What’s cooking today: Blackened Chicken
When the late chef Paul Prudhomme fused Cajun and Creole cooking in 1980 to create what, ever since, we have called blackening or blackened food, he started an unstoppable trend.
It doesn’t mean burnt. Let’s dispel that notion right away. If you order blackened chicken in a restaurant and you’re presented with a chicken breast whose skin is burnt, it’s been overcooked just like anything else that’s turned black from too much heat. The spices get singed and turn acrid, losing the subtlety that every spice brings. And a blend of spices, especially if mixed by your own hand, is always a thing of deftness rather than artlessness.
In the “blackened” culture (whether chicken, fish, prawns or others), the spices gradually turn darker while the protein they’re covering is cooking. It’s really as simple as that. Some “blackened” foods may appear only lightly blackened, others much darker; in all, if it’s been burnt it’s been taken too far.
That doesn’t mean spices cannot be bold. Some are more impactful than others, some more overpowering, others tend to wallow in the wings like the wallflower at a Spice Girls gig. If we know how to trust our palate and nose, we can use a bit less of this and a bit more of that to come up with a balanced spice mix that, ideally, once mixed has a compound flavour all of its own, with none of its component spices edging themselves into the foreground.
Blackening seasoning has its origins in Cajun and Creole cooking, and there are several ingredients common to most of these spice mixes although, as with many of the world’s famous spice mixes, it can vary from chef to chef or household to household. So you can play around with it a bit.
The basic ingredients include chilli spices, dried herbs, onion powder (or garlic powder, or both) and black pepper. There are usually two chilli spices; in my recipe they were chilli powder and smoked paprika, but cayenne pepper is often used and the only reason I didn’t use it was that my cayenne had mysteriously disappeared from the groaning, endless shelf that I call my spice cupboard. It really is out of control now and finding what I’m looking for in it is a daily challenge. But that’s no real problem. Simple chilli powder is good enough.
The dried herbs mostly used are thyme and oregano. I had dried oregano but not thyme, I thought, until I glanced at the freezer and remembered this trick: I always keep a pack of fresh thyme in the freezer because it freezes perfectly and lasts forever in there. When you open the pack, just crumble the sprigs and the dried leaves will fall to the bottom. Scoop these up and into the blackening spice mix they go.
You also need oil, though some swear that butter is essential for blackened chicken. Either way, the technique is to brush the chicken pieces with melted butter or with oil, and then dip them into the blackened spice mix. Thoroughly. This is not meant to be a vague coating, but spiced from edge to edge.
Then, you can pan fry them, roast them or do what I did this week. Yes, I cooked them in the air fryer. And so quickly that I couldn’t believe it.
The total cooking time was 13 minutes, after heating the air fryer up to 190℃. Here’s how…
1 chicken, spine removed and the chicken dissected
4 Tbsp melted butter or olive oil
Olive oil spray
For the blackened spice seasoning:
½ Tbsp smoked paprika
½ tsp cayenne pepper or chilli powder
1 tsp dried thyme
½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp salt
Mix all seasoning ingredients together in a small howl. Pour it into a flat container (bakkie).
Remove the spine from the chicken and dissect the bird into six portions (breasts, leg/thigh portions, and wings). Carefully cut the breasts away from the attached bone and cartilage. Keep the skin on all of the portions.
Melt the butter unless using olive oil.
Douse the chicken portions in the butter or brush with oil, then dip all sides into the spice mix. You’ll need all of the spice for a whole chicken.
Heat the air fryer to 190℃. Coat the base with olive oil spray.
Place the chicken portions in the basket skin side down with a little space between them if possible.
Cook at 190℃ for 5 minutes, then turn the portions over and cook for another 7 minutes at 190℃. Coleslaw or rice infused with coriander leaves and lime juice would accompany it well. DM
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.