One afternoon, on my way home from the food bank, I stopped by my friend Teresa’s house for a visit.
Teresa is a food stylist and recipe tester, also author of the beauteous blog Food on Fifth. This particular afternoon she was deep in testing mode for Relish Magazine, with a trio of recipes using chicken thighs heading her list: A sage/provolone-filled roulade, a “nonna” style baked with herbed breadcrumbs, and a lemon chicken.
“Lemon chicken?” I mused. “Does the world really need yet another lemon chicken recipe?”
“It just might,” Teresa said. “Stay and judge for yourself.”
Soon, Relish editors Jill and Candace arrived for the tasting of the testing.
We started with “nonna’s” recipe and deemed it respectable, if a bit bland. Number two, the cheese-filled roulade, was a step-up in flavor and dimension.
“I’ve saved the best for last,” said Teresa.
Enter the lemon chicken, roasted to golden, drenched in sauce. Teresa served the thighs with torn hunks of baguette, to sop up the sauce.
“You won’t want to miss any of this.”
Oh, my. The table fell quiet, followed by murmurs of approval. The chicken was succulent under its crackled skin, an intense gush of lemon sparked with garlic, oregano, and a fiery pinch of red pepper flakes. We all sopped sauce and marveled.
What had made this lemon chicken, “the best ever” ?
We examined the recipe–a simple one, at that–and decided that three elements made the difference.
1. The dish is made with the chicken thigh, which is the most flavorful (and economical!) cut. It has a higher fat content and doesn’t dry out like the breast. After you roast it (simply seasoned at this point with salt and black pepper) for 35 minutes, you pour off the fat and liquid–making it ready to accept the lemon sauce.
2. There’s a whole lot of fresh lemon juice in the recipe–figure one lemon per thigh. I add a little zest too.
3. An unexpected ingredient: Red Wine Vinegar. A couple of tablespoons is added to the olive oil-lemon juice emulsion. I’ve never seen that done before, and I believe it really amplifies the rich lemon taste.
I made a large batch of this for potluck, where it was devoured with gusto.
We named the dish Lemon Lemon Lemon Chicken. When you taste it, you get it.
LEMON LEMON LEMON CHICKEN (adapted from RELISH Magazine)
12 cleaned and trimmed chicken thighs (bone in, skin on)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
8 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Rinse chicken and pat dry. Liberally season with salt and black pepper. Place skin side up in a large baking dish or sheet pan.
Bake for 35 minutes.
Squeeze the lemons to get 1 1/2 cups juice. Zest 2 of the lemons. Whisk in the red wine vinegar, zest, minced garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano. Finally whisk in the olive oil, slowly, to create an emulsion.
After 35 minutes of baking, remove the chicken from the oven. Drain all the liquid from the pan.
Pour the lemon emulsion over the chicken. Return to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes.
Serve the chicken and sauce with hunks of crusty bread for sopping.