What is there not to like about a shapely thigh? A chicken thigh is almost all meat, has only one bone, is hard to overcook, and can be easily made flavorful in a way that no bland breast can match without marinade or heavy seasonings. The chicken thigh is the canonical chef’s choice.
So who would not like a thigh? Well, kids for one, who sometimes complain of the blood-rich texture, mildly gamey taste, and two different shades of muscle fibers. As my own kids’ tastes matured, they began to like them more than most other cuts.
Chicken thighs were also the occasion for them to urge me to get serious about seasoning, which I went light on then, thinking it was healthy and more fit for children’s palates. Their insistence was an important and final step in food preparation for me, after 20 years of cooking all the family meals.
Our model for the discussion was not some TV guy with his violent, silly BAM of flavor, but a man in line at a Subway sandwich shop. He was paying money to have his food made as he wanted it, and he was not wasting the opportunity, even if it came at the cost of the line backing up, as so many of us do with our half-ashamed, Just some mayo and mustard, thanks, that’s it. He was serious and getting it his way, and his way sounded delicious. I cannot recall the details, other than they involved very specific amounts of meat and cheese and certain toppings; three different sauces in surprising combination; and sprinkles of dry seasonings far beyond the usual salt, pepper, and Italian herbs. None of us in line looked as if we had much money, but he knew who he was and what he was about. After his sandwich had been wrapped tightly in paper by the server, like an old-school butcher, the man tucked it under his arm like a football and strode out the door, well satisfied with his own knowledge and agency.
Making something good by common means and despite limited funds is a valuable skill. It applies to the blank canvas, the blank page, or the blank face of the sea. The thigh is the world. It has particular glories that must be learned and appreciated to make us glorious.
There are instruction manuals for all these opportunities—canvas, paper, sea, food—and I have always loved cookbooks, but it was a step forward for me to put them away and do things at last by taste, feel, smell, sight, and sound, so I was no longer just a reader, a dabbler, a dinner maker-do.
There are many ways to make something good of chicken thighs, including the sticky sweetness of honey and garlic. But to make the very most of them I like to bake them simply. As Chopin said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil, dull side up, so the chicken doesn’t stick. Chicken should have both bone and skin.
Turn thigh skin-side down. Run a sharp knife down both sides of the bone for even cooking. Lightly sprinkle both sides with salt; pepper to taste. Sprinkle both sides more heavily with onion powder, garlic powder, and paprika, then a little oregano and/or thyme. Rub with olive oil.
Place on sheet, skin up. Some of the skin will hang off the thigh and lie on the sheet. You want that; it will make something that tastes just like bacon, but more delicious.
Bake 40-45 minutes. When half-cooled, put on paper towels.
For a while in my cooking life I got hung up on some reverse snobbery about onion powder and garlic powder, because they were made by process and seemed to cheapen their dishes. Sometimes, though, economical ways work best. For this preparation, there is no easy way to get raw onion and garlic into the meat.
After all, there is something on the line here: Nourishment, enjoyment, sharing, pleasure, life. Do what you need to do. These are thighs. Be sensuous. Get serious at last.