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!



“Air Fryer” Jerk Chicken Wings

After much discussion, and consideration of all the newfound extra space in our remodeled kitchen, my husband and I have finally decided for certain on the matter of an air fryer.

Several of our friends with air fryers have extolled the virtues of their machines and enticed us with descriptions of the ultra-crispy and mouthwatering dishes they have produced with them. We got the rundown on the various styles and sizes and functions, and even made a special trip to Williams-Sonoma to compare the features for ourselves and measure and imagine exactly where we’d put such a device in our newly remodeled kitchen.

And after all that planning and considering, our final decision was that, well, we didn’t need one after all.

Most of the foods our friends described were not the kind of things we imagined we’d really make at home (though crispy French fries with minimal oil sounds pretty darn good), and when we really dug in to learn how air fryers work, we realized that we already have a version of an air fryer in our full-sized electric convection oven. If we use the convect-roast or convect-bake setting, in combination with a higher temperature, the effect is nearly the same as in an air fryer, at least for the foods we expected we would actually make. And to prove it (to ourselves as much as anyone else), we made these crispy chicken wings, using a tried-and-true method I learned from Food Network’s Alton Brown.

Tons of spicy flavor, without all the grease or drippy sauce of the usual Buffalo wings.

This method differs from others because it involves first steaming and chilling the wings, a process which renders excess skin fat so that better crisping can take place in the oven. No oil is required because there is plenty of natural fat remaining in the chicken skin. Roasting them at high temperature further tightens the skin, and you are left with a crispy-crunchy exterior and tender, juicy meat inside.

With football’s biggest game only days away, I thought it would be appropriate to share a different kind of wing recipe—one that packs plenty of flavor and as much heat as you want, but without the same old “Buffalo” flavors. These wings are covered in Jamaican jerk seasoning, featuring allspice, scallions, scotch bonnet peppers and brown sugar, which may sound complex, but I used a ready-made jerk rub that is easy to find in stores. The flavors are intense but not overpoweringly hot, and because we like to dip our wings into a dip or sauce, I made an easy mango and red pepper chutney to go with them.

I’ve made steamed and roasted wings before, but without convection and usually for my Just South of Buffalo Wings (which are still a favorite at our house). We also have done the jerk flavor wings many times, but usually on the grill during the summer months. This time, we combined methods and flavors and put the convection method to the test. As you’ll see, it passed with flying colors, and the convection chopped nearly 15 minutes off the previous steamed-and-roasted recipe. No need for one more appliance here!

This recipe is written for 16 pieces, but it should be very easy to double or triple as needed.


Ingredients

8 whole chicken wings (trimmed and cut into flats and drummettes if desired)

4 Tbsp. prepared jerk rub (a wet version from a jar)

2 Tbsp. canola, avocado or peanut oil (to thin the jerk rub)

1 Tbsp. light brown sugar

1 Tbsp. dark rum (preferably Jamaican)


Mango-Red Pepper Chutney

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

2 scallions, chopped (white and green parts)

Kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 cup mango, chopped (fresh or frozen, thawed)

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

2 Tbsp. dark Jamaican rum


Instructions

  1. Set a lidded steamer basket over a pot with about two inches of water and bring it to a low boil.
  2. Spray the basket with oil and arrange the chicken wings in it, overlapping them so that the rising steam can permeate the whole batch. Cover the steamer and keep at a low boil for about 10 minutes.
  3. Transfer the steamed wings to a parchment-lined baking sheet and rest until they are cooled to near-room temperature. Cover and refrigerate the wings for at least one hour or up to overnight.
  4. Preheat oven to 425° F on a convection setting, with oven rack in the center position. Spray a cookie cooling rack with oil and set over a foil-lined cookie sheet. Arrange wings on rack, with space between the pieces to allow easy air flow.
  5. Convect-roast for 15 minutes (or regular roast for 20 minutes). While wings are roasting, make the mango-pepper chutney.
  6. After 15 minutes, turn wings to roast the other side 15 more minutes (or 20 for regular roast setting). The wings should be nicely browned all over and the skin on the wings should appear tight but not too dry.
  7. During the second half of roasting, combine jerk wet rub seasoning, canola oil, brown sugar and rum in a large bowl. Whisk until evenly combined.
  8. Toss wings in the bowl of jerk rub, spooning the seasoning over any unglazed areas. Return the wings to the rack on the cookie sheet and roast about 3 more minutes to set the glaze in the oven.
  9. Serve immediately with the mango-pepper chutney.

Mango-Red Pepper Chutney Instructions

  1. Place a small saucepan over medium heat. Swirl in oil and saute peppers and scallions, just long enough to soften them. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Add the cut-up mango pieces and stir until the mixture is heated through. Stir in brown sugar, vinegar and rum. When mixture begins to bubble, reduce heat and cover, simmering until thickened. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.



Ratatouille Lasagna Roll-ups

The summer season brings all the garden-fresh vegetables I love, including zucchini and eggplant, which I would definitely be growing in our little garden plot if it weren’t for the deer. Year after year, I have tried in vain to grow my own veggies, and the increase of deer activity on our property and that of our neighbors has been almost humorous. Almost.

Gardening, for me, started as a fun, nature-loving adventure but has rapidly declined into a frustrating drama, and now we have this elevated box in our yard, where we cannot grow anything but marigolds and basil, which have proven to be the only things our local deer detest. Last year’s garden was demolished, right down to the flowers and budding fruit of the eggplants and even the jalapeno pepper plants (which I had been told deer would never eat). We have tried all the folk remedies on the internet—human hair, shavings of bar soap, peppermint oil, so-called deer repellent, and even a weird concoction I made from rotten eggs, cayenne and dish soap. That last remedy had near-catastrophic results, but I won’t embarrass my husband again with that story (you can read it here, if you’d like). This year, we didn’t even bother planting a garden, and I’m contemplating turning the raised bed into some kind of wildflower bed. I get exasperated just thinking about it.

To make up for a lack of homegrown veggies, we are regularly visiting our weekly Cobblestone farmers’ market, which features a variety of vendors offering fresh produce as well as pastured meat, eggs, organic mushrooms, jams and preserves, and even handmade alpaca wool products. It’s a fun way to spend an hour on a Saturday morning, and this past weekend, we came home with everything I needed for a new batch of ratatouille. Ah, my favorite veggie-centered summer meal!

Classic ratatouille ingredients = zucchini, eggplant, pepper, onions (leeks this time), tomato and herbs de Provence!

Me being me, though, I cannot simply chop up these ingredients and make a “traditional” ratatouille, which would be a rustic casserole-meets-stew kind of thing. I have to twist it up! My culinary muse inspired me this time to combine the French classic dish with another favorite comfort food—lasagna. I figured that I could infuse my herbs de Provence seasoning into a ricotta mixture with lemon zest and some grated cheese and that it would be the “glue” to hold the other ingredients together inside a rolled-up lasagna noodle. The eggplant and zucchini would be sliced and roasted, and the red pepper would be worked into the sauce. This is how my mind sees a pile of ingredients, and the end result was exactly as I had imagined, both visually and in perfect summer flavor. Delicious!

Inside, you can see and taste all the flavors of a summer ratatouille!

This reimagined one-dish meal took mostly time to put together; it was not at all difficult. I cannot say definitively how much time is needed because I was cooking all day, in between work emails and other home tasks. I will say that it was mostly passive time; I was either waiting for things to lose moisture or to finish roasting or to boil or bake. The rest was just slicing, chopping and stirring, and there’s no particular order that must be followed. You could even make everything a day ahead and just assemble and bake it the next day.


The entire ratatouille-meets-lasagna project weaved itself nicely into my busy day, and because each ingredient received its own treatment, the simplest way I can describe it is to share the process of each component. I’ll share a PDF version of the recipe at the end if you want to try it, but I’ll let the pictures tell the story in today’s post. Here we go! 🙂


The Ricotta Filling


The Eggplant


The Zucchini


The Red Bell Pepper


The Onions


The Tomatoes

The only classic ratatouille ingredient remaining is tomato, and though my ingredients photo displays a big, lovely heirloom tomato from the farmers’ market, I thought better of it when I began cooking my ratatouille. The heirloom tomato would have been full of seeds and too juicy for this dish, so I cast it aside and used half a can of San Marzano tomatoes instead to produce a fusion sauce, together with the roasted red pepper and a healthy dose of garlic. This sauce was similar to the roasted red pepper sauce that my husband, Les, discovered last year, but it leans more toward tomato than pepper. It was exactly what this recipe needed.


Putting it all together

Assembling and finishing my ratatouille lasagna roll-ups was a cinch! I par-cooked the lasagna noodles until they were soft and flexible, spread the ricotta mixture onto them, layered the eggplant, zucchini and leeks and rolled them up!


First ratatouille of the summer! 🙂

Oh, and that plump, juicy heirloom tomato I mentioned found its way instead to a BLT, which we enjoyed as a separate meal on freshly baked sourdough bread with local greens and some pastured pork bacon (also from the farmers’ market).

Who needs a garden, anyway? 😉



Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Every now and again, I accidentally cross paths with a recipe that has so many uses I have no choice but to add it to my repertoire. This is one of those sauces, and I can thank my husband, Les, who discovered this one last fall, tucked inside an email he received from New York Times Cooking. The sauce was intended for some kind of “couscous cake,” which sounds interesting for another day, but Les trusted his instinct to believe it a perfect dipping sauce for his spinach ball appetizer recipe, and indeed it was.

First time making the red pepper sauce to accompany these, and it was fantastic!

As Les and I have repurposed this flavorful sauce for various uses, I have laughed to myself recalling an inside joke from the “Pinch” kitchen, which was how the staff usually referred to A Pinch of Thyme, the catering company where I spent my spare time for about two years. In the Pinch kitchen, it did not matter what kind of sauce you were preparing—it might have been one of the fancy French “mother sauces,” such as a hollandaise or béchamel or velouté, or maybe even a turkey gravy or a cheese fondue—if it was sauce of any type, Chef Rodney had a code word for it: “weez.” I imagined that the moniker might have been adapted from the name of the overly processed spread known as “Cheez Whiz,” but Rodney never confirmed that. It was amusing though, and we all secretly looked forward to the recipes that required creation of a weez, just because it was a funny word to say.

There was such irony in those scenes; while my friend Tammy, the Pinch events manager, was on the phone selling clients on the elegance of a dish such as filet mignon with béarnaise, Rodney was in the kitchen offering instruction for making a “tarragon weez.” He definitely kept things interesting.

This roasted red pepper weez is simple to make, which is surprising, given its depth of flavor and incredible versatility. The sauce begins in the oven, with the roasting of red bell peppers, a tomato and two whole bulbs of garlic, and it’s finished in the blender, where those ingredients come together with a splash of red wine vinegar, olive oil and the smallest kiss of maple syrup. The result is perfectly balanced and utterly addictive.

Easy, weezy, and delicious! 😊

Did I eat some of this yummy sauce straight from the spoon? Maybe. 😉

Adapted from Giant Couscous Cake with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Recipe makes about 2 cups

Ingredients

2 medium red bell peppers

1 Roma tomato, halved and seeded

1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil, divided

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 bulbs roasted garlic (link to this post for easy DIY instructions)

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 tsp. real maple syrup (or substitute honey)


 Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Cut the bell peppers into segments, along the natural lines of the fruit. Discard the seeds and membranes. Lay the tomato halves and pepper segments, skin side up, on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush all pieces with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Roast about 40 minutes, until the skins on the peppers are nicely charred.
  3. Transfer the tomatoes and pepper segments to a bowl. Cover the bowl and set it aside for several minutes, giving the skins time to soften for easy release.
  4. Once cooled, carefully peel the skins off the peppers and tomato halves. Transfer them to a food processor or standard blender. I do not recommend a “smoothie” blender for this step, because you will need to drizzle oil in later. An immersion blender would also work. Pulse a few times to chop the peppers and tomatoes into smaller pieces. Carefully squeeze in both bulbs of roasted garlic.
  5. Add the red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and maple syrup. Pulse a few times, then run processor or blender continuously while drizzling in the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Transfer sauce to a jar or bowl.


This roasted red pepper sauce has so many easy uses, from appetizers to pasta to pizza and more. It will keep in a jar in the fridge for a couple of weeks, though we have not been able to make it last that long at our house. Next time, we will make a double batch!