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Versatile and flavorful chicken thighs can be used to create countless different meals for a busy cook. Photo by Sue Doeden

Chicken thighs: Eat some now, freeze some for later

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These days, it seems we're all looking for meals that are quick to prepare, economical and healthful. It's not much different from the kinds of meals my mom used to search for so many years ago. When I was in elementary school, my mom was one of the few in our neighborhood who worked outside the home full time. She would often get a head-start on an evening meal by doing much of the preparation the night before. When she got home from work, it would take less time and effort for her to put a hot, healthful meal on the table for our family.

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Sometimes my mom would prepare large pots of soups and sauces on the weekend, then package them for the freezer. Putting the big chest freezer to good use was another one of her tactics for making her life less stressful.

When my life gets frenzied, I often put some of my mom's stress-busting strategies to work.

A few years ago, I spotted a package of boneless and skinless chicken thighs at the grocery store. Normally, I would shun chicken thighs in favor of the whiter chicken breasts, but with no skin or bones, the darker meat became a little more appealing. I was pleasantly surprised by the moist, flavorful dark meat. With no bones, the thin cutlets cooked in very little time.

Chicken thighs aren't all that pretty to look at, but the dark meat of the chicken thigh has deeper flavor and is typically less expensive than boneless and skinless chicken breasts. Once cooked, they are moist and tender.

I often buy a bunch of chicken thighs and, after I've trimmed them, I cut them in half and put them in a marinade. As they bathe overnight in a mixture made with lots of fresh lemon juice, chicken broth, olive oil and some of my favorite seasonings, they become tenderized and soak up wonderful flavor.

I like to cook the marinated chicken thighs in a cast-iron skillet. Just a few minutes on each side turns them golden brown. Once the meat has cooled, I divide the cooked thighs evenly among four freezer-strength zip-top bags. I label the bags and put them in the freezer where they can stay for up to three months.

On days when it's after 5 p.m. and I'm short on time, I can pull a bag of those chicken thighs from the freezer and create a meal as simple or as extravagant as I wish, in little time and with almost no effort.

Meal options are endless when you've got some of these Now and Again Chicken Thighs in the freezer. First, allow time for the meat to thaw in the refrigerator. The chicken thighs can be shredded and stuffed into soft tacos, scattered over a plate of nachos or folded into an omelet. Cut the chicken into chunks and make a pot of chicken a la king. Stir the chunks into a bowl of cooked couscous with a few of your favorite vegetables and some crumbled feta. Or, heat some of the thawed thighs and layer the meat in sandwiches with veggies and spread. And don't forget about a quick stir-fry made with any vegetables you have in the refrigerator. The cooked thighs can be the last ingredient added to the wok. Once they're heated through, the meal is ready.

Now and Again Chicken Thighs are just what every busy after-5 kitchen needs for the start of several economical, healthful and delicious meals.

Now and Again Chicken Thighs

16 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 2 1/2 pounds), trimmed, cut in half

2/3 cup olive oil plus 2 tablespoons for the pan

1 cup chicken broth

1 cup fresh lemon juice or white wine

1 teaspoon paprika

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

Combine 2/3 cup olive oil, chicken broth, lemon juice, paprika, Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and garlic in blender and process to blend. Place chicken in non-metallic bowl or large zip-top bag. Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the marinade sauce and set aside. Pour remaining sauce over the chicken. Toss to thoroughly coat chicken with sauce. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to overnight. If using a bag, seal tightly and place in a bowl before refrigerating.

Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Remove chicken thighs from marinade. Cook the chicken in batches, for 3 to 4 minutes on each side or until cooked through. Remove from the pan. Add the reserved marinade to the pan and cook for a couple of minutes or until slightly thickened. Pour into a bowl and allow to cool.

To freeze, allow the chicken to cool. Divide chicken and sauce evenly into 4 freezer-strength zip-top bags or airtight containers. Label and freeze for up to 3 months. Before reheating, place the chicken in refrigerator and allow to thaw completely.

Tips from the cook

--I use tongs to pull the chicken thighs from the marinade. I set the meat on paper towels to drain before adding them to the hot skillet.

--Boneless and skinless chicken thighs can be found in most grocery stores and meat markets.

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