This summer, I’m working on a fun new project through Boston Medical Center’s pediatric bWell Center. Over the spring, I spent a great semester working with the pediatric obesity clinic, which introduced me to the group, whose goal is to educate and support the children and families managing increasingly complex diagnoses and childhood obesity. My nutrition background paired with my long-standing interest in food and recipe development made me the perfect fit for what we’re calling the bWell recipe exchange. Our goal will be to help families cook the foods they already know and love, but in healthier ways and with more nutritious ingredients.
The all-time top request the pediatric clinic gets from patients and their families is a healthier version of fried chicken, a reliable stand-by at many families’ dinner tables, but one that isn’t doing anyone any favors in terms of weight loss. So, I bought a lot of chicken, made a lot of variations oven-fried chicken, and invited my friends over to test the results… which is how I wound up with a bunch of extra chicken thighs and drumsticks on my hands and no real plans for what to do with them.
And that led me to develop this healthy twist on another favorite: buffalo chicken. Through my wanderings of online recipe sites, I found a surprisingly simple version of harissa on Epicurious. Harissa is a spicy pepper paste that has its culinary origins in Africa. Last year, after buying Heidi Swanson‘s Super Natural Everyday cookbook, I was deterred from making some of her recipes because they called for a few tablespoons of harissa, something I erroneously assumed would be somewhat of a fussy condiment. But I love the fact that instead of requiring a pricey purchase from Whole Foods, it’s actually an incredibly flavorful, easy-to-make, and versatile sauce. So, here is a new take on good-for-you Buffalo chicken: I use a healthy smear of spicy harissa over drumsticks and bake until the chicken is cooked through.
After a few bumps in the road recipe-wise in the last two weeks, I think I knocked it out of the ballpark with this one. The sauce is spicy but avoids being over-the-top (in all the wrong ways) because the peppers’ natural sweetness temper the heat. The spice level can be adjusted by upping the amount of red pepper flakes, but I’d recommend tasting a bit as you go along so it doesn’t get too hot too fast. A dash of hot sauce can also had some heat and might help bridge the gap for those skeptical about a red pepper sauce taking the place of Buffalo sauce. I swapped out the blue cheese dressing for a thick creamy yogurt with blue cheese crumbled mixed throughout.
Harissa Buffalo Chicken
For the harissa sauce (adapted from Epicurious.com):
1/2 Tablespoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon cumin seed
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 red bell peppers (or use jarred roasted red peppers)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
splash of hot sauce (optional)
1) Toast the coriander, fennel, and cumin seed in a skillet over medium high heat until fragrant (but not burnt), about 1 minute. Transfer to a spice grinder or use a mortar and pestle to grind into a fine powder. Add to the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic cloves, with their skins still on, in the same skillet. Cover and cook for 10-15 minutes, until soft. Remove skins and add to the food processor bowl.
2) Meanwhile, roast red bell peppers in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes, turning every 10 minutes, until darkened on all sides. Transfer to a brown paper bag and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Peel off the skins from the peppers, slice them in half and remove the seeds and stems. Add the bell peppers to the food processor bowl.
3) Blend the spices, garlic, red bell pepper, olive oil, sugar, and vinegar together until smooth. Grind the crushed red pepper in the spice grinder. Stir half of it into the harissa sauce, taste-testing for spiciness after incorporating. If it isn’t too spicy, continue adding the pepper, tasting after each addition until the appropriate spice level is reached. Feel free to add a dash of hot sauce to kick up the heat, too.
To make the Buffalo Chicken:
1. Prepare 8 skinless chicken drumsticks by cutting away any extra fat. Coat them with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer in a shallow, rimmed baking dish. Spoon the harissa sauce over the chicken in a thick layer, using the spoon to spreading the sauce over all the chicken.
2. Bake the chicken in a 400-degree oven for 35-45 minutes, until a meat thermometer reads 165-degrees. Serve with the blue cheese sauce (recipe below).
For the blue cheese dressing:
2/3 cup low-fat Greek yogurt
3 Tablespoons blue cheese crumbles
1) Combine the cheese and yogurt in a small bowl. Stir vigorously to combine. Use the back of the spoon to press large cheese crumbles against the side of the bowl to break it up into smaller pieces. Serve with the buffalo chicken.