A friend once informed me that she was sick and tired of dreaming up new ways to make chicken interesting. Her family members all liked chicken, so she made it often. Yet everyone seemed underwhelmed by her nightly efforts.
We’ve all been there. It’s a bummer when you take the time and effort to cook a nice dinner and the general feedback lies somewhere between an eyeball roll and an audible groan.
For many of us, a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts is a grocery cart staple. Chicken offers a readily available source of lean protein that can be cooked in a multitude of ways and freezes well. Plus its relatively neutral flavor profile is well liked by most people.
But chicken’s inherent simplicity creates a double-edged sword. Chicken can end up tasting bland and boring—and dry if overcooked. Or it can serve as a blank canvas for any number of exciting flavors.
Smoked paprika is one of my favorite spices because it has the power to transform a meal from one we merely eat to one we truly enjoy. My first introduction to paprika came as a young girl while helping my mom make deviled eggs. She always topped half of the eggs with an olive slice, and the balance received a dusting of paprika. Though paprika’s deep red color makes it a pretty garnish, I often thought of the spice as low on flavor…until I discovered smoked paprika.
Most paprika sold in grocery stores is simply labeled “paprika” and likely came from Hungary, or possibly California or South America. This paprika tends to be neither hot nor particularly sweet and works well as a garnish for deviled eggs, macaroni salad, and mashed potato casseroles—or wherever you want a hint of color. When used as an ingredient in a soup recipe, for example, a mere half teaspoon or so of this garnet powder can be difficult to discern.
With smoked paprika, a little bit goes a long way towards adding noticeable flavor to a recipe. Smoked paprika hails from Spain, and the peppers that go into it are typically smoked (often over oak, as is done in the La Vera region where much of the country’s paprika is produced). When either version is labeled as “hot,“ it’s because spicier varieties of pepper, and sometimes the seeds, are used.
The intriguing flavor of smoked paprika is a building block of Spanish cuisine, from paella to chorizo. The following recipe illustrates how well it complements chicken, too. It’s used as a simple rub along with a few spice cabinet standbys, creating a memorable meal with little effort.
Smoky Skillet Chicken is delicious all by itself, but this simple recipe for Cilantro Lime Crema adds a little somethin’ somethin’. The flavor of the crema will improve over time, so feel free to prep in advance.
Hint: If you’re tempted to try this recipe, consider making extra as leftovers are delicious as is or used in healthy, satisfying Mediterranean Chicken & Hummus Bowls.⇩⇩
Yield: 4-6 servings
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 4, or 3 if really large)
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon each ground cumin, garlic powder, and onion powder
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
In a small bowl, mix together the paprika, cumin, garlic and onion powder, salt, cayenne pepper, and oil.
Place the chicken on a plate or in a bowl, and pour the spice mixture over top. Toss to fully coat. Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 20 minutes or up to an hour.
Heat a lightly oiled skillet over medium heat and sauté the chicken until the spice rub looks golden and crusty and the chicken is just cooked through the center, about 8 minutes on each side depending on the thickness of the fillets. Flip with tongs after the first 4-5 minutes and then after another 4-5 minutes on the second side. After that, flip occasionally to avoid burning until the chicken is done.
For juicy, tender chicken, the internal temperature taken with a quick-read thermometer should read about 160 degrees F. The temperature will continue to rise to the recommended 165 degrees F as the chicken rests for 5-10 minutes before serving. Slice on the diagonal, if desired, and serve.