Ordinary chicken thighs, marinated in lemon, garlic and olive oil, become sweetly succulent when grilled over marjoram branches. The magic is in the smoke.
His eyes narrowed slightly and I could almost see the thought bubble over his head: “What the devil is she smoking?”
Not smoking, exactly. I was grilling outside on the tropical deck.
While our new dishwasher was being installed, I was cooking chicken thighs for lunch. Two big discoveries: The first? Marjoram branches tossed over glowing coals smell just like burning weed.
The second: The smoke of the sweetly scented herb is magical. For the chicken, that is.
I had planned to serve marjoram-scented chicken thighs for supper the evening before, but when the sky turned black, I turned to Plan B. (Black bean soup from Tonali is always a delicious rainy day solution.)
The next day, the instant the sun peeked through the clouds, I went into action, threading the boneless, skinless thighs, now bathed overnight in lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and chopped marjoram, onto metal skewers. Chunks of summer squash and scallions from our bottomless CSA box were a tasty afterthought.
The sweet marjoram, of course, came from the steroidal plant that is swamping our herb garden. I clipped 15 of the woodiest stems, each over two feet long, and lopped off the tops, saving the tiniest leaves and flowers for garnish. The woody branches went into a bucket of water for a few minutes and then onto the hot coals.
Smoke billowed up from the grill as if it had been hit by a fragrant bomb.
Thirteen minutes later, I burned my fingers pulling the first piece of chicken off the skewer. It was beyond delicious: juicy, but also unusually sweet and slightly smoky, with a savory richness that American chicken rarely seems to have. I could taste the lemon and garlic, but only slightly.
Was it magic or was it marjoram? Somehow, I believe, the delicate herb with its soft aromas of lavender, sage and pine had transformed ordinary fowl into a feast.
“Do you want any more chicken?” asked an innocent voice. I turned to see an empty plate with one small piece of chicken remaining. It’s rare that I’m bothered by my husband’s appetites, but I confess to a tiny pinprick of fury.
Luckily there was more chicken on the grill--and a working dishwasher in the kitchen.
Marjoram Scented Grilled Chicken Thighs with Summer Squash and Scallions
This is an excellent way to use up a lot of marjoram if you have an over-abundance in the garden. For grilling, use the woody stems with the more strongly scented leaves that grow along the tough stalks. Save the flowering tips and most delicate leaves for a garnish or another dish.
To serve 4
Ingredients for the marinade:
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Juice of 2 lemons
6 large cloves of garlic, chopped
¼ cup olive oil
1 or more tablespoons fresh marjoram leaves, stripped from the stems and finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Method for the marinade:
Put the chicken thighs into a glass or ceramic pan. Whisk the marinade ingredients together and pour over the chicken. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, turning the thighs every few hours (when you are not sleeping).
Ingredients for the chicken skewers:
Marinated chicken thighs (see recipe above)
4 small or 2 medium summer squash, yellow or green
4 scallions, roots trimmed
2 teaspoons olive oil
Canola or other vegetable oil for oiling the grill
15 sweet marjoram branches, about 2 feet long
Flowering marjoram sprigs clipped from the tips of the branches for garnish
4 long metal skewers
Method for the chicken skewers:
1. An hour before cooking, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.
2. Cut the summer squash into 1-inch chunks. Cut off the white bulb and pale stem of each scallion in one piece. Gather the scallion greens separately into a pile. Rub all of the above with olive oil. Set aside.
3. Build a large charcoal fire in a covered grill. Oil the top grill with canola or other vegetable oil and set aside.
4. Make the chicken skewers: Cut each thigh into two pieces roughly equal in size. Thread four pieces of chicken onto each skewer. To hold them in place, fold each piece in half and thread the skewer through the ends. Alternate with chunks of squash and white and green parts of the scallions. Scallion greens can be folded over to make 2-inch bundles and threaded onto the skewer. Set aside.
5. While the fire is burning, soak the marjoram branches in water for a few minutes. Remove and shake off the excess water.
6. When the coals are red hot, but covered with white ash and the flames are low, put the marjoram branches on the coals and place the grill on top. The marjoram will begin to smoke immediately. Quickly place the chicken skewers on the grill and cover. Cook for 6 to 7 minutes per side, turning once, until the chicken is just cooked through. (If it overcooks, it will be dry and tough. What a waste!) The chicken should be golden brown on the outside and the vegetables slightly charred.
7. Let the skewers cool down for a few minutes before bringing them to the table. Serve the chicken, garnished with fresh marjoram tips, while it is still warm.