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New American thighs

By SHANNON WATKINS

shannon@southwesttimes.com

 

Ideals, a glossy-cover magazine that didn’t particularly look like a magazine, stuffed with winsome paintings of pristine woods and rustic farms and cozy country churches, all done in faux-Rockwell style, was a staple in my grandmother’s living room.

Full of positive, nostalgic stories with Christian themes and poetry reminiscent of Helen Steiner Rice’s inspirational works (and in some cases, her actual works), it was deemed pretty enough for company and wholesome enough for children to read without fear of being corrupted, and left in a handsome wooden magazine rack for anyone who cared to peruse it.

One of the homilies that I am almost certain came from Ideals was a little story or poem (I can’t remember and Google yields nothing) about the youngest child of the family wanting a drumstick when chicken was served for dinner; father got the breast, mother got something else, and other cuts were distributed on down through big sis and big brother. It was fairly cute and easy to read, and it made me go from a mild preference to a stated passion for drumsticks, simply because I was the youngest in the house, and this was the first time I’d seen someone in print who resembled me in any way. (Given my youthful penchant for modeling myself after literary characters, it’s probably just as well that “Lord of the Flies” never hit the family bookshelf.)

I started adolescence right around that point in the ’80s where the craze for low-fat, high protein boneless, skinless chicken breasts kicked in; so, half due to wanting to seem adult and half due to the fact that everyone in my family decided to go with the cultural flow, I switched to white meat and spent years chewing and chewing and chewing my way through poultry that was, despite our best cooking attempts, apt to be dry, flavorless and tough.

Somewhere in recent times, however, there seems to have been a turnaround in thought, stemming from the homelier corners of the foodie movement and filtering into mainstream cooking: what if dark meat isn’t really all that bad? Aren’t the chicken’s underpinnings worth a second chance? They’re juicier and more flavorful on their own, cheaper, and the right size for one person without a chicken breast’s unwieldy heft and volume. Leave the wings for snacks and the breasts for chicken caesar salad and the necks for gravy, says this school of thought; enjoy the legs for dinner, especially the thighs. It’s almost reminiscent of how lobster began the twentieth century as garbage food and ended it as something you have to take out a second mortgage to enjoy, though hopefully chicken won’t put on such airs before it’s over.

Nowadays, basic chicken thighs are something of a New American classic, and no less than the New York Times has taken up the cause, providing this week’s recipe. Thighs are quite the done thing now, welcomed back into the fold as superior, in their humble way.

Of course this triumphalism of one part of the bird over another is just culinary fashion changing, as it will. I wouldn’t be surprised to crack a copy of Vogue next year and find sulky models tripping down the runway in feathered dresses, gnawing on little bits of poultry under the headline “GIZZARDS, GIZZARDS, GIZZARDS TOP THE SEASON’S TRENDS IN PARIS AND MILAN.” Be honest, you’d like to see it, too.

If you’re cutting calories, you can tear the skin off before you eat them (hand it over to me; I’ll be happy to dispose of it. I tend to think that chicken is really an ambulatory fruit and, like most such produce, the bulk of its nutrition is in the skin. My doctor disagrees.)

If you are eating the skin, though, you can rub some seasonings on the outside, as you prefer – garlic powder, paprika, etc. You can also toss some aromatics in the pan, like herb sprigs or lemon slices or crushed garlic cloves.

These are good with roasted potatoes and a salad, or, if you’re trying to avoid starches, a salad and a vegetable dish like sauteed green beans.

New York Times Pan-Roasted Chicken Thighs

6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (about 2 ¼ lbs.)

kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 475F. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 12” cast iron or heavy nonstick skillet over high heat until hot but not smoking. Put chicken in skillet, skin-side down, and cook 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-high and continue cooking for 12 minutes, keeping chicken skin-side down but rearranging occasionally to make sure heat is distributed evenly over all chicken. Move skillet to oven and cook for 13 minutes more. Pull out, flip chicken over, replace in oven and cook for about 5 minutes more, until skin is crisp and meat is cooked through. (Please don’t make my usual mistake of forgetting that the handle will be hot and you need an oven mitt to grab it, or your palm will resemble what’s in the pan.) Transfer thighs to a plate and let rest 10 minutes before serving.

I personally sort of wonder how long it’s going to be before we slip even lower on the chicken’s anatomy and start eating their actual feet. I once read a memoir of an Italian-American girlhood that involved regularly snacking on them, and they’re a pretty common dish in a lot of countries, including China, Jamaica, Mexico and Korea. Cheap, chewy and readily accessible, I can’t wait to see how they pair with a Dior ballgown.

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