Grilled chicken doesn’t always need a long marinade to be full of flavor. These spend just a few minutes in a lemony-garlicky mix before they’re grilled to charred perfection. The hot chicken absorbs the flavor of the fresh basil chimichurri, and the grilled cherry tomatoes bring sweetness and acid.
(This recipe appeared earlier on Serious Eats.)
We need only the slightest of excuses to cook outside in the peak of heat-wave summer. Turn the stove on? Ah, no, thank you. Making a quick-marinated chicken dish that we can throw on the grill is an ideal solution. And, if we can use the Mediterranean heroes of the summer vegetable garden—tomatoes and basil—so much the better. Not only do tomatoes and basil taste great together, they also have a symbiotic relationship in the garden; companion gardening with the two plants in proximity improves their resistance to pests.
Many recipes call for long, even overnight rests in a marinade. Here, because the chicken absorbs flavor for only a brief time, we needed to construct a highly seasoned marinade. There are a few things that help that along. Cutting the chicken into two-inch pieces keeps the cooking time short; additionally, we found that pricking the meat first gives the lemon and garlic flavors in the marinade better penetration. Adding a little sugar in the form of maple syrup or honey helps to balance the acidic flavor, and also helps add a beautiful char to the surface. Initially, we tried adding more lemon juice to the marinade, but the acid made the grilled chicken chalky, even in such a short time.
To compensate, we took most of the lemon juice back out of the marinade (leaving the zest and just a tablespoon of juice to add great lemony flavor). In order to get that sharp kick that goes so well with grilled food, we made a chimichurri that gets drizzled over the cooked chicken. It coats the warm chicken in the flavor of the vinegar, along with the basil. Chimichurri is an Argentinean sauce of Basque origin, similar to a pesto—herbs and garlic blended with olive oil—but it uses an acidic element instead of cheese. Classic chimichurri is made with parsley, oregano, and garlic. However, since chimichurri translates to “a mix of several things in no particular order,” we felt quite safe in making a loose interpretation with basil. It goes very well with any grilled meat, like steak, and we’ve used leftovers by stirring them into cooked grains.
Let’s talk about the kebabs. It’s aesthetically pleasing to see a mixed grill assembled on a single skewer (think steak pieces alternating with vegetables), but it can actually prove to be a challenge, because the different sizes of the items and their different cooking requirements can throw off your timing. Since we’re looking for as quick a meal as possible, we recommend that you grill the tomatoes and chicken on separate skewers. Start them at the same time, and move the tomatoes to a cooler part of the grill if they start to soften too much, or just remove them to a platter.
Chicken can get tough when overcooked, so keep an eye on it—you shouldn’t need much more than 10 minutes, turning once halfway through. If you’re using breast pieces rather than thighs, they may be done even sooner. We charred the chicken skewers directly on an outdoor grill, but you can also use a good-quality cast iron stovetop griddle if you want to make this indoors. Just make sure to turn your exhaust fan on.
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or boneless skinless chicken breasts)
- 1 pint large cherry tomatoes
- 3 garlic cloves, grated or minced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- Zest from one lemon, finely grated
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon maple syrup (or honey)
- 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1¼ cups fresh basil leaves
- ¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley
- ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 small garlic clove, grated (1 teaspoon)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Preheat your grill to a medium-high heat. Clean and oil grill grates. If you’re using wooden/bamboo skewers, immerse them in warm water to prevent them catching on the grill.
- In a large bowl, mix together the garlic, oil, red pepper flakes, lemon zest and juice, maple syrup, salt and pepper.
- Prick chicken thighs all over with a fork, then cut into two-inch chunks. Add to the marinade bowl and mix to coat. It only needs to sit for around five minutes.
- While the chicken marinates, make the chimichurri : add all ingredients to a food processor and pulse until the herbs are coarsely chopped. Check seasoning to taste. Leave at room temperature until the chicken is ready.
- Thread the chicken onto metal (or pre-soaked bamboo) skewers. Make sure to leave a little room between pieces on the skewers so they cook evenly.
- Thread the tomatoes onto separate skewers, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with a little sea salt.
- Grill the chicken kebabs until lightly charred and cooked through, turning skewers occasionally. This should take around 10 minutes.
- Transfer the skewers to a platter and serve with the chimichurri sauce.