This recipe is the pinnacle of my career as a lazy/cheap/picky home cook. It is tasty, fairly cheap for a meat dish, and unbelievably easy given how nice it looks and tastes. Like most recipes, it could be endlessly varied and changed, so let me draw back the curtain and show you the reasoning behind the recipe, and invite you to do your own tinkering. Here's what makes the difference for me:
1) Boneless chicken thighs. Cheap and tasty, yes, but here are their oft-overlooked Special Features: They are both Fatty and Thin.
Fatty means that (unlike chicken breasts) they're good even if they get a little overcooked (a bonus both to busy cooks and to cooks who get freaked out by salmonella).
Thin means that they will both thaw quickly and cook quickly. If you really get intimate with a boneless skinless chicken thigh, you'll see that it's relatively uniform in thickness once you open it up, and that that thickness is less than an inch. When you lay them out flat in a preheated roasting pan, those suckers can cook through in fifteen minutes.
1) A dryish marinade. Browning is the friend of flavor, but liquid is the enemy of browning. I'm not interested in doing a lot of tedious patting-dry of marinated raw meat, so I kept the wet ingredients down to one: balsamic vinegar, since it's so intense, you don't need much to do the job. Everywhere else, I went for flavorful but dry. I used salt instead of soy sauce, tomato paste instead of canned or sauce, and dried herbs and pepper flakes. With the addition of olives and olive oil, I hit all my marinade bases (salt, acid, sugar, spice, oil), with no extra liquid that would get in the way of browning.
2) Oven browning. When I think of baked chicken, I don't usually think caramelized and delicious. I tend to think soft and pale. But that's not necessarily true. If you use a hot oven and a heavy pre-heated roasting pan, and leave a generous amount of room between thinnish pieces of meat, the liquid that the meat gives off during cooking will have a chance to reduce and caramelize, resulting in the sticky brown residue that is the sign of a delicious meal to come.
3) Double tomato. The tomato paste will get a little browned in the oven, along with the chicken juices and the rest of the marinade. This is a good start. The real trick is in getting that delicious brown goop off the pan and onto the dinner plates with a minimum of fuss and trouble. Here you go: canned tomatoes. They're wet enough to deglaze the brown bits, and they add their own oomph to the sauce when they mingle with the olives, garlic, and herbs. The ones I recommend are Muir Glen Fire Roasted (and when you say BPA, I put my fingers in my ears and say lalalalalafire-roasted. I don't use them often, but when I do, I use these). The tomatoes also pretty up the chicken nicely. I can't be bothered to flip the chicken as it cooks, so only one side gets brown. But it doesn't matter how pale and gnarly the chicken is when it's camouflaged under a little pile of olive-and-herb-flecked tomato. You could, of course substitute many different liquids and vegetables (or liquidy vegetables) for the canned tomatoes.
4) Vast quantities. Chicken thighs can often be bought at a good price if you go for the huge packages, and this recipe works well for that. All the ingredients freeze and thaw well, and there's not a whole lot of chopping or prepping involved (chop garlic and olives, assemble marinade, mix with chicken). Just freeze the raw chicken in dinner-sized batches (this recipe makes about twelve servings, and I usually freeze it in three two-pound batches). Making this one huge recipe is easier than many single-meal recipes I make, and it gets me three almost-done dinners. Yay.
One freezer tip: if you use big gallon-sized plastic bags and press out the air before you seal them up, you can flatten the chicken and spread it out. If you then lay the flattened bags down in the freezer, they'll freeze like big tiles, and be easier to stack in the freezer and way quicker to thaw when it comes time.
5) Completely optional ingredients. I like olives. I like garlic. As established, I like those fire-roasted canned tomatoes. The good news to those of you who are not me is: the success of this dish rests on none of these ingredients. Tinker! Tamper! Adjust! And let me know what you discover.
Tomato and Olive Roasted Chicken Thighs1/2 cup finely minced garlic (this chicken cooks very quickly-- practically pulverize the garlic, or you'll end up with crunchy hunks of raw garlic. Sorry, unwitting recipe-testers!)
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup roughly chopped kalamata olives (1 10-oz jar pitted olives)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp red pepper flakes
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp dried oregano
6 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs
3 cans fire-roasted canned tomatoes
Mix garlic, oil, vinegar, olives, salt, pepper flakes, tomato paste, oregano, and chicken. Let it marinate for an hour or a day (or freeze for later use as outlined above). The directions below are for one quarter to one third of this recipe. To cook it all at once, your best best is to do it in several batches, so that the chicken doesn't get over-crowded in the pan. On the other hand, if you're cooking for twelve, do what you can do and good luck to you.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees, with a heavy roasting pan or large skillet in the oven to heat as well. Lay one and a half to two pounds of the chicken pieces flat in the hot pan, and bake 20 minutes. Leave enough space around the chicken so that the juices can brown. After twenty minutes in the oven, remove chicken from pan and set aside in a bowl. Deglaze roasting pan with one can of tomatoes. Cook down until thick. Add any accumulated chicken juices to sauce. Put chicken pieces back into hot sauce to heat through, and serve when ready.