Trader Joe’s Harissa Chicken Thighs


By now you’ve probably heard of TJ’s Shawarma Chicken Thighs which are very good and a big hit. I gave them a big thumbs up, and from what I can gather checking the internet, everyone seems to agree that they’re great. TJ later came out with other marinated chicken thigh flavors. They have three versions now, they added a “HARISSA” version and a “LEMON & HERB” one. I decided to give the HARISSA flavored chicken thighs a try. These are a bit trickier for me. Unlike the SHAWARMA version which I buy pretty regularly now, I don’t think I would buy the HARISSA version again, though I did make a great Chicken and Rice dish using them. Some bloggers seem to like the Harissa version while many others don’t. Not a clear cut winner, so you may have to try and decide for yourself if you are interested. As for me, these Harissa things are nowhere near as good as the Shawarma ones. 

Now after some careful label checking, I think I figured out one major “problem” with these after I looked closely at the two packages. Here’s one big difference between the Shawarma and Harissa versions: the liquid content.

The label on the Harissa Flavored Chicken Thighs says “Contains up to 28% Solution….”

The Shwarma Chicken Thighs however say “Contains up to 7% Solution…”

A-ha, right? The “Harissa flavored” version has a much “wetter” marinade that the Shawarma version and this wetter marinade (i.e., more water) means they would absorb more liquid as weight into the meat sitting in this package. To me 1/4+ of the weight of a package of chicken being marinade seems massive. So one thing I found with these compared to the Shawarma thighs is it was harder to get a good sear going quickly when I threw them into a hot cast iron pan, as with the Shawarma thighs. Which frankly makes sense considering a much higher liquid content, and that fact is not in the Plus Column. Another bugging point to me was, why would tomato paste be the first ingredient in a “Harissa” marinade? Tomato paste is present in harissa, but its a minor player, the primary ingredient being fresh or dried red chiles.

These also didn’t have anywhere near as a distinctive flavor as the Shwarma version. So all in all, these are “just OK” for me. Personally I wouldn’t buy them again (unless I was making an Arroz con Pollo, for which these worked well). Frankly my suggestion is, if you really want to make some “Harissa Chicken” — just buy some boneless chicken at TJ, buy a jar of TJ’s Harissa ($2.70) and marinate it with lots of harissa smeared all over the thighs (or breast) for a 1/2 hour or so. I bet it would be delicious and work way better than these. Boneless skinless organic thighs I think are 2.99 a pound. These Harissa chicken flavored thighs sell for $4.99 a pound. 

PS – If I remember correctly when I looked at the label, the “LEMON & HERB” marinated thighs have an even higher “contains up to XXX % solution” content (50% or more?) You are paying chicken prices for lemon juice!

So these are not terrible but not great. RATED AS “MEH” – UNLESS DOING AN ARROZ CON POLLO which did turn out great with rich tomato-y rice (and if you want a basic recipe idea leave a Comment)

BONELESS CHICKEN BREASTS – How To Cook Them Nice and Juicy!


Lots of people complain about boneless chicken breasts as being dry and tasteless. But they don’t have to be. You can make them easily to turn out juicy and delicious with this little cooking trick I’ve come up with for them described below.

Boneless breasts can quickly go from moist and juicy to dry with just a half a minute of overcooking. So you have to be very careful with your cook time and technique. Over the years I’ve experimented plenty cooking them, and figured out a method that really works and you should try the next time you make chicken. Here’s my my not-so-secret, secret way of cooking chicken breasts so they are never dry and tasteless.

Chicken breast meat, especially off the bone and with the skin removed, is naturally very lean. It just doesn’t have enough intra-muscular fat, as dark meat does, which makes boneless chicken thighs much easier to cook, without overcooking until they dry out. Therefore the trick with cooking boneless breasts is basically to get a very nice sear on both sides, then let them finish in the pan with the cover on and the heat off using residual heat and internal steam to let them finish cooking. Thats the secret. Details follow.

Chicken breasts – Fresh or Frozen. During Covid-19, I started buying frozen breasts instead of fresh at Trader Joe’s. Sure I usually would prefer fresh over frozen but I don’t want to go to a store as often. So having frozen chicken breasts in the freezer is very practical. TJ’s sells them prepped and quick frozen in 2.5 lb bags, either “whole breasts with rib section” which are a big whole breasts, or you can get portioned, trimmed up ones which are one half a breast and make a perfect portion per person. They run about 7 or 8 dollars a bag. And there is an Organic option which doesn’t cost much more than the regular ones. If I get them frozen, I let them do an overnight defrost (full day) in the fridge (how long will depend a bit on thickness). I always use a slow defrost as I have mentioned many times before, as this is best method for defrosting most things. If you rush the defrosting and say leave it out on the counter you will see juice run out of the meat and your breasts will be dry no matter how you cook them. Naturally if you prefer to use fresh boneless chicken breasts, this same cooking method works equally well with fresh breasts. Fresh of course is the “normal” way I would buy chicken pre-Covid-19 and have also at times bought fresh breasts on sale, trim them up and freeze them myself. It’s just a little more work, but when they are $1.99 /lb on sale at my supermarket, its worth it.

Here’s the general outline of this method for juicy chicken: Season/Marinate. Sear on both sides. Turn off the heat. COVER THE PAN. WAIT. Details follow:

JUICY CHICKEN BREASTS COOKING METHOD: Prep / trim up the breasts. Season and/or marinate the meat. In the picture above I used some TJ TACO SEASONING all over the breasts. Its a convenient spice blend I find and actually works well with chicken as well as beef. Its a cumin and chile “mexican” spice blend. Of course any mix or blend of spices of your choosing will work. Smoked Spanish Paprika is great in the mix as it helps browning and is very flavorful (TJ carries it). I almost always add fresh garlic. Let the seasoned chicken marinate/sit for 20-30 minutes on the counter to warm up from the fridge. TIP: Rub Olive oil all over the chicken before adding the spices and they will stick better. Some people like a sprinkle of some coating (a bit of flour, or breadcrumbs or Panko). What we are going for is a nice golden brown color on both sides of the chicken.

Put a tablespoon of olive oil (or oil and butter) in your pan (Non-stick or Cast Iron). Cast iron is terrific. Get the pan nice and hot. Throw in the chicken and let it sear on one side. DO NOT TOUCH or move the breasts in the pan for 3-5 minutes until you see a good “Golden Brown and Delicious” sear on the bottom. A good sear is crucial for great flavor (aka the Maillard effect). When one side is done, flip the breasts over and do the other side. You need to check them and make sure the middle is not completely cooked (opaque). Now turn off the fire and immediately put a tight fitting lid on your pan to cover them. Do not peek or open the cover. If you do you will let the precious steam that will finish cooking them escape. TIP: (optional) Squeeze a quarter lemon in the pan and throw it in before closing the lid.

Set your timer for 7-10 minutes to let the breasts finish cooking in the covered pan. Thats the whole trick, letting residual steam and heat finish them, a bit slowly. Voila! Juicy Breasts with a ton of flavor.

SO again its: “Season, Sear, Heat Off, Lid On. Just wait till done”.

This little trick to cook juicy boneless breasts is that easy. With this method, the seared breasts are not cooked all the way through the middle but the the “closed, moist environment” inside the pan, lets them finish using steam slowly, basically like a poach. Now you may have to play around with your own timing, and adjust a little bit either way based on thickness of chicken and what type of pan. What we are aiming for in the cooking is getting them just over the line of seeing any pink. After they are just past the point of not looking pink and done, you get them out of the pan and rest them on a plate or cutting board for about 4-5 minutes (some foil over them will help keep them warm). Resting meat keeps juices in. The breasts should be cooked through (don’t slice before resting them, but once rested you can “peek” in a thick section). Remember meats continue cooking a bit from residual heat inside. Again why you rest them for a few minutes.

In my picture the bigger piece needed another 30-60 seconds to finish completely so I just put it back with the cover on with a lowish flame. Its way easier if they are a bit underdone to cook them a little bit more then overcook them if you want to be sure they don’t come out dry. You can also make shallow slashes in the thicker part of a breast prior to seasoning them to help even things out with the thinner parts as heat will penetrate the slashed part easier. Or you can pound the thick part flat with a pan a bit which will even them out. Anyway give this method a few tries and you will figure out your exact timings depending on a few factors (chicken thickness, heat source, pan thickness, etc). Electric stoves of course have a great deal of residual heat after they are shut off so Wait Time would really need to be much less (or just move the pan to a cool burner). If your chicken is still coming out “dry” with this Sear & Cover Method, you will need to deduct a minute of the outside browning time especially after you turn them. Conversely if its pink in the thickest part add a tiny bit more time. You can also try it with the lid on for the second side browning, but deduct a minute or two as the steaming effect inside the pan will be more intense. Now that you know this sear and cover method, you can experiment. If you like the results please let us know in the COMMENTS section.

Naturally serving these with a tasty sauce is great for flavor plus keeping things moist too. Try yogurt and Green Dragon or Zhoug -or- yogurt and lemon, or just deglaze the pan with a tiny bit of stock, wine or even just water and using the scrapings, and a bit of butter to make a few tablespoons of pan sauce. If you want a slightly thick sauce, add a pinch of cornstarch slurry.

Hope you enjoy this basic technique. If you want to explore cooking boneless breasts by poaching them instead of grilling, the Kitchn has a detailed explanation and good cooking technique for POACHED BREASTS (LINK BELOW) Poaching is great for moistness, but you don’t get the intense flavor of grilling.

THE KITCHN

Trader Joe’s SHAWARMA CHICKEN THIGHS


 

Trader Joe’s SHAWARMA SEASONING BONELESS & SKINLESS CHICKEN THIGHS

It’s rare that I buy meat or chicken that’s comes already marinated in a package. I normally make any marinade or seasoning I would want myself. But I saw this package of “Shawarma Chicken Thighs” at Trader Joe’s and that sounded a little intriguing to me… ‘cuz I love me some good Shawarma! So I got a package for review. 

The short answer is I liked these a lot, way more than I expected to. The bigger answer is I have bought them a few times since. 

TJ’s SHAWARMA CHICKEN THIGHS are deliciously tasty, easy, and very convenient to have in your fridge, as they can stay for a week or more in the unopened package. For convenience’s sake, these are just dandy. Just open the package and throw them in a pan. 

First thing to know, removing the chicken is a bit messy, so be warned. First I used scissors to open the bag, then tongs to pull the chicken out of the bag. Sure you can do it with your fingers but don’t be surprised if they get a bit stained from the annatto and turmeric, as will your cutting board. Pulling the chicken out, you’ll immediately smell the nice spices. Simply blot the chicken a wee bit with a paper towel, and toss them in a hot cast iron or non-stick pan. Other ways to cook them? Under the broiler or on a grill, or bake them in the oven. I think these would work very well to make a great Sheet Pan Supper baked with some veggies. Grilled in a pan or broiled…these thighs can be ready in 15-20 minutes with almost no work.

TIP: You can put some shallow slashes in the thicker parts of the thighs to help them cook more evenly (I even put slices of garlic in the slashes at times… extra fresh garlic never hurts)

I grilled the thighs in a medium hot pan as suggested for about 7-8 minutes per side. I used a black cast iron pan with a teaspoon of olive oil added first. I let them cook without touching or moving them (important!) till they had a very good sear and were a deep golden brown on the bottom. Flip them over and cook for about another 7-8 minutes or so. So in as little as 15 minutes from package till plate, you have can dinner ready, with some sides… So. Really. Easy. If you have the option to grill these on a real grill, with wood or charcoal or course that would be even better I’m sure.

Our kitchen smelled wonderful while I was cooking these from all those nice “Shawarma” spices. The “shwarma seasoning” spices they use are typical Middle Eastern spices. TJ states “…Onion, garlic, sea salt, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, paprika, turmeric, and parsley.” Of course you could add even more spices if thats your bag (fresh garlic, some more cumin, or something with a kick?) I frequently always add more spices, such as more ground cumin, a dash of Spanish smoked paprika, and especially fresh garlic. These aren’t spicy so if you want some heat just add some of your choosing. TJ’s Zhough Green sauce goes especially good with these, with a bit brushed on at the very end, and/or on the side after cooking. You can throw veggies in the pan (onions,  carrots, cherry tomatoes…) and cook those up too of course.

When the chicken is cooked to your liking, take them out of the pan, and rest them for about 5 minutes or so, before slicing them up to keep them nice and juicy – and save any nice juices of course and pour over when you serve them. It wouldn’t hurt to hit them with some fresh lemon or lime. A pat of butter is heavenly. They don’t need it but its a nice touch. I could have used a tiny bit less Sodium which is listed a wee bit high in the Sodium count on the package. Still they were not salty especially served with other food, and as I served the chicken over some basmati rice. As mentioned I found these go great with TJs’ “ZHOUG” Yemeni green hot cilantro sauce, which is quite spicy. It matched very well with those Middle East spices. Or even just some greek yogurt and lemon is a nice sauce. Greek Yogurt and Zhough mixed together is wonderful in the ratio of your choosing (spicy or just a little). Chopped fresh cilantro goes great with these if you like it, or just some parsley. You can slice up the chicken and plate with the juices. The nice thing about chicken thighs as opposed to chicken breasts are thighs are much more forgiving. Thighs stay juicy almost no matter what, and are almost impossible to overcook unless you really try hard, unlike boneless chicken breasts which are so easy to overcook so they are dry (mine? never! In a future post, I promise to tell my cooking technique for juicy soft boneless chicken breasts –) DONE: here it is (link)

How to serve the chicken? Any way you wish of course but a great way would be to make this into chicken SHAWARMA wraps of course. Slice up the chicken and put some SHAWARMA Style on some a flatbread, warm pita or TANDOORI NAAN (yes!) or the TJ HABANERO LIME TORTILLAS…. add some chopped veggies (tomato, cukes, shredded lettuce, etc) Then add some sauce, a tahini or yogurt garlic sauce. A bit of YEMENI ZHOUG SAUCE if you can handle the spice! (TIP: You can soften it up mixing with greek yogurt) Wrap it up and you have a Chicken Shawarma. A little messy to eat but oh so good. Your family will love them. Rice on the side, or as a bed is great.

BTW here’s an excellent recipe for a White (Yoghurt) Sauce for Shawarma:

The Best Ever Shawarma White Sauce

The second dish I made with these chicken thighs were to use them in Chicken Tacos and Fajitas. Despite the slight cultural melange, they were actually terrific as Tacos. Did you know that Lebanese migrants had a big part in Mexican food culture (Tacos Al Pastor)? They did! Some Green Dragon hot sauce with it’s tomatillo base made them quite Mexican on the tacos.

SHAWARMA CHICKEN THIGHS are $4.49 a pound*. The 1.5 lb package I bought was just over $6 and I got two meals out of it, with sides, so more than if you just bought chicken but not a bad deal. A package can keep for quite some time in the fridge as they are in a marinade (a few weeks) or freeze them. These are excellent to use as the Chicken part of a dish, say a Chicken and Rice (brown the meat with onions, throw in rice, add broth…) I made an Arroz Con Pollo with these and it was terrific!

In sum the SHAWARMA CHICKEN THIGHS are a really good Trader Joe’s product and well worth trying. Would I buy them again? Absolutely, I have regularly. These are a TJ hit. Of course, you are paying a bit for the spices and packaging ($1 a pound?) So if you want to save a little money, naturally just buy chicken thighs and add some middle eastern style spices for a marinade on your own. 

(LINK) TJ’s INFO PAGE FOR SHAWARMA CHICKEN THIGHS

  • UPDATE 1- Price increased since I first wrote this to $4.79/lb. (Jan 2021)
  • UPDATE 2 – TJ now sells two other varieties of marinated thighs: HARISSA and LEMON & HERBS

RAVE

(LINK) Here’s A Recipe I found on TJ’s site with these for Shawarma Chicken Rice Soup

 

THIS IS WHAT A REAL CHICKEN SHWARMA LOOKS LIKE COOKING ON A HUGE ROTATING SPIT…AND SLICED OFF….(if you ever get the chance, try it!)