Chicken Dark Meat Excels on Grill

Moist and flavorful, dark meat works better on the grill, especially with jerk seasoning.

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Cooked and Seasoned Whole Chicken

Jamaicans know something most Americans choose to ignore: Dark-meat chicken is much better for grilling than white-meat chicken breasts. Thighs, drumsticks and leg quarters have more flavor, a slightly higher fat content and a substance called collagen that makes these parts better suited to the hot, direct heat of a grill.

The collagen melts during the cooking process, keeping the dark meat moist and flavorful. Even if slightly overcooked, dark-meat chicken doesn't seem quite as tough and dry as a chicken breast.

The Jamaican specialty of grilled meats with jerk seasoning (practically a national dish) is much better with whole chicken legs (or pork) than with chicken breasts. Dark-meat chicken stands up to bold marinades and seasoning. (Jerk seasoning is peppery, sure, but its distinctive touch is ground allspice berries. Allspice trees grow all over the island of Jamaica.)

For decades, American poultry producers have exported a lion's share of dark-meat chicken parts to other countries, such as Jamaica, or wherever it's appreciated.

Dark-meat chicken parts need longer on the grill than breast meat (especially bone-in leg quarters) but the total time involved is still less than one hour, even if cooked from the raw state over glowing coals.

Some cooks prefer to save grilling time by microwaving dark-meat chicken until partially done, then immediately transferring it to finish over the coals. This is risky because microwaves tend to make chicken a bit chewy and tough. Also, it's risky to partially cook meat and finish it later, due to continuing harmful bacterial growth in partially cooked meats and the resulting food-borne illness.

So why not take the time to cook dark-meat chicken from the raw state low and slow on the grill? It will probably taste better if the fire is moderate, and the meat will surely be more tender than if microwaved first. Properly grilled, dark-meat chicken is good to the bone.

When grilling chicken over charcoal, light coals and then divide the bottom of the grill into three sections: one section with no coals, a middle section with a single layer of coals and a third section with twice as many coals as the middle section.

As recommended by the National Chicken Council, begin cooking chicken on the hottest section (the one with the most coals), and then move to the middle or other side of the grill to finish cooking.

If using a gas grill, start by searing the chicken over medium-high heat. Then turn off a burner and place chicken over that burner to continue grilling on the indirect heat.

Always use a meat thermometer to gauge doneness of chicken. Bone-in parts should reach an internal temperature of 170 degrees; boneless and skinless parts about 160.

Pan-Asian Chicken Escabeche

Try this recipe for chicken thighs that was created by the Illinois Institute of Art Cooking School in Chicago.

Ingredients:

6 chicken thighs, boneless, skinless
1 Tbsp. Chinese five-spice powder
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt, divided
1 tsp. black pepper, divided

Vegetable Salad:

1 red and 1 yellow bell pepper, seeded, quartered
1 jalapeño, seeds discarded
two 5-oz. cans water chestnuts
1 peeled carrot, cut in 1-inch chunks
1 English cucumber, skin on, cut in chunks
2 radishes, halved
1 red onion, quartered
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. each chopped cilantro and parsley

Preparation:

Marinating time: 1 hour or overnight
Grill time: 12 to 15 minutes

In a large plastic zipper bag, combine five-spice powder, one tablespoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and pepper. Add chicken thighs, seal and turn to coat. Marinate chicken in the fridge for an hour up to overnight.

While chicken is marinating, prepare the vegetables for same: Place bell pepper pieces (red and yellow), jalapeño, drained water chestnuts, carrot, cucumber, radishes and red onion (or a Vidalia) in bowl of food processor with steel blade in place. Rough-chop by pulsing or julienne vegetables by hand.

Transfer vegetables to a large bowl. Add garlic, lime juice, 1/4 cup olive oil, remaining 1/2 tsp. salt and pepper. Place bowl in fridge and allow to sit for one hour or overnight.

When ready to grill, prepare a gas or charcoal grill. Drain marinade from chicken and discard. Place chicken thighs on grill and cook, turning, until done throughout; about six minutes per side. Cool and shred meat coarsely with two forks back-to-back.

Add chicken to vegetable salad mixture. Add cilantro and parsley; stir well to combine.

Yield: 4 servings

-- Illinois Institute of Art Cooking School, Chicago

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