tbsp. high-heat oil, such as coconut, peanut or canola (you will divide this to cook the vegetables and the chicken)
  • Spicy Thai basil sauce (ingredients listed below)
  • Cooked jasmine rice, for serving

Whisk the sauce ingredients together in a glass measuring cup or other bowl that is suitable for pouring. Have it ready before you begin cooking.

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp. garlic chili paste
  • 1 Tbsp. oyster sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. coconut aminos
  • 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar (not seasoned)
  • 1 Tbsp. coconut sugar
  • 1 tsp. fish sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. corn starch
  • 2 Tbsp. COLD water

Directions

  1. Place a large, high-side pan over medium-high heat. Add half of the oil, and when it shimmers, add all vegetables to the pan. Sprinkle with a slight pinch of salt (not too much, because the sauce has plenty), and toss in the pan until they begin to soften, or about 7 minutes.
  2. Push the vegetables toward the outside edge of the pan. Add half of the remaining oil in the center of the pan, and add half the ground chicken, tossing to cook just until it’s no longer pink. Repeat with the remaining chicken.
  3. Whisk the sauce to reincorporate ingredients that have settled. Pour the sauce all over the pan mixture and stir or toss to coat. The sauce should begin to thicken very quickly.
  4. Add the Thai basil to the skillet all at once and toss to wilt it into the recipe. This will happen very quickly.
  5. Spoon the Thai basil chicken over portions of hot cooked rice, and enjoy it while it’s hot!



Pollo Chipotle

There’s a time and place for the numbered dishes on a Mexican restaurant menu—you know what I mean, the #11 combo platter of one crunchy taco, one burrito and one enchilada, with a side of rice and flavorless refried beans. For me, the time was in my younger years, before I learned to appreciate the Mexican specialty dishes as I do today, and the place was (obviously) an actual restaurant, which I don’t frequent as much as I did in those days because, frankly, we prefer the food we make at home. It has only been recently that I started considering how to make some of our favorite Mexican meals, and those favorites seldom include items from the numbered combo section, and never any crunchy, from-a-box taco shells that I used to associate with Mexican “cuisine.” It’s funny how much has changed.

At one of our favorite local places, called Señor Bravo, the pollo chipotle is the special menu item that always wins over my husband, Les. The chicken (or pollo, if you wish) is tender and bite sized, and it’s drenched in a spicy sauce that has enough smoky chipotle to warrant being part of the dish’s name, but also enough rich cream to soften the edges and give the dish a special flair. I have tried several times to make this dish at home, and on previous attempts found it difficult to replicate the flavor and texture. It seemed something was missing so I fiddled with the cooking process, added ingredients and spices, tried different types of cream—from half and half to heavy cream—and every addition made it less and less like the restaurant dish. Finally, I dialed it all back and kept it simple. Turns out, simplicity was exactly and only what it needed.


Besides being simple and delicious, this dish is also relatively healthy, as I used cream cheese rather than heavy cream to thicken the spicy sauce. This eliminated the need for flour as a thickening agent. And for our at-home pollo chipotle, I jazzed up a simple pot of brown rice with a shake of cumin and a small handful of chopped cilantro and served it alongside a simple salad with fresh tomato and slices of ripe avocado.


Ingredients

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 Tbsp. expeller-pressed canola oil

1/2 large yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves fresh garlic, smashed and sliced

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

Several twists of freshly ground black pepper

1 or 2 Tbsp. pureed chipotle with adobo sauce* (see recipe notes)

1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth*

A couple of pinches of dried Mexican oregano*

4 Tbsp. cream cheese, room temperature


*Recipe Notes

The chipotle puree is best prepared in advance, and you may want to start with one tablespoon and adjust up to taste. To make the puree, empty the entire contents of a small can of chipotles in adobo sauce into a food processor or blender. If your processor has a small bowl insert, that will be the perfect size. Pulse a few times, then run the machine continuously until the sauce is completely smooth.


I prefer the more complex flavor of vegetable broth in most recipes, but for this dish, you could certainly use chicken broth. I would still recommend a low-sodium version, as this helps with controlling the overall amount of sodium in the dish.

Low-sodium vegetable broth is one of the most versatile ingredients in my pantry. If you prefer, use chicken broth.

Mexican oregano is very different from the easier-to-find Mediterranean oregano you are probably accustomed to using. It’s part of the verbena family, with a citrusy, slightly floral flavor. Search it out in an ethnic supermarket, at Whole Foods or the international spice section of World Market. If you can’t get Mexican oregano, dried marjoram would be a better substitute than regular oregano.

To make the cilantro rice, simply cook a batch of your favorite brown rice according to package instructions. Use vegetable broth rather than water for more flavor. Stir in salt, pepper, a few shakes of ground cumin and a small handful of fresh, chopped cilantro leaves before serving.

Why serve ordinary rice, if you can make it more flavorful with so little effort?

Instructions



Looking for ways to use the rest of the chipotle puree?



Authentic Arroz con Pollo

If you do an internet search for “authentic arroz con pollo recipe,” you will get at least a dozen pages of results, with very few duplicates. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Some of the ingredients are consistent across the recipes, but there are many variations and even the pictures can look dramatically different. The reason there are so many “real” arroz con pollo recipes is that there are many, many Hispanic grandmothers passing down their own recipes. And this dish—which is not definitively native to a single country or people—has become a blend of whatever ingredients are available in all the regions where those grandmothers have lived and cooked.

My previous experience of arroz con pollo—or “ACP,” as it is usually listed on many of our local Mexican restaurant menus—has not been completely positive, and that’s because here in the South, the recipe has morphed into an “Americanized” dish that is oozing with cheese and basically bland (it’s a rare instance of a dish being too much about the cheese, in my opinion). And that is a shame because at its roots, arroz con pollo has a lot going on!  

Recently, I had a front-row seat to watch and learn the authentic, real-deal Puerto Rican version of this flavorful dish. During our vacation up north, my husband and I spent a few days on Long Island, where we visited his cousin, Evan. To my good fortune, Evan’s husband, Will, became my own personal “ACP” instructor! His mother hails from P.R. and his father is of Spanish heritage, so Will has good reason to be passionate about this dish that is representative of his family. We had a joyful afternoon in the kitchen!

Will took the day off work to teach me how to make ACP. Love you, Sweetheart! ❤

Throughout this private cooking lesson, Will shared with me all the culinary wisdom handed down to him from his mother, who learned it from her mother, and so on. Because this was an authentic Puerto Rican variation of arroz con pollo, it was packed with layers of flavor, beginning with Sazón and finishing with saffron, and all in one giant pot, called a “caldero.” The pictures of Will’s family recipe tell the story far better than I can, so please join us at the stove as we celebrate this last day of Hispanic Heritage Month!


Ingredients

First, let’s take a look at the special ingredients that make this dish uniquely Puerto Rican.


Hold up, what exactly is “culantro?”

It can seem a little confusing, so let’s address the difference between cilantro, which most of us are familiar with, and culantro, which is an ingredient in both of these cooking bases. Unlike cilantro, which is wispy and delicate and mostly used to finish or garnish a dish after cooking, culantro is sturdier and stronger, both in texture and flavor. It has a similar flavor to cilantro, but its long, slender leaves are mainly included as a cooked ingredient, and during the cooking process, the hearty flavor calms down a bit. This herb is extremely common throughout the Caribbean, so of course it is a staple in the cuisine of Puerto Rico.

The remaining ingredients for the arroz con pollo included bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, corn oil, onions, peppers, garlic, tomato sauce and rice. I did my best to take notes and catch all the details, but this is the kind of recipe you make from instinct, and that’s exactly how Will prepared it. He was cracking me up as he went along, and reminded me so much of myself—occasionally cursing his stove and fretting about ways that his dish might not turn out perfectly. We are always our own harshest critics in the kitchen, can I get an amen? Trust me, this arroz con pollo was delicious!

Made with love, heart and soul!

At the end of the post, I’ve included a PDF that you can download for your recipe files. You will need to tweak seasonings to suit your taste and adjust cooking times for your own stove, of course, but my outline should provide a good starting point. Here we go!


Instructions

Arroz con Pollo!


Easy Chicken Souvlaki

My first taste of Greek food came when I was in my early 20s, shortly after I arrived in Winston-Salem, N.C. Unlike the places I’d lived before—upstate N.Y. and a few places in Colorado—this southern city is home to a large community of Greek-Americans. One of my first jobs here was waiting tables at a Greek-owned casual seafood restaurant, where our most popular (though not inherently “Greek”) menu items included breaded and deep-fried flounder and crunchy little seafood nuggets known as “popcorn shrimp.”

It didn’t take long though before I discovered some of the other Greek-owned eateries in town that offered an authentic, mouthwatering specialty called souvlaki, a lemon and herb-seasoned marinated meat, grilled on skewers and served with any number of authentic sides. Depending on the time of day, you might be served souvlaki with seasoned rice or lemon-herb potatoes, or with Greek feta salad and pita. But always on the side with souvlaki is tzatziki, a Greek yogurt-based condiment with shredded cucumber, garlic and dill.

Some of the new words associated with these delectable foods were hard for me to say at first, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the incredible flavors of Greek food. This fall, perhaps when our new kitchen is completed, I look forward to making a classic pastitsio or moussaka, both of which are baked comfort to the nth degree, rich with warm spices and creamy béchamel.

But today, I’m focused on the food to work best with summer grilling, and that is souvlaki. Traditionally, souvlaki would be made with chunks of lean pork, but there are just as many restaurants around here that put the same flavors and treatment on pieces of chicken breast, and it is positively delicious. Feel free to cut boneless chicken breasts into chunks for your souvlaki—that would be the more traditional way, after all—or you can take the easy way, as I have, and marinate whole chicken tenders, skip the skewers and toss the tenders right onto the grill.

Souvlaki is delicious with warm, soft pita breads and zesty tzatziki sauce, which is easy to make while you wait for the marinade magic to happen. You might also serve your souvlaki up with a batch of the cool tzatziki potato salad I shared a few days ago. Before long, you’ll join me in shouting the traditional Greek celebration exclamation—OPA!


Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders

1 whole organic lemon, juiced (plus the zest)

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

About 4 cloves garlic, finely minced

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. Kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil


Instructions

  1. Pat the chicken tenders dry, but do not rinse them. Lightly sprinkle with kosher salt and toss to coat.
  2. In a large glass (or other non-reactive) bowl, combine lemon juice, zest, vinegar, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Take note of the volume this mixture has in the bowl. Whisk the marinade mixture while streaming in enough olive oil to roughly double the volume of the marinade.
  3. Add the chicken tenders to the marinade and use tongs to thoroughly toss and coat them. As much as possible, press the tenders to be fully submerged in the marinade. Cover the bowl and refrigerate at least six hours.
  4. When you are ready to cook the tenders, simply remove them from the marinade and place them directly onto the pre-heated grill. There is no need to rinse them or even to scrape the marinade from the tenders.

Tzatziki

1 Persian cucumber (or 1/2 medium slicing cucumber), peeled, seeded and finely chopped or grated

A couple pinches of kosher salt

1 cup plain Greek yogurt (or substitute sour cream if you must)

2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped

1 Tbsp. fresh dill leaves, finely chopped (or 1/2 tsp. dried dill)

Line a small custard cup with a paper towel. Add the chopped or grated cucumber and stir with salt. Wrap the paper towel over the cucumbers and allow this to sit in the fridge 30 minutes to release and absorb excess moisture.

Combine cucumbers with yogurt, garlic and dill. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.




Coq au Vermouth

Excuse me, where is the umbrella?

I spent two years in French class during high school, and that is pretty much all I remember how to ask—“excusez-moi, où est le parapluie?” I suppose it is a question that would have been essential had I become a world traveler (I didn’t), and in fact it was a common question asked among my fellow French club members when we took our senior trip to Quebec City, Canada—they don’t speak much English there, in case you didn’t know. It rained the entire three-day weekend, but it was still a glorious visit to a city rich with history and speckled with exquisite, copper-roofed buildings.

Spanish would undoubtedly have been a more useful class for me, given the increase of Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. since I graduated all those years ago. But there was something sooo sexy about the French spoken word, and well, my best friend signed up for French so I did, too. Our teacher was cool and we got to choose our own names for the class, which was good because there wasn’t a name on the list that was a literal translation for Terrie. My friend Debbie became Christine, pronounced CREE-steen, my friend Christine became Danielle and yours truly selected the name Jacqueline, which was fun to say—zhah-KLEEN, like the French fashion designer who steals Nigel’s dream job in The Devil Wears Prada.

French class was always lively, and we were encouraged to play up the accent and the nasal sound as much as possible. We went through round after round of language exercises, covering the French words for common places, including the bookstore (la librairie) and the library (la bibliothèque) and reciting all the various tenses of the verb words, and for every kind of individual and group instance. For example: for the verb “go,” we would cycle through the French words that meant, “I go, you go, he goes, she goes, we go and they go.” Round and round we went, and after all that repetitious recitation, all I remember how to say is “where is the umbrella?”

Anyway, for me, there is still a lot of mystery and intrigue associated with the French language, and I learned during my short time working in the Pinch of Thyme catering kitchen that if you want people to swoon over food, call it something French! As luck would have it, I do at least remember some of the French words for certain foods, including poulet (chicken), champignons (mushrooms) and carottes (carrots, obviously). I was excited to find this recipe in my most recent digital edition of Imbibe magazine because I have used splashes of vermouth in a few dishes and found it more complex and vibrant than wine, which would traditionally be used for braising chicken in the classic coq au vin. But this recipe was more than a splash, it was a generous amount in a very French-technique kind of recipe.

I could not resist turning this into a Sunday Supper meal, with a side of buttered red bliss potatoes and sauteed spinach, and it was—how shall I say—très délicieux!

This dish was rich and succulent, exactly as it should be. The chicken thighs remained tender and moist.

A word or few about vermouth…

I have known about vermouth for decades, but it has only been the past couple of years that I have become more closely acquainted with it, and today I almost always have a bottle open in the fridge for an end-of-day gin martini. Vermouth is a fortified wine, which means other alcohol has been added to grapes during fermentation, and that results in higher alcohol by volume than typical wine. Any variety of botanical ingredients are thrown into the process as well, including herbs, bitter ingredients, bark, roots and spices. Vermouth may be red or white, dry or sweet or really sweet, depending on its origin and method, and it is commonly used as an ingredient for classic cocktails, including martinis and Manhattans. Vermouth, on its own, is also a popular apéritif (pre-dinner drink) in Spain, Italy, France and my house.

In a literal French-to-English translation, coq au vermouth would demand use of a rooster, but it is not every day that you’d find such a creature in your local market. Large hen thighs is what I used for the recipe, and it was tender, flavorful and oh so fancy. Don’t be intimidated, though, because despite all of the foreign language I’ve been throwing around, this was a very simple dish to make. All you need is a cast iron skillet, chicken thighs, bacon, mushrooms and mirepoix—oops, another French word that is simply a mix of carrots, onions and celery. All that, plus a decent amount of dry white vermouth. Don’t worry, vermouth is easy to find, wherever you might buy wine. To keep the recipe true to its origin, choose a brand from France. I used Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry, dry, in the green bottle. 😊

This is one of my go-to vermouth brands for Gibson cocktails:
2 oz. dry gin, 1/2 oz. dry vermouth, shaken or stirred with ice, strained into a cocktail glass and served with a pickled pearl onion.

Inspired by Coq au Vermouth – Imbibe Magazine

Ingredients

3 slices bacon, cut into thin pieces

4 large, free-range chicken thighs (bone-in and skin-on)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 medium onion, sliced or diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into thick diagonal slices

2 stalks celery, cleaned, ribs removed and diced

3 cloves garlic, smashed and sliced

About 1 cup cremini mushrooms, cleaned and cut into quarters

1/2 cup dry vermouth (extra dry would be fine, also)

1/4 cup low-sodium vegetable broth

2 fresh sprigs of thyme

2 Tbsp. cold butter

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon


Instructions

Let’s run through it in pictures first, and if you keep scrolling, you’ll find the instructions spelled out (in English), and I’ll also include a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Season the chicken thighs liberally with salt and pepper. Cook the bacon until the fat is rendered and the edges begin to crisp. Transfer the pieces to a paper-towel lined dish, keeping all the bacon grease in the skillet. Arrange the chicken thighs, skin side down, into the skillet. Cook them until the skin is crispy and golden, then turn the pieces and cook the other side about two minutes.
  2. Transfer the thighs to a plate and cover loosely with foil to keep them warm. Add the mirepoix (carrots, onions and celery) to the fond (pan drippings) in the skillet. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic and mushrooms, tossing with the other vegetables until slightly browned. Pour in the vermouth and vegetable broth, and simmer for about two minutes.
  3. Return the chicken thighs to the skillet, skin side up. Sprinkle the bacon pieces over the top and lay the whole thyme sprigs in a criss-cross fashion over the combination. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet tightly and simmer about 30 minutes.
  4. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs. Transfer the chicken thighs to a plate. Add the cold butter and lemon juice to the simmered vegetable mixture and stir until it is a rich, luscious sauce. Just before plating, place the thighs, skin side down, into the skillet to drench them in the sauce. Plate the chicken, then spoon the simmered vegetable mixture (a.k.a. mélange) over the thighs.
I love when an elegant dish is this simple!


Tequila-Lime Chicken Tacos with Pineapple Pico

Once upon a time, a busy woman ran out of creative ideas for the package of chicken tenders she pulled from the freezer, and the only thing that could save her from a boring dinner was a spark of inspiration. The woman, of course, was me, and it happened on Friday. It happens more often than I’d like, truth be told.

Isn’t that a familiar tale? Even people who love to cook have creativity blocks, especially when pressed for time, and we all need a boost to pull out of a menu rut. If I had stuck with my ho-hum plan to fry the chicken tenders and plop them on a salad—well, it would have been edible, but uninspired. It certainly would not have been remarkable or interesting enough to share here on Comfort du Jour. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to check my email that morning before heading out for a full day of errands. Right there at the top of my inbox was a cheerful message from my West Coast blogging buddy, Michelle, and her casual sharing of a personal story about “tequila-lime chicken” arrived just in time to twist this plot and save our supper.

What I love most about food and recipes is the rich stories they tell about our lives. It’s one of the main reasons I started a food blog last year, a decision that I did not expect would lead to meaningful new friendships with other bloggers. Recent email conversations between me and Michelle brought us around to the joy of cooking on the grill (or the “BBQ,” as many West Coasters call it), and on Friday, she described this idea that she had invented to serve as a late-night patio bar snack at a restaurant where she once worked. Tequila-lime chicken is the kind of recipe you make by instinct, not by following specific amounts or ratios, and I love that she described the recipe that way—you know, with a little of this and a touch of that and a couple of those. It made perfect sense to me because 99 percent of the time, that’s exactly the way I cook, adding ingredients that fit the flavor profile until it looks and tastes “right.” It sounded perfect, and I couldn’t help but see my boring package of chicken tenders in a new light.

The ingredient list for the marinade was short and easy—tequila, citrus juice, fresh garlic and simple spices, such as cumin and chile seasoning, and it tenderized the chicken beautifully. My ingredient makeup wasn’t identical to Michelle’s recipe—she adds slices of onion to the marinade and I saved that for the pico topping—but the chicken turned out every bit as tender and flavorful as she described it, and I can totally see why her tequila-lime chicken tacos were a frequent “sellout” at the patio bar. We liked them so much at our house, I want to run out and buy a taco truck!

Tender, tequila-marinated chicken with the tropical pineapple pico and fresh cilantro. This was a fabulous twist of events!

The idea for tequila-lime chicken also gave me another excuse to make another batch of easy handmade corn tortillas, and this time I spiffed them up with cilantro puree, which accounts for the slight green tint to the shells. And I topped these “last-minute” tacos with a condiment concoction that I’m calling “pineapple pico,” a super-fresh, spicy, tropical mashup of pico de gallo and guacamole. I’ll share my notes for both at the end. 😊


Ingredients

About 1 1/4 pounds of chicken tenders, patted dry

1/4 cup silver tequila (I’m sure gold would work just as well)

Juice of 1 lime

Juice of 1/2 lemon

About 1/2 tsp. each of cumin, garlic pepper, ancho chile powder and kosher salt* (see notes)

2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced

2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil*


*Notes

I used spices that were within easy reach in my cabinet, and I chose ancho chile powder because we love the bright, fruity flavor of it. You could just as easily use chipotle powder or any kind of bottled chile powder or, as my friend pointed out in her email, even some kind of pre-made taco seasoning. Keep it simple and southwestern, and let the tequila and lime work their flavor magic.

A little oil helps in a marinade, especially when using a very lean meat. My hubby runs the grill pretty hot and I wanted to help protect the chicken tenders from burning or getting dried out. Olive oil is my go-to, but avocado or canola oil would work just as well.


Instructions

Make the marinade first and give the chicken several hours to overnight in the fridge to soak up all the delicious, south-of-the-border flavors. It goes like this:


Grill the chicken on a hot grill (500° F at first, my hubby says), then reduce heat to 350° once you get the grill marks. Chicken tenders are smaller than whole breasts, of course, so they will cook more quickly. Watch them closely and pull them off the grill as soon as the juices run clear.

Hubby gets those perfect grill marks every time! The chicken was so tender, it practically melted in our mouths!

Cut up or shred the chicken tenders (you’ll be shocked at how tender they are!) and serve as desired. We perched them atop cilantro-flavored corn tortillas with crunchy cabbage, radishes, pineapple pico and fresh cilantro.

If you missed my recent post on handmade corn tortillas, follow the link to check that out. I include full instructions and all my best tips for turning out successful tortillas, with or without a tortilla press!


Pineapple Pico

1/2 cup fresh pineapple, cut into tidbit-sized pieces

1/2 cup baby tomatoes, halved or quartered to tidbit-size

2 Tbsp. red onion, chopped

1/2 medium fresh jalapeno, chopped

1/2 ripe avocado, cut into cubes

Juice of 1/2 lime, plus salt and pepper


Thanks for an amazing idea, Michelle! 🙂


Brunswick Stew

After 30-plus years in the Southeast, I’ve come to appreciate many of the traditions, especially the ones related to food. There’s a particularly tasty tradition that occurs here in the fall, when churches, civic groups and Boy Scout troops set up giant, outdoor cast-iron kettles for their Brunswick stew fundraisers. They sign up volunteers, who take turns stirring the simplest of ingredients into a delicious aromatic stew, and folks arrive in droves to enjoy it by the bowl, and to take home quarts for freezing. It’s tradition and it’s delicious.

If you look into some of the old-time church cookbooks, you’d likely find Brunswick stew recipes that begin with fresh-caught rabbits or even squirrels, but (thankfully) my introduction to this homey, comforting soup was a chicken version, and that’s what I’m sharing today.

Brunswick stew is one of those comfort foods that tastes rich and hearty, but checks in on the low end of the fat-and-calories scale. Feel free to swap in other vegetables that suit your fancy—it’s what folks do in different parts of the South and depending on where you are, you might find potatoes, green beans or carrots in the bowl.

You can roast your own chicken if you’d like (overnight in the slow cooker makes amazing broth at the same time), but to keep it quick and simple, I’m using a rotisserie chicken this time, plus packaged broth, a few simple fresh and frozen vegetables, and a can of tomatoes. Whip up some corn muffins while it simmers, and dinner is served.

Can you taste the comfort?

Ingredients

First, the essentials. This is a Southern classic comfort food, so the “holy trinity” of peppers, onions and celery is the foundation of the recipe. Any color bell pepper is fine for Brunswick stew, but I personally find the red and orange bells to be a bit on the sweet side, so I’m using a green bell.

Okra came to the Americas from Africa in the 1600s, and it remains a staple of Southern cooking. You’ll find it in many Cajun and Creole recipes in Louisiana, and it’s not unusual to see it breaded and fried, or even pickled, which I love in a Southern-style potato salad or on deviled eggs. The pectin in okra gives it some thickening power when it’s cooked in liquid, but some people are turned off by the slightly slimy texture. Two things can minimize this: don’t overcook it (for this recipe, it’s added at the end), and cook it in combination with tomatoes, which is what’s happening in this Brunswick stew.

If you make this stew in the late summer or fall, of course you would want to use fresh corn, lima beans and okra.


1 deli roasted chicken, dark and white meat shredded* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

4 stalks celery, trimmed and chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

3 large cloves garlic, chopped

15 oz. can diced tomatoes

2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth

1 bay leaf

2 cups frozen corn

2 cups frozen lima beans

2 cups frozen sliced okra

1/4 cup BBQ sauce

2 to 3 Tbsp. tomato paste

A few shakes hot sauce (optional, Frank’s RedHot or Texas Pete recommended)

Salt and pepper, of course


*Notes

If you prefer to roast your own chicken, more power to you! If you have time to work ahead, you might also want to make your own stock. Or you could make your own stock from the frame of the rotisserie chicken. After de-boning and shredding the meat, toss the bones and skin into a pot with cut-up onions, celery, carrots and just enough water to cover it all. Simmer a few hours then strain out the solids, and you’d have a great alternative to the packaged broth (or, at least, some of it).


Instructions

If the pictures here seem to defy the ingredient amounts listed, there’s good reason for it—on this particular day, I only had half a rotisserie chicken, so I halved the entire recipe. The ratios are the same, and this stew is so satisfying and delicious, I’m already regretting that I didn’t run to the store for another chicken!


  1. Place a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil. Sauté onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic until vegetables are soft and onions are translucent. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, shredded chicken and broth. Add bay leaf, reduce heat and simmer up to an hour.
  3. Add frozen corn and lima beans, but reserve frozen okra until about 20 minutes before serving, to prevent the okra from breaking down too much. Give it a taste and add salt and pepper to your preference.
  4. Stir in BBQ sauce (and hot sauce, if using), and add the okra to the pot. When the bright green color of the okra begins to fade a bit, it’s ready to serve!

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Moroccan Chicken

During earlier years of Food Network, the contestants vying to become “the next Food Network star” were actually given a contract to host their own cooking show, usually slotted for Sunday mornings. That was before the network became its entirely competition-based format, where everything has to be done in 20 minutes and somebody always “wins.” I still watch, but I miss the days when more of the chefs (or cooks, in the case of ever-popular Rachael Ray) walked you through the steps of making a meal in what looked like a real home kitchen. They still have some weekend morning “how-to” shows, but the rest of the time, it’s either a big ol’ showdown, or a bunch of chefs talking in bold color about the food at places they visit (I’m looking at you, Guy Fieri). 😉

Speaking of bold color, I’ve been working on restoring some color to things around here in the tail end of a very gray January. The recipe I’m sharing today has been a favorite of mine since the third season of said “Food Network Star,” and I learned it by watching an episode of the show hosted by Amy Finley, the first woman to win the network’s competition.

Amy’s show, endearingly named “The Gourmet Next Door,” showcased elegantly simple French cooking methods, and Amy exuded confidence in the kitchen. I was disappointed, along with everyone at Food Network, when Amy decided not to return for a second season. During her six episodes of TV fame, she managed to get through to me with this simple and really flavorful recipe, which she said was inspired by the foods of French Morocco, on the northern coast of Africa. The bone-in chicken thighs are marinated in a spicy blend of chiles and seed spices—known in those parts as “harissa”—and surrounded by tender and colorful vegetables, plus dried fruit and fried almonds. If it sounds like a weird combination, trust me, you will change your mind after you taste it. It’s spicy and savory, yet sweet with fruit and wholly satisfying.

For now, the tagine will remain purely decorative. I’ll be on the lookout for a real one that I can actually put in the oven.

Traditionally, a Moroccan dish such as this would be prepared in a clayware vessel called a tagine, which looks like the red pot above. The shape of the tagine keeps moisture inside for perfectly tender roasts and stews. I’ve had this tagine on display for several years, but have only recently considered cooking in it, at the urging of my husband, Les. However, after much discussion with my aunt, who spent decades as a clay potter, we concluded that the finish on this one probably makes it purely decorative and unsuitable for cooking. No worries, I’ve prepared the dish today as I always have, in a simple cast-iron skillet.

This dish is pretty and delicious, as spicy as you want it to be, easy to make and a welcome flavor change-up from the usual weeknight chicken dinner. I hope you like it!

Colorful veggies, dried fruit and nuts make this a satisfying, healthful meal.

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 Tbsp. neutral oil, such as canola

2 tsp. harissa blend spices* (see notes)

4 large bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

1 small sweet onion, chopped into large pieces

1 small zucchini, cut into uniform chunks

1 small yellow squash, cut into uniform chunks

Handful of fresh baby tomatoes, whole

Small handful each dried plums (prunes) and apricots

1/2 cup low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth

1 tsp. neutral oil, such as canola

1/4 cup whole, raw almonds, unsalted

Cooked couscous for serving


*Notes

Traditionally, harissa is presented as a paste made from fresh whole chiles, and it really tips the scale on Scoville heat units. My dry blend of harissa spices allows for some flexibility in the heat department and includes red chile, garlic, black pepper, cayenne, and what I call the “three C spices,” which are caraway, coriander and cumin. The seeds should be slightly toasted and then ground into a rough powder before blending with the other ingredients. If you prefer, substitute a ready-made harissa blend, or use the harissa paste seasoning available at Trader Joe’s (brace yourself, it’s hot). My harissa dry spice blend recipe is listed at the end of this post.

You will need an oven safe skillet with a tight-fitting lid for this recipe. Alternatively, you could make it in an electric skillet with a lid. Or a tagine, if yours is safe to cook in. 🙂


Instructions

Let’s walk through it together in pictures first. You’ll find written instructions below, and keep scrolling for a downloadable PDF version for your recipe files.


  1. Combine the oil and spice blend in a large, deep bowl that is large enough to hold the chicken thighs for marinating. Season the chicken pieces on both sides with kosher salt. Add them to the spice marinade and turn several times to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours.
  2. Preheat oven to 350° F, with oven rack in the center.
  3. Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When skillet is warm (but not hot), add chicken pieces, skin side-down. Do not move or turn the pieces for about 10 minutes, until the fat is rendered and skin is golden and crispy. Cook the second side about 5 minutes, until browned. Remove pieces to a plate and keep warm.
  4. Add the chopped onions, then zucchini and squash to the remaining oil in the skillet, tossing briefly to coat and lightly sauté them. Salt to taste. Remove skillet from heat.
  5. Arrange the baby tomatoes among the skillet vegetables, then tuck in the dried fruit pieces evenly throughout the skillet. Place the chicken thighs on top of the mixture.
  6. Swirl broth in the bowl that held the chicken pieces, to grab all the flavors lingering there. Pour the broth down the sides of the skillet, so that it flows underneath to the vegetables.
  7. Cover the skillet and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for 45-60 minutes, until vegetables and fruit are soft and chicken pieces are tender. Prep the couscous near the end of the cooking time.
  8. Heat teaspoon of oil in a small skillet until it’s quite hot and shimmery. Add raw almonds and toss them about for about two minutes. They will pop and sputter a bit, so be careful. When they are toasty and fragrant, use a slotted spoon to remove them.
  9. Serve the vegetables and chicken over cooked couscous, and spoon the fried almonds over the top.
We’ll keep the tagine in the background, just for effect. 😉

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Harissa Dry Spice Blend

1 Tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes (more or less to your heat preference)

1 Tbsp. granulated dried garlic

1 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper (adds bite with minimal heat)

1 1/2 tsp. whole coriander seed, toasted and ground

1 tsp. cumin seed, toasted and ground

1 tsp. caraway seed, toasted and ground

2 or 3 shakes ground cayenne pepper (adjust to your heat preference)


Just South of Buffalo Wings

It was circa 1977. I was just a kid in a small town south of Buffalo, New York, and I still remember my first bite of the mouthwatering spicy hot chicken wings my Uncle Mike made for me. Mike worked with nightclub sound and lighting systems during those days, which was a big freaking deal, given that we were hanging onto the tail end of the disco era. For his work, Mike traveled into the larger cities where the clubs were, and after an installation at a club in Buffalo, he brought home with him the recipe for these delectably crispy, tangy-hot treats.

And oh my God, did I love them! Clearly, I was not alone.

It didn’t take long for “Buffalo wings” to catch on across upstate New York, and eventually the entire country. Today, though restaurants everywhere have imagined new and unusual sauces for wings, I will forever favor the original flavor of Frank’s RedHot sauce with a side of celery and chunky bleu cheese dressing. Oh, and I can never, ever get behind the idea of breading them—not in flour or batter or crumbs or whatever, though plenty of sites suggest the original 1964 Anchor Bar recipe had them coated in flour and oven-roasted. That sounds suspicious to me, given that I’ve enjoyed them deep-fried for decades. The wings should be crispy, as they were on that hot summer night in ’77, and they should make my eyes water just from the smell of them. Just give me what I want.

Yep, this is exactly how I remember them! (photo from Wikipedia)

The only problem I have with Buffalo wings today is the whole deep-frying thing. I enjoy them, but I can’t indulge in them very often if I want to stay healthy. A few years ago, however, I came across a new technique for preparing wings that promised the same crispy exterior and juicy interior, but without deep frying or any amount of oil at all. Pinch me, I thought; I must be dreaming. And then I tried this simple little hack and it was as if angels were singing inside my head.

Friends, the non-fried wings are 100% as delicious as the crispy deep-fried Buffalo wings I tasted back in the day, and you don’t need an air fryer or any other special gadgets to make them. The big thanks goes to Alton Brown of Food Network. His technique involves steaming the wings to render some of the fat, and then oven roasting them to perfection before tossing them in your favorite sauce. I’ve named these “Just South of Buffalo Wings” because that’s where I’m from, and also because I’ve thrown a twist on the traditional wings, adding a generous blast of black pepper to the usual Frank’s RedHot sauce, and a little bit of brown sugar to balance that bite.

Serve these with fresh celery sticks and some homemade chunky bleu cheese dressing. And a cold beer, duh.


Ingredients

2 lbs. fresh chicken wings* (see notes)

1/2 cup Frank’s Original RedHot sauce*

1/4 stick salted butter

3 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 Tbsp. coconut aminos*

1 tsp. lemon juice

2 or 3 shakes garlic powder

1/2 tsp. black pepper


*Notes

For best results, use fresh (never frozen) wings for this recipe. If they are already split into drummettes and flat pieces, that’s fine. But it’s also OK if they are still whole pieces. I’ve done them both ways, and the only adjustment you may need to make is a bit more roasting time on the whole ones.

There are many newer versions of Frank’s RedHot sauce available today. Get the one that is labeled as the “original.”

Coconut aminos provide some depth of savory flavor to this sauce. It’s a dark-colored, liquid sauce, similar to soy sauce but sweeter and lower in sodium. It is made from the fermented sap of coconut trees, but doesn’t taste at all like coconut. You can find them in the same aisle, or substitute in this recipe with half as much lite soy sauce.


Instructions

I’ll walk you through it with pictures, or you can keep scrolling for more detailed description. There’s also a downloadable version you can print for your recipe files. Begin by setting a steam basket over a pot of gently boiling water.

  1. Bring a couple inches of water to a boil in a medium saucepan fitted with a steamer basket and tight-fitting lid. Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels and place a cooling rack over the towels.
  2. Add the chicken wings to the steamer basket, working in as many as will fit at a time. Steam the wings for 10 minutes, then arrange them on the cooling rack. Repeat with remaining wings and then cool a few minutes at room temperature, allowing most of the steam to dissipate. Cover the baking sheet with foil and transfer the wings to the refrigerator until they are fully chilled, about an hour. This step is important for crisping later.
  3. Preheat oven to 425° F. Remove the chilled wings from the fridge.
  4. Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and heat over medium-low for several minutes, until the sauce is fully blended and slightly thickened. Turn off the burner and cover to keep the sauce warm.
  5. Roast the wings for 40 minutes, turning them once after half the time. The skin should be crispy and golden brown.
  6. Transfer the wings in batches to a large seal-able bowl. Pour enough sauce to coat the wings. Cover the bowl and gently shake to thoroughly coat the wings. Put the wings back into the oven for about 8 minutes to “seal the deal” and bake the sauce into the wings.
  7. Serve with crunchy celery sticks and chunky bleu cheese dressing.
Just South of Buffalo Wings

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Chicken Cacciatore

Genealogically speaking, I don’t believe I have a single Italian bone in my body. Nope—my people came from other parts of Europe and beyond. But I am so in love with Italian food, especially the southern regional dishes, such as layered baked pasta dishes and big red sauces (or “Sunday gravy,” as it would be called). My grandmother taught me some authentic Scandinavian dishes, but I had to do my own research to learn the real deal on Italian flavors, so I could ditch the bland and overly sweet jarred sauces. I’ve learned how to make my own pasta (that’ll be another post), and hopefully I’ll prove today that I can rock a red sauce that is molto buono!

Chicken cacciatore is my “comfort du jour,” moist and oh-so-tender chicken, stewed slowly and thoughtfully with tomatoes and Italian herbs and spices. This is some serious, old-school Italian comfort food right here! I can’t say that I’ve added a twist to this recipe (maybe the bomba?), but if you’ve never made cacciatore before, I hope you’ll find my recipe approachable. You’ve got this—and here’s a quick rundown of what I learned before I made my own.

What’s the big deal about San Marzano tomatoes?

For Italian sauce recipes, there is really no substitute for San Marzano tomatoes. They are super meaty with a perfect acidic-to-sweet balance, and exceptional for the richest Italian sauces. In appearance, they are essentially plum tomatoes and they are the genetic ancestors of the common supermarket Roma, but to be legally called San Marzano, they must be cultivated in the southern region of Italy of the same name, where the climate and rich, volcanic soil work their magic. Are real San Marzano tomatoes worth the extra buck per can? You bet!

What is bomba sauce?

This bomba is the bomba!

Delicious, that’s what! Bomba sauce is typically a paste-like seasoning, centered around dried chile peppers from the southern regions of Italy, mixed with olive oil, spices and vinegar. It’s a pungent condiment that is meant to be used sparingly. Trader Joe’s has its version of the sauce that I absolutely love—it’s unique because the Calabrian chiles are fermented, which lends extraordinary depth and flavor. I’ve added a very small amount to my cacciatore, but it wouldn’t be the same without the bomba.

Can I substitute skinless chicken breast for the chicken thighs in this recipe?

Of course, you can always substitute white meat, skinless or boneless, but the dish will not have as much depth and richness, and you’d need to use extra oil to prevent the meat from sticking in the pan. I choose large, bone-in chicken thighs for this recipe because they’re a perfect portion size and the dark meat is so flavorful. Keeping the skin on allows you to draw every bit of chicken-y goodness into the meal. Also, I only select organic, free-range chicken because birds that have freedom to roam in the fresh air and sunshine are healthier, and you know what they say—we are what we eat.

What flavors are in Italian seasoning?

Italian cooks have always relied on the abundant flavors of fresh herbs. If you pick up any bottle of “Italian seasoning” at the supermarket, you can predictably find it contains the big three—oregano, basil and thyme, but there are many other flavors that play well with Italy’s flavorful sauces and roasted meats. In the north, you’d expect to see rosemary and sage. In the south, spicier flavors like red pepper are prominent. Two of my favorites are marjoram (cousin of mint and very similar to oregano) and fennel seed, which has a floral, slightly licorice flavor. It’s what makes Italian sausage taste special. I make my own “Mama Mia” seasoning blend without salt, and I use the big three, plus garlic, fennel seed and crushed red pepper. It’s good for a little punch of flavor in any Italian red sauce, sprinkled on pizza or mixed with olive oil as a bread dipping condiment. If you want to make mine, the recipe is at the end. Otherwise, substitute as noted in the ingredients.


Serves 4 – Prep in 20 minutes, cook for 90 minutes

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

4 large chicken thighs (bone-in, skin on)

2 large bell peppers, seeded and sliced lengthwise, about 1/4” thin

1 medium-size sweet onion, sliced lengthwise 1/4” thin

4 or 5 cloves fresh garlic, rough chopped or sliced

2 tsp. Mama Mia Italian seasoning blend—or
1/4 tsp. each:  oregano, basil, ground fennel seed, thyme leaves, garlic powder, onion powder, crushed red pepper flakes (this is not exactly the same as my Mama Mia blend, but close)

1 or 2 tsp. Trader Joe’s Italian Bomba hot pepper sauce

Handful Kalamata olives (pitted), rough-chopped into pieces

1/4 cup dry red wine (It doesn’t have to be Italian; I used a CA red blend that was already open)

1 28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes in puree (San Marzano, if possible)

1/2 package linguine (preferably “bronze-cut” for best texture)

Freshly grated parmesan or parm-romano blend, for serving

Small handful Italian flat leaf parsley, cleaned and chopped

A loaf of fresh Italian bread for sopping up every single drop of the sauce


Instructions

  1. Pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel and season both sides generously with kosher salt and black pepper.
  2. Heat a large (12”) cast-iron skillet (or electric skillet) to medium-hot, and swirl in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When oil is just shimmering, place chicken thighs in pan, skin side down, leaving plenty of room between them. Cover the pan (I use a spatter screen) and leave them undisturbed about 7 minutes to allow a deep golden crust to form on the skin. Loosen and turn the thighs and cook until just lightly browned on the other side, about 2 minutes. The chicken will finish cooking later in the sauce. Remove the pieces to a plate and keep warm while you prep the sauce.
  3. If the remaining oil is sputtering or popping in the pan, allow a few seconds for the moisture droplets to cook off. Reduce heat to medium. All at once, add your onions and bell peppers to the pan, and stir them around until they begin to soften. Add the Mama Mia seasoning, plus salt and pepper, over the entire mixture. Add the garlic and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the onions are slightly translucent. Stir in the Kalamata olives, the Bomba sauce and the red wine.
  4. Add the peeled tomatoes, using your hand to squeeze each one into the pan. This releases more of the juices quickly and gives the tomatoes a head start on breaking up. Pour all remaining juice from the tomatoes into the pan, but discard any large basil leaves that may have been included in the can (they’ve already done their job). Add a splash of water (or wine!) to the tomato can to swish out every last bit of flavor in there. Scrape up any browned bits that may be stuck to the pan and stir the mixture until it has a uniform appearance. Cover and allow the mixture to come up to a slight boil.
  5. Add the chicken thighs back to the pan, skin side up, and spoon the tomato mixture lightly over the tops. They don’t need to be buried in it, but you want to moisten them with the flavorful sauce. Cover the pan and reduce heat to medium-low, turning the chicken only twice over the next 90 minutes.
  6. When the sauce is a deep red color and the chicken shreds with a light twist of your fork, reduce heat to warm and prepare your pasta water. Remember to use plenty of water and plenty of salt.
  7. When the salted water reaches a steady boil, add your pasta and stir at once to prevent sticking. Cook to just barely al dente, or a couple of minutes under what seems perfect. You’re going to finish it in the sauce. Before draining the pasta, ladle out 2 to 3 tablespoons of the water into the sauce. This adds the pasta starch to the sauce, which helps “marry” them to coat the pasta better.
  8. Move the chicken pieces to the outer edges of the pan (or remove to a plate if the pan is crowded), making a well of sauce in the center. Drain the pasta and immediately add it to the center of the pot, stirring quickly to evenly coat it in the sauce. I use silicone tongs to do this because I can grab hold of the pasta while moving it. Cover the pan and turn off the heat while you pour another glass of wine and call everyone to the table.
Mangia!

Portion the pasta onto the serving plates, top with a spoonful of sauce, then a chicken thigh, and divvy out the rest of the flavorful sauce. Sprinkle some grated cheese and a bit of fresh chopped parsley on top and enjoy!


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Mama Mia seasoning
(makes about 1/3 cup seasoning blend)

I created my own blend of Italian spices, to customize the flavors we like best at our house. Most of my blends do not contain salt, and this allows more flexibility with different application and better control of the sodium in my dishes. Most of the time, I double the recipe so I always have a jar of the blend at the ready. The beauty of a blend like this one is that you can increase or decrease or even eliminate ingredients based on your taste preference. And every time, it’ll be perfect!

This blend is great for your own Italian red sauce, or add a teaspoon to a puddle of extra virgin olive oil and top with freshly grated parmesan for a flavorful bread dipping oil.

1 Tbsp. whole fennel seed
1 Tbsp. dried minced garlic
1 Tbsp. granulated garlic
1 Tbsp. dried basil leaves
2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano
1 1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
1 1/2 tsp. onion powder

To make it:

Heat a dry skillet (no oil!) over medium high heat and add fennel seeds, swirling the pan constantly for about one minute, until the seeds become fragrant. Remove immediately to a bowl to cool completely, then crush seeds with a mortar and pestle or pulse a few quick times in a spice grinder.

Add all other seasoning to the bowl and stir to combine. Transfer to a jar or empty spice bottle.

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