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If kebabs were the cast of a high school coming-of-age movie, beef would be that kid who has the looks and the substance to back them up, pork would be the goofy-yet-lovable fat kid, and vegetables might be the nerd with the heart of gold. So where does that leave chicken breast? Chicken is the showboat. The one that puffs itself up and looks great to begin with, but doesn't seem to have much to offer once you get past the facade.
Similarly, a pile of grilled chicken skewers, cross-hatched with grill marks, shows the promise of tender meat and smoke from the grill, but more often than not breaks that promise with dry, cottony meat and no flavor to speak of. But we said this is a coming-of-age movie, right? Even the showboat gets a chance at redemption in this story. All it takes is a quick injection of flavor and a little bit of good technique.
The first step is the easiest: Forget about chicken breast. Sure, it looks thick and meaty, but it's also relatively bland and prone to drying out, particularly when cut into small pieces, as in a kebab. Chicken thigh remains tender and moist even when diced and cooked on a grill.
Next step? A big injection of flavor. I don't make curries at home often, but I always make sure to have a decent curry powder around the kitchen. I love using it in Singapore Noodles, but it's also great with vegetable fried rice or even roasted potatoes. On its own, curry powder lacks freshness, so I also add plenty of minced garlic and shallots, along with some chili flakes. (I like my curry extra spicy.)
A can of coconut milk not only rounds out the flavors, but also provides a good medium for the fat-soluble flavors of the curry paste to distribute themselves easily over the chicken. Plus, coconut milk improves the chicken's browning qualities, ensuring that it gets some nice crusty browned flavors from the grill.
To up the meatiness of the chicken, I add a big splash of fish sauce, which gives the chicken that umami boost it needs to really compete with other grilled meats. Finally, a fair amount of salt in the marinade both seasons the chicken and helps the marinade act as a brine, breaking down the chicken's muscle structure just enough to help it retain moisture.
After that, the rest is a cakewalk. I let the chicken marinate for at least half an hour (overnight is even better), thread it onto skewers, then grill it. With a meat like chicken, I find that moderate heat is best, so I set up my grill with a two-level fire—all the coals banked up under one side of the grill—then place the chicken skewers in the center. That way, if I notice that they're cooking a little too slowly and threatening to come up to temperature before any browning occurs, I can shift them over to the hot side to get some extra color. Conversely, if they're browning too fast and still raw in the center, some time on the cooler side will help them finish cooking more gently. In either case, the lid helps the chicken to cook more evenly.
That chicken goes from raw to cooked in just about 10 minutes total. With prep time and marinating, the whole transformation takes under a couple of hours to complete. That means that if this really were a feature film, we'd still have about half an hour left for this newly emerged chicken to find a date to the prom.
Oh, look! The nerdy vegetables took off their glasses to reveal that they were movie-starlet gorgeous the whole time. How convenient!
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