Taste the Burn

I remember being in college and ordering takeout from a local Chinese restaurant fairly regularly. My guilty pleasure was their firecracker chicken - sweet, sticky, spicy, and tender - it inevitably would disappear without needing an overnight in the refrigerator. But I (sorta) grew up and moved on with my life and turned to healthier stir-fries, more diverse flavors from all corners of the globe, and new and fascinating ingredients as I stretched my curiosity and culinary skills. But growing up doesn't mean having to give up those guilty pleasures, especially when you master their secrets in the comfort of your own kitchen:

What makes this fun dish something to feel less guilty about is that instead of being deep fried like those dishes of my college days, this one's lightly breaded in cornstarch and baked in the oven after a brief pan fry. No, it's not healthy, but it's less unhealthy than the standard dish you can order delivered to your door. What's more, I like this version more. Using dark meat chicken thighs instead of white meat means never having chicken that's dried out or chewy. And the sauce can be tweaked to suit your own desire for heat. Heck, the amount of red pepper flakes offered in the recipe is a suggestion … I tend to add another 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of them when my husband and I are the only ones dining. Mmmm. Taste the burn.

As suggested in the recipe, you can spoon this awesome chicken over rice and sprinkle some scallions over the top and that's easy enough to call dinner. I like to have some juicy fruit and/or crunchy vegetables with mine. A favorite combination is sliced fresh pineapple and halved sweet peppers. It adds some color and helps offset this healthier — but not exactly healthy — version of my guilty pleasure.

Firecracker Chicken

  • 1 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into chunks
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 c. corn starch
  • 1/4 c. vegetable oil
  • 2/3 c. brown sugar
  • 1/3 c. buffalo sauce
  • 2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Cooked jasmine rice, for serving
  • Scallions, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400° F. In a large bowl, season the chicken with salt and pepper. Add corn starch and toss until fully coated.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the chicken to the skillet. Sear until golden brown, 5 minutes, then transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

While the chicken is draining on the plate, make the sauce. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, buffalo sauce, apple cider vinegar, crushed red pepper flakes (if desired), and a pinch of salt.

Coat a baking dish with cooking spray and add the chicken. Pour the sauce over the chicken and bake until the sauce has thickened, 35 to 45 minutes, pausing to turn the chicken in the sauce every 15 minutes.

Serve over rice and garnish with scallions.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 1 hour

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