There are only two rules of cooking: make it taste good, and cut it small enough to fit inside the average-sized mouth. Good sushi dutifully follows both: chefs transform a 500 pound tuna into succulent, tiny bites. Heat, however, is misunderstood and often assigned a biblical role alongside the aforementioned dictates.
Heat makes certain foods digestible, but we’re beyond the age of the merely digestible. That approach worked miracles for cavemen, but so did beating each other with clubs. Let’s take a look at the humble chicken.
Friday we hit Dons Bogam for the best Korean BBQ in town: slivers of short ribs and marinated sirloin strips bright red and dotted with chili flakes, all tossed on the grill and barely kissed by heat. The result: rare, soft moist, rich morsels that, like a victorious blackjack hand, spark an instant addiction.
For an after dinner drink we strolled a few blocks to Hillstone, a sort of upmarket Houston’s, where I observed the open kitchen, with special focus on the grill guy. The 28th street Hillstone grill man is a miniscule cog in a giant national chain; someone who daily straps on the tongs and follows orders from a faraway command center, which orders him to treat food caveman style: heat plus ingredient comes to Park Avenue. So it’s not his fault that he treats the food brutally, throwing it all on the grill with all the concern of a defeated high school teacher.
Chicken must be treated with delicacy. And I don’t mean necessarily a sous vide bath, though that’s a nice method. The meat must be transformed into something as tasty as possible rather than simply heated. And it can be as simple as poaching a breast in stock (chicken soup) to produce a soft, shreddable, moist piece of chicken.
Unless you’re poaching, with chicken you have two things to consider: skin and flesh. Crisping the skin on a salmon filet without overcooking, is pretty simple, a feat not as easily replicated with a piece of chicken. Because chicken has to be cooked through, by the time the inside’s done, the skin is easily burned. Conversely, if you’re too wary of skin ruination, you could have a well-cooked interior encased inside a rubbery skin flap.
The chicken thigh is the answer to your prayer. It can be overcooked and still moist; has a significant skin coating; and, meatier than the ubiquitous wing, can serve as an entrée. We tried a few cooking methods, and found that an oven is not ideal. For a crackling skin you need to keep the pan (covered) over the fire throughout the cooking process. If you don’t have a large enough lid, slap a piece of foil over it or, for a slightly inferior but still tasty product, brown the chicken skin down and stick it in a high oven.
It saddens me to watch cooks treat chickens like the neighborhood stray. What goes on night after night at Hillstone is depressing, but should inspire you to buy your own bird and do it at home.
Sticky Chicken Thighs
Serves 4 as an entrée with rice or Thai noodles
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup fish sauce
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup water
1 tablespoon chili flakes
8 large chicken thighs
1/4c cup canola oil
small handful peanuts, chopped
small handful mint or cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper
- In a small pot whisk first 5 ingredients and reserve.
- Season thighs with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large pan over medium high heat. When shimmering, gently add the chicken skin down, pressing each one to assure contact with pan. Cover the pan and cook until done, about 15 minutes, checking occasionally to assure the skin isn’t burning. (turn down heat if necessary).
- Meanwhile, bring the sauce to a boil over high heat, turn heat to medium and reduce to a syrup. You should have about ½ cup by the time the chicken’s done.
- When the chicken’s perfect, pour syrup into the pan and use tongs to roll the pieces in the glaze.
- Turn onto a platter, scatter with peanuts and mint or cilantro and serve.