Naked Chicken and Other Rub-Downs
My mother (bless her heart) loves overcooked chicken - and believes everyone else does, too. I remember her valiant attempts at grilling chicken during the first few summers after my father's death in 1982. As always, she was stalwart, determined to be strong in her new role as single parent. Unfortunately, in her efforts to continue some of my father's culinary traditions, she failed miserably as grill mistress.
For starters, she would use only breasts. Any veteran chicken griller will tell you that of all chicken parts, the breast is the leanest and one of the easiest to turn into unrecognizable fossils (if there is such a thing). Of course, grilled boneless breasts are a low-carb counters dream, but that's if you know what you're doing. Lean meat needs little time on the grill, a concept that was (and still is) foreign to my Mom.
She'd plop big bone-in breasts -- three inches thick -- right on the grill, and THEN brush on the barbecue sauce. And they'd sit there, for a good hour or more, morphing into a relative of the tire. I can see my brother Tim's face right now, trying to hide his dread when it was time to eat. (Yes, we were ungrateful little brats.)
In the years since my time at culinary school, I now believe one of the underlying reasons I pursued food as a profession is to learn the things my mother never did (I bet a therapist would have a field day with this one). As a young mother in the 1960s, she was swept away by the fantasy of instant-presto meals that came out of a box. The Bird's Eye and Betty Crocker folks had spun such a believable tale and my mother lapped it right up. Instant mashed potatoes! String beans in a bag! Add water and you'll have stuffing, just like Thanksgiving! But I digress.
As a budding cook, I was determined to get grilled chicken right. Over the years, I have discovered:
* the beauty of the more grill-friendly chicken thigh
* the magical powers of a marinade and/or rub
* how easy it is to create your own rather than buy a bottle of marinade
If you're going to the trouble of making a marinade or rub, be sure it's got a personality. Do it all the way, with flavor intensity and depth, or don't bother. For example, pouring soy sauce over chicken, I suppose, is technically marinating it. By adding a few extra things to the mix - a little sesame oil, some chile pepper and fresh ginger - that soy sauce comes to life, and in turn, infuses the chicken with its new, enhanced flavors.
My favorite marinades come from different parts of the world. For chicken, I love to virtually travel to Jamaica with a jerk rub. Hot and spicy, this rub will fill the house (and the backyard) with its all-spice-heavy perfume.
Although more of a liquid-y solution than a dry rub, tandoori marinade is also heavy on spices that turn a kitchen into an exotic bazaar. Yogurt is used as the medium for an array of aromatics, including cardamom, cumin, coriander and cayenne. You can marinate chicken way in advance, up to 36 hours, and the longer you do it, the more flavorful the grilled results. One note: When ready to grill, pat chicken dry of marinade to minimize fiery flare-ups.
You can also improvise using many of the tandoori ingredients, but without the yogurt, and rub into chicken parts with skin removed. I like to call this naked chicken, which cooks a lot faster without the cushion of fat.
For more how-to explanation, check out a marinade video that I produced a bunch of years ago. (I look so young!)
Have a favorite chicken marinade or rub? Please share in the comments area below.
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