Food & Drink

Rotisserie chicken again? Not tonight. Upgrade your game in the time it takes to make a grocery run

Roasted chicken thighs, prepared and styled by Shannon Kinsella, in Chicagon on September 11, 2018. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Roasted chicken thighs, prepared and styled by Shannon Kinsella, in Chicagon on September 11, 2018. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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It happens to all of us. We finish our commute after a long day of work with no idea what to have for dinner. All too often, I pop into the local supermarket and settle on a rotisserie chicken. And I mean settle. Dry, bland, boring. Plus, all that plastic packaging feels wrong. We skip the fried chicken on the “hot bar” for nearly the same reason — unseasoned, dry meat.

This fall, I vow to stock up on fresh chicken parts so I have some on hand for weeknight cooking. I time-tested myself: I can roast half a dozen chicken pieces in less than 30 minutes — the same amount of time it takes to drive to the market, pick up a cooked bird and drive back. If I line my roasting pan with foil, the cleanup is barely more than rinsing the plastic containers to recycle.

I’ve gained a lot in those 30 minutes too. The house smells great, the oven warms the room and I have delicious, moist and juicy pieces left over for the next night’s meal.

My absolute favorite cut of chicken? The thigh. The meat has great flavor, stays juicy and reheats well. Thigh meat also tastes terrific pulled into shreds for tacos, sandwiches and salads. Chicken breasts, cooked on the bone and with the skin, come in as a second choice — however, I must be vigilant to find the fine line between too pink and overcooked. Roasting chicken on the convection setting yields crisp skin; use a higher temperature if using a conventional oven setting.

I see little reason to cook boneless skinless breasts. The bone and skin help retain moistness. The time saved cooking proves little, perhaps 10 minutes. If I’m worried about calories, I discard the skin after it has served its purpose of protecting the meat as it cooks.

All a chicken thigh needs for a great outcome is a rub-down with seasonings. Salt and fresh pepper yield versatile meat, but employing all the rubs I procure on vacations and at specialty shops keeps things interesting.

This fall, I’m partial to seasoning chicken with a few old standards: moderately spicy Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning and Old Bay, and aromatic Lawry’s Garlic Salt. If you haven’t used these in a while, give them a go. They’re flavorful and easy to use — just don’t add additional salt.

Trader Joe’s salt-free 21 Seasoning Salute tastes great on roast chicken, as do many of the Chicago-themed spice rubs from The Spice House. When I’m pining for holiday food, I sprinkle the thighs with poultry seasoning and coarse salt. If you are a planner, arrange the chicken on the foil-lined sheet, rub it with seasoning and refrigerate it covered up to 2 days. Then remove it from the refrigerator to warm up a bit while the oven preheats.

You can master fast roast chicken pieces with just a couple of tries. Then, you’ll wonder why you ever settled for supermarket rotisserie chicken.

Now, I’m eager to solve my craving for fried chicken. Fried chicken never goes out of favor — it solves weekday dinner challenges, proves a multigenerational favorite at large gatherings and inspires all manner of innovation. I’m currently crazy about a version I enjoyed at a local sushi spot; the batter was laced with Japanese togarashi spice.

I rarely fry anything, but fried chicken is worth the effort. So much better than takeout, but you’ll need an hour or so in the kitchen. Like oven-roasting, I use bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs for their inherent moistness, uniform shape and size. I practice my fried chicken skills over the weekend when less pressured to get dinner on the table. It gets easier and faster every time.

The key to home-frying is to use the best oil you can — I prefer grapeseed, sunflower and safflower oils for their neutral taste and high smoke point — meaning less odor and lower risk of burning. Expeller-pressed canola oil works, too, but do not use ordinary canola oil, or your house may smell funny for days. I open a window and use the exhaust fan when frying.

The trick to even browning is to keep fussing with the heat under the pan of oil to keep the cooking steady. Watching the bubbles will help: When the chicken first goes into the oil, it should bubble furiously. As the chicken cooks, the bubbles should be at a moderate, steady activity level. Of course, a good countertop deep-fryer, used according to the manufacturer’s directions, removes some of the fuss.

Four chicken thighs fit perfectly in my 10-inch, cast-iron skillet enabling me to use only 2 cups of oil. I like to double-flour my fried chicken for a perfect crust. To feel virtuous, the chicken can be battered and fried sans skin. But at some point, try frying the skin and sprinkling the crispy goodness with a spicy chile blend or hot sauce. It’s fantastic.

Both of these recipes taste good when made with skinless chicken thighs; the cooking time will be the same. If you prefer, boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, be sure to reduce the cooking time by a few minutes.

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