Oh, chicken! You are so maligned sometimes. You’re the thing people probably order the least in nicer restaurants. And you’re easily relegated to boring and blasé. Sometimes you are cooked into dry oblivion, upon which you, at best, taste like pressed wood chips. To make matters worse, you’re far too humble to ever speak up for yourself. Instead, you wait. You wait for a cook to realize your true potential, and elevate you to your well-earned exalted position. Just as a concept, chicken, you are bland. Commonplace, even. But there are so many way to prepare you, that you possess the versaility other meats simply to not. You can be dressed up, or down, depending on the occasion. Different version of you have legions of loyal followers. Roast chicken. Chicken braised in Riesling. Chicken braised in milk. You can take on so many roles that it is, indeed, unfair to call you boring. Chicken, you are the Meryl Streep of food! There’s no one more versatile than you! [And thus, I end my ode.]
Despite chicken’s apparent versatility, writing excitedly about it, does present a bit of a problem. I think what makes or breaks a chicken dish, in particular, is how you make it. I know that this rule applies to just about everything, but I like think of chicken as the true, great, blank canvas. There’s an endless range of possibilities, but chicken generally needs a bit of direction, be is just a bit of salt and pepper, and roasting; or a more elaborate cooking process. And with a few great ingedients and some gentle prodding, what you can wind up with is nothing short of a miracle.
I’ve been on a harissa kick lately, so much so, that I am thinking of just biting the bullet and making my own. Luisa’s recipe has been on my mind for awhile now, but as per usual, I am slow to get things done. Work, you consume me so! I made this a few weeks ago for a very special dinner. I’ll leave it at that, but suffice to say, I was trying to impress. I was intrigued by the marriage of yogurt, spices and harissa as a marinade for the chicken – I knew, in an instant, this would be fragrant, flavorful, intense. I wanted a chicken dish that wasn’t delicate with its notes; I wanted a bold, daring dish that would hold its own against the carrot salad. And the flavors worked beautifully. The yogurt added a lovely tang that took the heat of harissa and deepened its structure, all the while softening its heat just a bit. I wanted a slightly earthy aftertaste, so I mixed some cumin into my marinade – a decision I was particularly happy about once we tasted the final product. And because there were chickpeas in the salad, I opted to skip them this time around (fearing the mighty chickpea overload), but added some extra onions to roast and flavor the chicken.
I’m always on a lookout for a chicken recipe that will be a real stand-out in a crowd of just-so recipes. I’ve gotten quite lucky with the Riesling one, and this apricot-Sriracha one (among a few), and this will take a place alongside my keeper recipes. If you think that making chicken is a snooze-fest, I implore you not to give the bird a chance – it will play any role you want and will transform itself so much so that you might just exclaim, “This is chicken?!?” and never look back. Except, maybe, to get second helpings.