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Chicken thighs often need a tasty boost from seasonings. Experiment with such preparations as harissa and celery seed, nine spice blend and Vietnamese flavors.

If you asked the 7-year-old me back in 1973, my favorite thing to eat in the whole wide world was the two-piece fried chicken dinner from Roy Rogers (it’s where I had my birthday party that year). I’d tear into that crispy sheath of skin, toss the fried floury coating into my mouth like popcorn, then work my way all down to the bones. It was gustatory bliss every time, and a world removed from the rubber chicken breasts regularly served at home.

My mom was a member of the white meat-only club, which means I didn’t get to know the mysterious chicken thigh until I went to college. I could hardly believe it when I got my hands on my first chicken thigh; it actually tasted like chicken! I never turned back.

No matter which part of the bird you’re partial to, you probably know that chicken (as well as turkey) is less marbled with fat than beef, pork or lamb, and therefore needs help in the seasoning department. Thighs are tidy and compact cuts, and as such, are a snap to roast or throw onto the grill. But they really benefit from some time sitting in an assertive marinade. As a flavor chameleon, chicken will happily absorb assertive spice rubs and sauces, rewarding the cook with next-level morsels.

What follows are three of my favorite ways to turn that rubbery chicken frown upside down. Ready, set, marinate.

VIET-STYLE CHICKEN THIGHS

This is a riff of a recipe from Vietnamese cookbook author Andrea Nyugen, who’s a font of knowledge on the cookery of her parent’s homeland. I have used the template that follows to marinate tofu and zucchini on the grill. It’s one of these recipes I keep in a little black book (literally) in my kitchen for when the mood strikes. Amounts can be doubled.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1½ teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 3/4 pounds chicken thighs

Directions:

1. In a small bowl, stir together everything (except for the chicken) with fork until the salt and sugar are mostly dissolved.

2. Place the chicken in a bowl or container.

3. Pour on top of the chicken and rub all over until evenly coated.

4. Cover and marinate for a minimum of one hour and up to 24 hours.

5. When ready to cook, preheat the oven (or grill) to 400 F.

6. Remove the chicken from the marinade and arrange on a sheet pan or in a shallow roasting dish in a single layer.

7. Cook for 30 minutes and check for doneness; you likely will need more time. You’re looking for clear juices and a good level of browning on both sides.

8. Feel free to turn on second side and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

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Chicken thighs are tidy, compact cuts that are easy to season and either roast or throw onto the grill.

HARISSA AND CELERY SEED CHICKEN THIGHS

Adapted from “Zahav” by Michael Solomonov and Steven Wood.

Amounts can be halved or doubled.

This marinade combo is a kitchen staple and depending on what I have in the freezer, I will use it for thighs or a whole chicken (which is what the original recipe calls for). The addition of celery seeds is genius and pops even the next day when you are eating cold chicken from the fridge. Use your favorite prepared harissa, which has become easier to find on supermarket shelves.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon celery seeds
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons prepared harissa
  • 4 pounds chicken thighs

Directions:

1. In a small prep bowl, stir together the celery seeds and salt.

2. Place chicken in a bowl or container. Rub marinade all over the chicken.

3. Apply the harissa until evenly coated.

4. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

5. When ready to cook, preheat the oven or grill at 400 F.

6. Transfer the chicken to a sheet pan or shallow roasting dish and arrange in a single layer.

7. Cook for 30 minutes and check for doneness; you likely will need a little more time. You’re looking for clear juices and a good level of browning on both sides.

8. Feel free to turn on second side and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

NINE SPICE CHICKEN THIGHS

Adapted from “The Palestinian Table” by Reem Cassis.

The first thing I made from this beautiful book is Cassis’ chicken and potato in nine spice, which is a homey casserole with potatoes and lots of whole garlic. For the purposes of this story, I stripped it down to its chicken-thigh studs, but if you’re hankering for some roasted potato coziness, quarter a few and sneak them into the pan. (There’s plenty of spice mix to go around.)

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon nine spice mix (or prepared baharat); recipe follows
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2½ pounds chicken thighs

Directions:

1. In a small prep bowl, stir together the nine spice, salt and olive oil until well blended.

2. Place chicken in a bowl or container.

3. Pour marinade on top of chicken and rub until evenly coated.

4. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

5. When ready to cook, preheat the oven or grill to 400 F.

6. Transfer the chicken to a sheet pan or shallow roasting dish and arrange in a single layer.

7. Cook for 30 minutes and check for doneness; you likely will need a little more time. You’re looking for clear juices and a good level of browning on both sides.

8. Feel free to turn on second side and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

NINE SPICE MIX

Adapted from “The Palestinian Table” by Reem Cassis.

Makes 1 3/4 ounces.

If you’re familiar with the Middle Eastern spice blend known as baharat (also known as seven spice), this is a variation on the theme, with nine spices. If you find yourself slightly short of the exact amounts listed, don’t fret; this is a spice mixture that invites improvisation. As much as I love the bright pungency of dried mace, the lacy netting surrounding the nutmeg seed, that’s probably the one spice I’d worry the least about.

The amounts below have been reduced in half from the original recipe. You will have plenty to play with after marinating chicken thighs. I love it rubbed on salmon and shrimp; it’s also a knockout stirred into rice and coating roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash. Since I keep finding uses for it, I’m doubling the amounts and making the full recipe. It’s become my new favorite spice blend (and yes, it’s worth the extra step of toasting the spices).

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons allspice berries
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 1½ tablespoons (or 1 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons) coriander seeds
  • 1½ teaspoons black peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 5 cloves
  • 1 blade of mace
  • 1/4 nutmeg, crushed

Directions:

1. Place all spices in a large skillet set over medium-low heat, stirring to avoid burning. 2. Toast until some of the spices turn golden and the kitchen smells good, 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl to completely cool, about 1 hour.

4. Place in a spice grinder (or an electric coffee grinder designated for spices) until powdery. Store in an airtight container.

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