I’ve cooked from recipes in books (obviously!), on the internet (of course), and from food package labels (it’s true!) but never from a wall calendar. No calendar recipe has inspired me as much as the one I recently received from Michelle Tam, a best-selling cookbook author, blogger and undeniably, the Queen of Paleo. She’s also a friend. We met a few years ago on a trip to Vietnam and I realized that she lived nearby in the Bay Area!
You likely know of Michelle’s work -- Nom Nom Paleo, a super popular website and cookbook. I do not keep a Paleo diet but I appreciate her efforts to get families to cook, eat well, and lead healthy lives. Michelle and her husband Henry Fong have two kids. Ollie, the younger son, is the person who adores this deliciously simply chicken recipe. So much so that his mom renamed the recipe after him.
Michelle has posted images of Ollie’s Cracklin’ Chicken on social media and I’ve been meaning to try it out. She mentioned that Ollie adored the Instant Pot chicken pho that she made from The Pho Cookbook so much that he requested it one time. Smitten and curious about his palate, I decided to try out his namesake chicken recipe.
The recipe is in a wall calendar celebrating Michelle’s upcoming book, Ready or Not!, due out on August 1. She gifted me a calendar, which also comes with a sheet of fun stickers. I found the calendar to be super useful for its primer on Paleo. But then, thumbing through, I saw Ollie’s Cracklin’ Chicken recipe featured in July 2018! It was kismet. Despite being a year early, I made a half batch (we’re a household of two and we don’t eat a lot of meat). Michelle’s recipe is easy to scale up or down.
There are three (3) ingredients -- chicken, salt, and oil, and very simple techniques. The cracklin’ comes from the blistered, crisp skin so you can’t use boneless, skinless thighs. You have to debone skin-on chicken thighs. I’d never thought of it, but Michelle uses kitchen scissors. Mine were dull so I grabbed the poultry shears, which I use for butterflying a turkey or chicken. Typically, I reach for a chicken boning knife (a 5-inch stiff blade boning knife) to make super fast work of such a task.
To yield skin that cooks relatively flat, Michelle pounds on the chicken flesh. She also suggests gashing the chicken, which I do with the knife since why dirty another tool? You want to aim for the thicker part of the thigh because butterflying that slightly with a few slashes will open up the thigh, flattening it and also making it seem like there’s more meat! (A favorite, cheap Japanese restaurant used to make that kind of butchering cut to make their teriyaki chicken seem like a lot of food.)
Seasoning the chicken with salt and then panfrying was all that left to do. The recipe instructions mention using a splatter guard, which I did. Michelle also suggests placing newspaper on the floor, which I did too. The third option is to cook outdoors and leave the mess on the grill. I considered that when the exhaust went off but it was too late. So, use a splatter guard and newspaper as well as turn on the exhaust fan. There’s a certain level of drama and crackling noise that happens during the brief cooking period.
Michelle’s husband, Henry (a practicing attorney), takes photos, designs the Nom Nom Paleo books, and draws the cartoons. The stickers that came with the calendar got a little greasy, which made me feel bad.
I typically use a carbon steel skillet for this kind of cooking but I followed Michelle’s instructions and used a cast iron skillet. I’m not used to the cast iron pan, and regulating the heat was hard because it heats up very hot. Anyway, I got some burnt spots, and consequently tweaked the instructions below so that you may avoid my mistakes. If you know your cast iron pan, ignore my advice and keep the heat at medium-high.
The chicken is tasty because it tastes of glorious chicken goodness -- crisp skin, juicy flesh, savory flavor. I totally understand why Ollie loves it. For a Paleo-friendly meal, Michelle serves the chicken with lots of vegetables. We had it with beets, cucumber and herbs in yogurt sauce, a green salad, and grits. We had two leftover thighs which I reheated the next day in the toaster oven. They were terrific sliced and placed atop a salad.
Whether or not you're Paleo, there's a lot to gain from Michelle and her family's Nom Nom Paleo projects. When I was young, I got hooked on cooking because my mom was a good cook and we had home cooked meals. Everyone in our family participated in making, serving, and sharing food. That’s the gift that Michelle offers to her family and many others.
Note: I use Whole Foods canola oil, which is non-GMO and expeller pressed (no chemical solvents like hexane are involved).
Ollie’s Cracklin’ Chicken
Serves: 2 to 4, depending on appetite
- 4 bone-in chicken thighs (2 pounds total)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ghee, avocado, or canola oil
- Pat the chicken dryish with paper towel. Use a boning knife or poultry shears to cut out the bone. Work with the skin side down for easier prep. Trim any large flaps of skin to tidy up the thigh.
- To make the thigh cook evenly, flatten it. You can use a meat pounder but it’s easier to use a knife or the shears to slash the thigh meat on the thicker side. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt on the skin side. Set aside.
- Heat the ghee (or canola or avocado oil) in a medium cast iron or carbon steel skillet over medium-high heat. Once shimmering, add 2 thighs, skin side down. Season the flesh side with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover with a splatter guard and line the floor right below the stove to make clean-up fast. Turn on the exhaust fan, too. (If you have a large skillet, you may be able to fit all 4 thighs and cook in 1 batch.)
- Cook at a cracklin’ noise level for 7 to 10 minutes, rotating the thighs, if needed, for even browning. To avoid blackened spots like what I got, lower the heat slightly after 5 minutes of cooking. When the skins side is crisp and golden, use tongs to flip the thighs. Cook for 2 minutes longer, or until just shy of done. Turn off the heat and let finish cooking on the residual heat. The crackling will quiet down so there’ll be less drama when you remove the chicken to a wire rack. Pour off excess oil in the skillet then repeat the cooking for the other 2 thighs.
- Cool on the rack for 5 minutes. Present immediately as whole pieces or slice and serve.
Adapted from: Ready or Not! A Nom Nom Paleo 2018 Wall Calendar by Michelle Tam and Henry Fong (Andrews McNeel, 2017)
P.S. In case you missed this on my social media channels, an utterly awesome thing happened yesterday. I was a clue on Jeopardy! A complete surprise. A friend tweeted this to me (the quoted portion comes from The Pho Cookbook's official subtitle):