In Andrea Nguyen’s native Vietnam, whole chickens are roughly chopped into pieces, given a savory-sweet marinade, then stir-fried, bones and all. The small pieces cook quickly and evenly, staying juicy to the last bite thanks to the marinade and marrow that seeps out of the bones.
Nguyen loved the approach, but knew bits of bone—never mind hacking up whole chickens—wouldn’t play well for most Americans. She wondered whether she could get similar results by making deep slashes in chicken legs, cutting all the way to the bone, then rubbing seasonings into the gashes and under the skin.
She could. In fact, it worked so well, she put a recipe for it in her upcoming cookbook, “Vietnamese Food Any Day.”
“I was talking to my mom about it and I thought I was so smart,” says Nguyen. “And she said, ‘Oh, I’ve been slashing chicken for years because I’m too old to chop it.’ It gets the seasonings in there faster.”
It may not have been as novel an approach as Nguyen first thought, but we loved it as much as she and her mom do. Slashing the chicken creates more surface area for seasonings to adhere to, flavoring the chicken more thoroughly than simply rubbing it on the surface (and without needing to hack through bones).
In Nguyen’s recipe, she makes several slashes in the legs, marinates them in a puree of fish sauce, garlic, shallots, sugar, salt and black pepper, then cooks them over a grill. At Milk Street, we knew the approach could work just as well in the oven. First, we patted the chicken legs dry and made four parallel slashes down to the bone, two on the thigh and two on the drumstick on each side.
The marinade came together quickly in a food processor, though a blender works just as well. We used the same ingredients as Nguyen, but liked a bit more sugar and garlic to balance the salty fish sauce. And we used yellow onion instead of shallots since they’re more likely to be on hand.
Marinades are generally slow to penetrate meat—an action aided by salt—but here, the slashes create significantly more surface area for the marinade to coat. The result: The chicken was boldly seasoned to the bone in as little as 20 minutes.
We experimented with roasting the legs directly on a baking sheet, thinking it would create an easy pan sauce, but the sugars in the marinade burned too quickly. So we ultimately placed the legs on a baking rack set in a foil-covered pan covered with kosher salt (to prevent flare-ups from drips). Raising the chicken out of its juices also increased air circulation, which led to a crispier exterior and better browning all around. In under an hour, including prep time, we had a deeply flavorful dinner from just a handful of ingredients.