When the Green Bay Packers put a surprising 34-24 hurt on the Dallas Cowboys during the 2019 season, another of a million stupid sports superstitions was born: For every game I had to come up with a new nightshade-free entrée for the communal watch-party table. Before that game I had decided to try my hands at wings. They’re supposed to be “hot and spicy” right? This special effect is generally accomplished with a variety of nightshade peppers, and sometimes tomatoes. But I’d seen a promising ginger and lime recipe and I was ready to create a nightshade free remix.
Sports snacks are a nightshade minefield. There’s the obvious pizza, wings, and chili, with double and triple nightshade exposures. Salsa. Siracha. Savory snack mixes. Potato chips. Anything red or orange is suspect. I’ve seen buffet tables with a dozen items but nothing for me to eat. I was motivated to make sure that at least I got a meal out of the experience.
Sports buffet requirements are pretty simple: simple, strong, salty, scrumptious. It should probably pair well with beer.
I did better than expected this last football season. So well that I developed another superstition: I didn’t post the recipes, because that’s part of functional superstitions, right? Nobody can know what you’re doing or the magic goes away. Right?
Anyway, in theory my friend Renee freed me from superstition when the Packers beat the Eagles later in the season. Sure, the Pack won, but during a close game Renee blithely revealed my superstition to the gathering. (Up until then she’d never actually come to a game, so I had told her, figuring my secret was safe!)
I still didn’t post. And once the Packers were eliminated I was sad and decided to wait until March Madness. Then came the pandemic, no basketball tournament, and the possibility of no football. The buffet table became one of those things reserved for some hopeful future where we can safely gather again.
But here’s the thing: I really want to share this recipe but the Packers are back in the playoffs, and I’m trapped in my superstition again. In an effort to break the cycle, I devised a new game plan. The Packers are playing the Rams as I post this. I’m in a football quarantine because I cut the cable cord, and have to wait until the game is over to stream it via my NFL Gamepass. I can’t even go outside, lest my neighbors give me some inadvertent clue as to the outcome.
For this moment, I don’t exist in the land of football. But the wings do, and they are winners.
This experiment was inspired by a Food52 recipe. There are three uncommon ingredients in play: Grains of Paradise, Indian long pepper, and umemboshi plum vinegar. The first two give it heat. But it’s my personal opinion that the umemboshi plum vinegar is actually the flavor note that puts this recipe over the top. In my book it’s always cool to improvise and substitute, and I know that other vinegars will suffice (apple cider is perfect) but do make the effort and get some umemboshi! I’ve found it in the ethnic section of some very conventional grocery stores, but you may have to visit an Asian grocer. (If you’ve never been, you can thank me later.)
- 4 cups cold water
- 1/4 cup Kosher salt (2 tablespoons if using regular salt)
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1/4 cup ume plum vinegar
- 2 tablespoon fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon green pepper
- 1 tablespoon white pepper
- 2-3 pounds chicken wings
- 3/4 cup Rose’s lime juice
- (or 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice plus 1?4 cup honey)
- 3/4 cup water
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1/2 tsp lime zest
- 1 teaspoon ginger powder
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon Grains of Paradise (increase fresh and dried ginger by 1/3 if you don’t have it)
- 1 teaspoon Indian long pepper (use a heaping teaspoon combination of black and one of white, green, or pink if you don’t have it)
a handful of cilantro leaves, chopped, for serving
1Prepare the brine. If you’re new to brines, dissolving the salt and sugar can be a challenge in cold water. You either have to be patient or heat up 1 cup of water to make your solution. (One virtue of impatience is you can add the ground pepper while you’re at it, and the heat will release more deep pepper flavor.) Once the salt and sugar are dissolved add the other ingredients, then toss in a few ice cubes to reduce the temperature. But hold back the last couple of cups of water.
2For maximum brine efficiency choose a deep bottomed container—I prefer glass or stainless over plastic. Add the chicken, then the brine concentrate, finally adding enough water to cover the chicken. And do this last part gently so all of the chunky flavor bits don’t just float to the bottom. Put in the fridge for no more than 90 minutes.
3About 20 minutes before you pull the wings out of the brine, make the glaze. Everything goes in the same small saucepan, then bring to a boil.
4Set your oven to 425.
5Remove the wings from the brine and transfer them to a plate. (Do not dump the brine!) You don’t need to pat them dry, but give them a light shake as you transfer them. Leave them for about 5 minutes, then pour off the brine that has accumulated on the plate.
6Drain the brine through a fine metal strainer. You’ll capture close to a quarter cup of ginger and pepper—way too much flavor to waste. Snap the strainer against the rim of the bowl repeatedly to remove as much water as possible. (Depending on the capacity of your strainer you may need to repeat this procedure and empty the pepper/ginger on top of the chicken plate. Tip out any excess brine from the bowl and plate, then transfer the wings back to the bowl with the pepper and ginger. Mix with your hands so the spicing coats the outside of the wings. Transfer to a lightly oiled metal baking sheet.
7Bake for approximately half an hour, until the skin starts turning a golden brown. Keep an eye on the bottom of the wings around 20 minutes. How fast they cook will depend on your oven, your pan, and how close the wings are to each other, and they can blacken on the bottom before you know it. About two thirds of the way through the process flip the wings with a spatula. You’ll want a metal one with a good edge, as some of the wings will stick more than others, and you don’t want the skin peeling away from the meat until you’re ready to eat.
8Meanwhile, you’re cooking down the glaze to get the right consistency, and that means boiling furiously for somewhere in the neighborhood of a half an hour. Because you’re coating wings, you’ll want a glaze that approaches the viscosity of syrup. The danger zones are at the beginning and end of the process. At the beginning it’s likely to froth up, and possibly spill over onto your stovetop. If you’re not paying attention during the end game, it can zoom past caramelization and leave a nasty crust in your pan. You’ll know you’re approaching this latter point when the bubbles start to get suddenly larger. Turn down the heat and dip a spoon and watch the sheeting action as the glaze drips down the spoon. If you missed the precise consistency, you can always carefully add back a little water. And remember that viscosity will also vary by temperature.
9Remove wings from oven. While still hot remove to a bowl and toss with the glaze. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve from this bowl, or transfer to something a little more festive.