The kitchen in my new apartment has a bias against large gadgets that promise to solve all my problems. Does an Instant Pot sound cool? Sure. Would I love to display a glistening white KitchenAid stand mixer on my counter? No doubt. But in the absence of ample space (and means), a tried and true home-cooking MVP emerges from the shadows of my utensil drawer: skewers.
A skewer binds an otherwise listless plate of meat chunks and vegetables into an entree worth serving to your boss or in-laws, making it a respectable crutch on those weeknights when we can hardly muster the willpower to impress even ourselves. The striking presentation of skewered meat — be it a kebab, yakitori, satay, heck, even a corn dog — artfully masks the little effort required of the home cook, and for that, I am grateful.
Yakitori, a Japanese grilled chicken skewer, is my preferred means of meat-on-a-stick consumption. Not only are they delicious, but they’re ingeniously efficient: A simple, homemade tare doubles as a marinade and a glaze for these blink-and-they’re-done skewers.
Teriyaki is the most well-known style of tare, a Japanese marinade or glaze frequently paired with grilled meats, and you’ll make a version of it for the chicken. And on the subject of chicken: In this house, we go for thighs every time. Swap for the breast if you prefer, but no cut of the bird quite rivals the juiciness of the thigh. And because they won’t dry out as quickly, there’s room for error should you step away from the broiler (or the grill, if the summer’s lingering wherever you are) for a moment too long.
We’ll pair these foolproof skewers with a light and crunchy side that’s equally simple. Keep in mind that the smashed cucumber salad will get a little slimy if it’s made too far in advance, so toss it together just before you’re ready to sit down.
Chicken Yakitori with Smashed Cucumber Salad
For the chicken:
- 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
- 1/4 cup mirin
- 2 tablespoons sake, sherry or dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons light brown sugar
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 teaspoon gochujang (Korean pepper paste); optional
- 3 scallions, 1 snapped in half and the other 2 cut into 1-inch pieces
- 12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into chunks
For the cucumber salad:
- 1 large English (seedless) cucumber
- Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon untoasted sesame oil
- 1 scallion, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, plus more as needed
- Toasted sesame seeds, for serving
Fill a baking dish or tall glass with water and soak the skewers for at least 30 minutes. (You can do this while you prep the meal.)
To make the tare, in a small saucepan, whisk together the soy sauce, mirin, sake (or sherry or white wine), brown sugar, garlic, gochujang and the halved scallion. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, so the liquid is at a very gentle simmer. Cook, stirring a couple times, until a slightly thickened, glossy sauce forms, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Transfer half the tare to a large bowl and let it cool completely. Place the chicken in the bowl and gently pierce some of the pieces with a fork. Stir to coat the chicken pieces in the marinade and let sit for least 20 minutes and up to 1 hour in the fridge, tossing or stirring at the halfway mark.
Make the cucumber salad: Meanwhile, snap your cucumber in half, place it in a zip-top bag and seal it, pressing out as much air as possible. Using a rolling pin, smash the cucumber until it’s cracked in places and flattened a bit. Transfer the smashed cucumber onto a cutting board and cut into bite-size chunks, then transfer the chunks to a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Toss the cukes with a generous pinch of salt and let drain until the chicken hits the broiler.
When you’re ready to cook the chicken, line a small baking sheet with foil and place a wire cooling rack on top. Position an oven rack near the middle of your oven and preheat the broiler on high.
Fold a chicken piece in half, pierce through both sides with a skewer and slide the piece down; follow closely with a 1-inch piece of scallion. Repeat until each skewer has 4 pieces of chicken and 3 or 4 scallion pieces snugly packed on it. Drizzle a bit more marinade over each skewer, then discard the rest of the marinade.
Arrange the skewers on the wire rack and place under the broiler for 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, toss the cucumber chunks with the rice vinegar, sesame oil, thinly sliced scallion, cilantro and crushed red pepper flakes until combined. Give everything a shake or two of sesame seeds and toss again to combine.
Using tongs, turn over the skewers and broil for 4 minutes more, until the chicken has a nice char.
Brush both sides of each skewer with some of the reserved tare. Plate them with a small bowl of the remaining tare and serve with the smashed cucumber salad.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful nutritional analysis.
(Yakitori marinade adapted from “The Complete Asian Cookbook” by Charmaine Soloman. Hardie Grant, 2017.)