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Sheet Pan Sweet Spiced Chicken Thighs and Vegetables

Dinner, Make-ahead, Recipe, Sheet Pan, Meal PrepLeannda Cavalier3 Comments

A simple sheet pan meal with tender chicken thighs and crunchy vegetables coated in sweet spice and umami flavors. Perfect for a big family meal, or meal planning for the week. 

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Cool blog post, but I'm hungry. Skip to the recipe, please!

Do you ever come home at the end of a long day and feel like you'd rather walk into a lion's den than cook (at least you'd get in one blissful pet)?

HA. Hilarous question right?

I'm pretty sure EVERYONE has this feeling sometimes. I do more than I'd like to admit, especially during busy periods. I even feel it sometimes when I'm on a roll with food blogging work, which is a little bit of a head-scratcher. I really don't think anyone is immune. 

And you know what? Sometimes it's okay to give in to that feeling. Maybe you go out or pick up some general tso's. Maybe you decide grazing is enough. Maybe you've already prepared for this and have some pre-made meals in the refrigerator or freezer—

Hold up, you prepared? That's great! Then this recipe for sheet pan sweet spiced chicken thighs and vegetables is PERFECT FOR YOU. But wait. There's something else.  

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The thing about not feeling like cooking (and yes, I know some people don't want or need to cook) is that if you give in too much, it becomes a habit. I give in my fair share, but I know when I don't I usually end up enjoying cooking by the time I start chopping and slicing.

Every task I complete is another box checked, another obstacle I've overcome. Sounds dramatic, but sometimes it's the little things. It is a lot for me, anyway.

One of the ways I push through is to pick something that doesn't require a lot of cleanup, and something that I can do without spending a ton of time prepping things. Bonus points if it makes more than one meal so I can skip tomorrow without ordering out again.

This. Is. That. Recipe.

And again, just for the record. Takeout is great! But doesn't it feel more special when it's a once-in-a-while thing? Doesn't that make your wallet happy? And doesn't it feel good to know you're eating healthy things you made yourself? You don't have to care about those things, but in my heart...

Five spice, so nice

The main flavoring in sheet pan sweet spiced chicken thighs and vegetables is Chinese five spice powder, which I have been on a real kick with lately. I don't use a lot of spice mixes unless I make them myself, but this is a notable exception along with garam masala, shwarma spices, za'atar and ras el hanout. Here convenience wins out most days, and it adds such a punch of flavor that I don't regret it.

Five spice powders are not all created equal, as they can include any variation of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, sichaun pepper, fennel, ginger, orange peel, licorice, turmeric and the list goes on. If you're a flavor savant, you might get the flavor profile going here regardless of which mix goes in the jar... sweet and spicy (like my current favorite tea!). 

Sweet and spicy goes really well with fattier meats like ribs, duck and yup, chicken thighs.

The mix I have right now isn't particularly spicy as it uses cinnamon, anise, fennel, ginger, clove, and licorice root. HEY, THAT'S SIX. Oh well, still nums. Anyway, that's why I added paprika to the recipe. You can add some chili paste or red pepper flakes too if you're really feeling spicy, you firecracker, you. 

Point is, you may want to look at the mix before you go out and buy a jar. Check to see if you might need more spicy or sweet to your taste, and if you're like me you probably want to avoid any extra ingredients like salt or MSG since you'll already be using salt and soy sauce in the recipe. 

It's all up to you, my friend. 

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Trimming the fat

When you're prepping the chicken, you may choose to trim excess fat off of the thighs. Don't stress about this too much, because it's easy and you might not even need to with good quality chicken. The fat is one of the draws of chicken thighs, and contrary to popular belief, eating fat doesn't make you fat.

So how do you trim the fat? All you need to do is pick up the chicken by the fat so the chicken is just touching the counter, and gently scrape it off of the pink flesh with a sharp knife. Alternatively, if it's a neat little seam on the edge, you can lay the chicken against the cutting board and slice it off just like sandwich crusts. Just try not to cut through too much of the meat itself. 

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One way you can cut way down or even eliminate the need to trim fat is to buy organic or even better, free range chicken. The better treatment chickens get, the better the quality of meat.

Sorry if that sounds preachy, but it's true. Eating better, having the space to walk around, and being raised without hormones and antibiotics all naturally reduce the amount of fat and filler in your chicken.

Seriously, just compare a package of organic free range chicken to one of the bigger brands next time you're at the store to see for yourself. 

Plus, if you're like me it might give you a little piece of mind to support businesses (often local or at least regional) that treat their animals well, often against the odds. I've bought meat a lot more mindfully ever since I moved to a farming area where I see a lot of chicken transport trucks. Don't look that up before eating or going to bed, because it's nightmarish. 

Okay, off my soapbox. 

Just don't let the idea of trimming off the fat scare you, okay? First, you don't have to do it—some people like fat, and a little of it isn't the end of the world. Worst case scenario? If you "mess up" and hack a thigh to pieces, you can still eat it. Still nums.

Messing up is called practice, and it's no biggie. Especially if you still get a meal out of it.

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Choose your own vegetables to customize or save a trip to the store

This is one of those recipes I love because it's so adaptable. You can go through your fridge and use vegetables left over from other meals, or ones you bought on sale with good intentions, but a week later you have to use them or lose them.

One thing I will say is that I would use bigger vegetables you can chop up and that cook fairly quickly such as broccoli florets, peppers, thin strips of carrot, onions, and soft squash like zucchini. Something hard, dry and starchy like potatoes wouldn’t cook through in five minutes.

I like to use a chopped red bell pepper, a yellow onion cut into wedges and an Eat Smart bagged stir fry mix with broccoli, carrots, red cabbage and snow peas. Simple, quick and nutrish-on-trish-on-trish.

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My rule of thumb? Stick to veggies you’re used to seeing in stir fry. If you’re really nervous, go ahead and stick to the recipe to get comfortable. Once you feel good with that, maybe you can branch out and experiment. That's what cooking's all about, friend-o. 

Choose your own base

Brown Rice: I really like to use short-grain brown rice in this recipe. It's a little fluffier than long-grain and I think it's a little more tender without losing all of it's al dente bite. Plus the big benefit: it's a complex carb and thus better for you than white rice.

White Rice: Always a good bet flavor-wise if that's what you have on hand, and it's not the end of your waistline if you eat it once in a while. Sticky short-grain Chinese-style rice is a good choice, but there's nothing wrong with some jasmine or basmati rice!

Noodles: You can always go a little outside the box and serve this over some noodles. I would probably go with thicker styles like ramen or soba noodles. You may want to toss them with pan drippings or a little oil and soy sauce to keep them slick and flavorful, especially if you use udon noodles, which don't have a lot of flavor on their own.

Zoodles: If you try to keep refined carbs to a minimum, avoid gluten or you just want something light and fresh, you could always serve over some zucchini or other spiralized noodles. I'm sure cauliflower rice would work just as well. Both of these options add a little extra work though, so you have to really want it. 

In the nude: Feeling a minimalist vibe? Just eat the chicken and veggies. Let me know if the world ends or anything like that. 

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Why cook the chicken on a rack?

You could probably cook the chicken right on the vegetables instead of the rack if you don't have one, but I tend to like them that way so they don't get so mushy on the bottom, and so they don't cook with vegetable imprints at the end. If the difference between you cooking this and getting pizza for the third time this week is not wanting to clean a rack, SKIP IT PLEASE. Not a big deal at all.

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A bit of truth about sheet pan recipes

They're technically one-pan, but most of them actually aren't. I know, ugh. As with this recipe, you may have to marinate or coat things in different seasoning. But hey, that's not so bad!

There are still some big advantages, like the fact that everything cooks at once. That's great for beginners because you don't have to worry about juggling a bunch of cook times. It's still pretty great for me because everything cooks at once. Know what that means? Once it's out of the oven, I can eat everything at once.

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Also, I'm lucky enough to have a dishwasher, so I can throw everything but the sheet pan and the rack in when I'm done, unlike if I was using a bunch of pots and pans. 

I only mention this because I don't want to be misleading. Sheet pan meals definitely have advantages, I just think they're a little over-promising sometimes. You'll have some dishes, but the mess is pretty well contained, so if you have a dishwasher you're made in the shade. If you don't, you still cut down on scrubbing you might have to do heating a bunch of food in a bunch of pans. 

Here's the pan pre-broiler. Technically done, but I'll do you one better.

Here's the pan pre-broiler. Technically done, but I'll do you one better.

BOOM! Two minutes under the broiler gives you those nice, crispy edges. 

BOOM! Two minutes under the broiler gives you those nice, crispy edges. 

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So let's get roasting!

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How to roast peppers in an oven

Method, Fundamentals, Recipe, VegetarianLeannda CavalierComment
Roasted Peppers

It is absolutely incredible how much you can change the flavor of peppers just by roasting them instead of sautéing or sweating them. Let me count the ways: 

1. Roasting adds a smoky touch from the charred skin. The waxy skin of peppers burns up quickly in the oven, acting as a smoky shell for the flesh. 

2. It enhances the sweetness. Ripened bell peppers (red, orange, yellow) are already sweet when they're raw, but other peppers like poblanos, jalapeños and habaneros are decidedly not. Cooking breaks down cell walls, making the sugars much more noticeable. Cooking for a long period of time breaks things down even more, allowing them to react and intensify into more complex flavors. 

3. Both the flavor and the texture get richer, which is great for hearty dishes. Bringing out the oils and juices in the flesh of peppers makes it easier for your mouth to detect all the flavors.

4. The flavor intensifies, but the piquancy softens. Piquancy is the sharpness that leaves you fanning your mouth and reaching for crackers after you take a bite of a raw hot pepper. Roasted peppers are still spicy, but in a more palatable way. 

5. All of this goes double for green peppers, which are unripe. Imagine eating a green bell pepper. It's crunchy, a little astringent and you taste a lot of... green? That's gonna be our chlorophyll. Some enjoy it in raw peppers. Great for photosynthesis. Not so great for chili. 

I'm sure I'm leaving something out, but I think those five enhancements make a pretty strong case. 

Some people like to roast peppers over an open flame on a stovetop. Some people like to grill peppers until they're charred. Great methods. Probably quicker. But who has two thumbs, no grill and an electric range?

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So what's a cook to do? Turn to the broiler. Yes, that button on the oven that's mysterious to people who don't cook, scary to beginners and a God-send to people who cook regularly. Fun fact: broiling is actually a form of grilling. Both are forms of dry heat that work through radiation. 

So now that we've got the why's out of the way, let's move on to the how. 

This method works best for large peppers like poblano and bell peppers. I've also tried it with jalapeños and habaneros, but they’re a little different. You have to watch them more carefully. The flesh is thin and will burn up easily, so reduce the time and watch more closely (noted in recipe). 

Stick around after the recipe for some suggestions for using roasted peppers. 

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So what can you actually do with these peppers? Here are some suggestions:

  • Use them for chili. I swear by this. I tried it once as an experiment and I will never go back!

  • Blend them into a sauce or even a salad dressing. Red pepper vinaigrette is one of my favorites.

  • Throw roasted red bell peppers on a salad or over eggs. Or over a salad with eggs. 

  • Add to a pan with sautéed onions and garlic, then toss with pasta. Alternatively, use cooled roasted peppers to spice up a pasta salad. 

  • Stuff chicken with strips of roasted pepper and cheese. 

  • Mix with melted queso chihuahua (quesadilla cheese) for a smoky dip. 

Those are just a few things I've made and ideas off the top of my head. What are you going to make with roasted peppers? Tell me in the comments!

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