Thursday, March 13, 2014

Week 11: Easy Grilled Thai Chicken

My family loves Thai food and while you might not think that it is appropriate for children, let me tell you that my own offspring have been enjoying Thai food for the last 19 years. That’s when I finished work on my first Travelers’ Tales book, an anthology on Thailand. Working amongst well-traveled writers at that time was intimidating, as I had not seen much of the world, but because I have always had a curiosity about cooking, I began a ritual whereby I learned to cook the cuisine of the country we were working on. As soon as a book was sent off to the printer, we would celebrate with a meal appropriate to that destination.

This was back in 1993 when the internet was still in its infancy for most people, and I actually did research for articles on an old-fashioned microfiche at the library! But those same libraries provided me with cookbooks on international cuisine that allowed me to produce some truly memorable meals. Ten years later, in 2003, when we prepared Travelers’ Tales Thailand for an update, I actually jetted off to Southeast Asia and went to two cooking schools: a three-day affair at the famed Hotel Oriental Cooking School in Bangkok and a weekend course at Mom Tri’s Boathouse in Phuket. It is my most memorable travel experience by far, and Thai food has become one of my favorites, with bold flavors, fresh ingredients and a simplicity that normally requires nothing more than a fork to enjoy.

This recipe was clipped back in 2009 from Issue 86 of Fine Cooking. It is quite simple to prepare, quick to cook, and has an amazing amount of flavor. I should note that the recipe calls for you to marinate the chicken for 2-24 hours, but I only had an hour to throw this together and it was absolutely delicious. I can only image how much more flavorful the chicken would have been given longer to marinade in these wonderful Thai flavors. So if you can remember, just throw it together the night before in a Ziploc bag and you’ll only need 15-20 minutes to cook them up when you are ready for dinner.

While the recipe serves 12 people (great for a party!), it can easily be cut in half for a family dinner. I did make one addition to the recipe—fish sauce— a quintessential Thai ingredient that I felt belonged in the marinade. Don’t be put off by the exotic ingredients, I had no trouble finding the fish sauce and lemongrass at my local Safeway and the I keep dried Thai bird chilis in my pantry (although jalapenos or serranos will also add the requisite heat).  And while it might not quite be time to break out the grill in many parts of the country, feel free to cook this on the stove with a grill pan. The smokiness won’t be present, but the multilayered flavors of the marinade will still shine through.

And apologies for the lack of pictures, we just couldn’t wait to chow down!

Grilled Thai Chicken
1-1/4 cups chopped fresh cilantro (leaves and tender stems)
1 can coconut milk
1/4 cup finely chopped lemongrass (from about 2 stalks)*
12 fresh basil leaves
3 Thai bird chiles, 2 jalapeños, or 2 medium serranos, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons packed brown sugar
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
12 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed
Fresh chopped cilantro for serving
2 limes, cut into wedges for serving

Combine the cilantro with the coconut milk, lemongrass, basil, chiles, garlic, salt, brown sugar, fish sauce, pepper, and coriander in a food processor or blender and purée until smooth. Arrange the chicken breasts in a nonreactive baking dish or other vessel large enough to accommodate them in a snug single layer or place them in a large Ziploc bag. Pour the marinade over the breasts and turn to coat them well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.

Heat a gas grill to medium high or prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire. Grill the chicken (covered on a gas grill) until it has good grill marks on the first side, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the chicken (cover a gas grill) and continue to cook until firm to the touch and completely cooked through (check by making a slice into one of the thicker breasts), 5 to 6 more minutes. Transfer to a platter and let rest for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the fresh cilantro and serve with lime wedges.

*Before chopping the lemongrass, be sure to cut off the spiky green top and enough of the bottom to eliminate the woody core. Peel off a few of the outer layers until you’re left with just the tender heart of the stalk.

Yield: 12 servings

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