Turning quick weeknight meals into spectacular suppers becomes easier if you keep one principle in mind: contrast. Using contrasting flavors and textures limits the ingredient list while maximizing flavor. Take our roasted chicken breasts with grapes and sherry vinegar, which includes sharp mustard and red onion to balance the sugariness of the fruit. For a twist on a classic Venetian pasta, the sweetness of long-cooked yellow onions and richness of anchovies are balanced by bright lemon zest and a crispy panko topping. And for a spin on fried chicken, we start with a slightly sweet soy marinade, then finish it with mouth-tingling Sichuan chili oil and freshness from cilantro and scallions.
To toast the Sichuan peppercorns, heat them in a small skillet over medium heat and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool, then finely grind them in a spice grinder. To remove any large, fibrous bits, sift the ground pepper through a mesh strainer. Dried Cinnamon
For additional heat, we make our own chili oil from Sichuan chili flakes, more peppercorns, and whole, dried red Sichuan chilies. Tailor the heat of this dish by using more or less of the chili oil.
It is best to marinate the chicken no longer than 30 minutes or it will be too salty.
1/3 cup soy sauce or tamari
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and finely ground
6 tablespoons Sichuan chili oil, plus extra to serve
1 tablespoon Sichuan seasoning salt, plus extra to serve (recipe follows)
1 cup lightly packed fresh cilantro
In a large bowl, combine the soy sauce, vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and the egg whites. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the chicken and stir to coat, then cover and let marinate at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet. In a large bowl, stir together the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, the cornstarch, Sichuan pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt.
Drain the chicken in a colander. Add ‚ of the chicken to the cornstarch mixture and toss to coat completely, pressing the pieces into the cornstarch to make it adhere. Transfer the coated chicken to a mesh strainer and shake to remove excess cornstarch. Transfer to the prepared rack in a single layer. Repeat with the remaining chicken and cornstarch mixture.
Set a second wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet. In a large Dutch oven set over medium-high heat, warm the peanut oil to 350 degrees. Add half of the coated chicken and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until well browned, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or wire skimmer, transfer the chicken to the second rack. Allow the oil to return to 350 degrees, then repeat with the remaining chicken.
In a small microwave-safe bowl or glass measuring cup, microwave the Sichuan chili oil on high until just warm, about 30 seconds. Combine the hot fried chicken and scallions in a large bowl, drizzle with the warm chili oil, and sprinkle with the Sichuan seasoning salt, then toss to coat. Add the cilantro and toss again, then transfer to a platter. Serve, passing additional chili oil and seasoning salt at the table.
To toast the Sichuan peppercorns, heat them in a small, dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool, then finely grind in a spice grinder. Strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove any fibrous pieces.
3 tablespoons Sichuan pepper corns, toasted and ground
In a small bowl, stir together all ingredients. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
This classic Venetian dish typically uses bigoli, a whole-wheat pasta shaped like fat spaghetti. We like it with regular spaghetti, as well as with bucatini (also called perciatelli), a tubular, spaghetti-like shape. Toasted bread crumbs, or pangrattato in Italian, aren’t traditional, but they add a welcome crispness. We use Japanese-style panko for its light, airy texture and toast it in olive oil before mixing in chopped parsley and lemon zest.
The anchovies should not be rinsed before mincing, as this will wash away some flavor.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest, plus lemon wedges, to serve
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
12 ounces spaghetti or bucatini (see headnote)
3 tablespoons minced anchovy fillets, plus 4 teaspoons anchovy oil
2 large yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1½ cups dry white wine or vermouth
2 tablespoons salted butter, cut into 4 pieces
In a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil until shimmering. Add the panko and cook, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. Let cool for a few minutes, then stir in the parsley, lemon zest, and ¾ teaspoon salt. Wipe out the skillet.
In a large pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add the pasta and 2 tablespoons salt; cook until the pasta is al dente. Drain well, then return the pasta to the pot.
Meanwhile, set the skillet over medium-high heat and warm the anchovy oil until shimmering. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are well browned and the garlic is golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in the anchovies, then add the wine, pepper flakes, and ½ teaspoon black pepper. Bring to a boil over high and cook, stirring and scraping up any browned bits, until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, then add the butter and swirl until it blends into the sauce.
Add the sauce to the pasta and toss to combine, then toss in ½ cup of the panko mixture. Transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle with the remaining panko mixture, and serve with lemon wedges.
We were inspired by Melissa Clark’s version for this weeknight riff on a French bistro classic using chicken breasts. Try to purchase breasts of similar size so they cook at the same rate. We prefer 12-ounce breasts, which take 30 to 35 minutes in the oven. Breasts weighing about 1 pound each will require 40 to 50 minutes.
Don’t completely cut off the root ends of the onions. Just shave off the dry, fibrous outer layers. This helps the onion wedges hold together. The chicken breasts should fit comfortably in a single layer in the center of a roasting pan with the onion wedges around the perimeter; if your pan is too small, a broiler pan without the slotted top is a good alternative.
If you can find ground fennel seed, use 2 teaspoons in place of grinding your own. And, we like the flavor and texture of grainy mustard, but regular Dijon works, too.
12 ounces seedless red grapes, halved
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
4 teaspoons fennel seeds, finely ground
4 12-ounce bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts, patted dry
2 medium red onions (root ends intact), peeled, each cut into 8 wedges
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
Heat the oven to 475 degrees with a rack in the middle position. In a small bowl, stir together the grapes, 2 tablespoons of the vinegar, the sugar, and ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Set aside. In a separate small bowl, combine the fennel, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper, then use to season the chicken breasts on all sides. In a medium bowl, toss the onion wedges with the oil and ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
Arrange the onion wedges around the perimeter of a roasting pan and place the chicken breasts in a single layer in the center. Roast until the thickest part of the breasts reaches 160 degrees, or a skewer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken meets no resistance, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a platter and let rest for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, drain the grapes, reserving the liquid. Add the grapes to the center of the roasting pan and return the pan to the oven. Cook until the grapes just begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Transfer the roasting pan to the stove top, add the reserved grape liquid, and cook over medium-high heat, scraping up any browned bits, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 2 minutes.
Off heat, add the remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar, and the butter, mustard, and tarragon. Stir until the butter melts. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the mixture over the chicken.
Christopher Kimball is the founder of Milk Street, home to a magazine, school, and radio and television shows. Globe readers get 12 weeks of complete digital access, plus two issues of Milk Street print magazine, for just $1. Go to 177milkstreet.com/globe. Send comments to email@example.com.
Dried Fennel Powder Work at Boston Globe Media