The idea for this recipe was sparked by the most mundane of tasks – a trip to the grocery store. I’m always on the lookout for healthy items that can be prepared with minimal effort for weeknight dinners. On this particular trip, I noticed a display case with packages of bone-in chicken thighs with a chile rub already applied. The instructions said to bake in a preheated 375° oven for about 40 minutes.
Terrific idea, I thought! I took them home and, a few nights later, popped them into the preheated oven for the specified amount of time. Voila! Combined with a couple of easy-to-make sides I threw together while the thighs were roasting, dinner was done!
Now, being the sort of person who assumes that any prepared food that possesses the winning trifecta of being quick to prepare, healthy, and good tasting won’t be available for long (case in point: I no longer buy my old go-to jarred tomato sauce because it now has added sugar), I immediately started to consider how to replicate the idea at home.
The first task was to develop a recipe for a rub. I decided to base mine on the spices in a barbecue sauce that I’ve long used. It includes salt, paprika, black pepper, and garlic and chili powders, all typical rub ingredients.
The less expected ingredients consist of allspice, cinnamon, and turmeric (which is a kitchen staple in India but widely available in the United States). I included those spices not only for their great colors and flavors but also for their healthful properties. Allspice provides antioxidants, which help fight cell damage and inflammation caused by free radicals in the body. Cinnamon can help balance blood sugar. Turmeric does both.
I recommend using whole spices whenever possible and grinding them into powders just before you make the rub. This is more economical (since ground spices tend to be more expensive than their whole counterparts), plus grinding them ensures that they are as potent as possible (spices start losing their aromatic flavors after they are ground). I grind mine in an old coffee grinder that I bought in law school.
The only spice you are unlikely to find in whole form is turmeric. Fresh turmeric is similar in appearance to small pieces of ginger but is very difficult to grind. For this reason, it is mostly sold in ground form. Ground turmeric has a beautiful golden yellow color. Most large grocery stores carry it in their spice section.
Finally, because the rub can last a long time in a jar in a cupboard in your kitchen, you can double or triple the recipe so that you’ll always have some on hand.
A few nights after I made the rub, I tried it out. I combined two tablespoons of the rub mixture with two tablespoons of olive oil, and then I slathered the paste over 4 bone-in chicken thighs with the skin removed. I placed the thighs on a foil-lined sheet pan, which I transferred to a 375° pre-heated oven. Forty minutes later (during which time I prepared a couple of side dishes, set the table, answered a few homework questions, and read some emails), they were done.
Dinner that night was a success. The food was good, information about the day was unusually forthcoming, and cleanup was at a minimum. Best of all my kids asked me to make the same dinner again the following night. To borrow an idea from a recent Mark Bittman column, even a small thing can make a difference.
Chile Rubbed Chicken Thighs
- 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt (or 1 tablespoon regular salt)
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons peppercorns (or 2 tablespoons ground black pepper)
- 1 small dried ancho chile (or 2 tablespoons commercial chili powder*)
- 1 teaspoon allspice (whole or ground)
- 1 inch piece of cinnamon stick (or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon)
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
Ingredients for Chile Rubbed Chicken Thighs:
- 2 tablespoons chile rub mixture
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 bone-in chicken thighs
Directions for the Chile Rub:
- If using a dried ancho chile, use a knife or scissors to cut it open. Remove and discard the stem, seeds and any membranes. Tear the dried chile into smaller pieces and place them in a spice or coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices.** Grind the pieces until they have become a powder. Transfer the contents of the grinder to a bowl.
- If using coarse sea salt or any other dried spices, place them in the coffee grinder and grind until they have become a powder. Transfer the contents of the grinder to the bowl with the chile powder.
- Add all remaining ingredients (including any salt and/or spices that were not ground to a powder in the spice or coffee grinder) to the bowl. Gently whisk the contents until they are thoroughly blended and each component of the rub is evenly incorporated throughout the mixture. You should have about 1/2 cup of rub.
- Store in a recycled glass jar in the cupboard for up to six months.
*Most chili (not chile) powders you will find at the grocery store consist of ground chiles mixed with other spices (as well as preservatives and pouring agents). In my experience, these additional spices are not identified. That’s another reason why I like to grind my own. However, if you prefer to use a pre-ground version, then try to find one that doesn’t have any additional spices. Don’t use cayenne powder as it is too hot.
**Many instructions for handling dried chiles recommend using gloves to prevent the transfer of heat-inducing compounds to other surfaces (such as your skin or eyes!). As long as I am careful not to touch anything other than the chile, knife, and cutting board while I am preparing it, and I wash my hands thoroughly afterwards, I have not had any problems contaminating other surfaces.
Directions for the Chile Rubbed Chicken:
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Make a paste using 2 tablespoons of the chile rub mixture with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil (with the exact quantity of olive oil dependent on how thick you want the resulting paste to be). Set aside.
- Remove the skin from the bone-in chicken thighs. Using a spoon or your fingers, coat the top of each thigh with some of the paste. Place the coated thighs on a foil-lined baking sheet, and then place the baking sheet in the preheated oven. Roast for 35-40 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer placed in one of the thighs reads 165 degrees.
Make Ahead: You can skin and coat the thighs the night before you plan to cook them. Just be sure to cover the coated chicken securely with plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook them.