Lemon Chicken. In my estimation there is almost no better combination than this. It’s like they were made for each other. The trouble is that getting that distinct lemon flavor into the chicken can actually be a difficult task. Smothering it with lemon juice makes it too acidic. Sticking lemons in the cavity while it roasts imparts very little flavor at all. You have a little more luck with ribbons of lemon peel stuck under the skin, but still, not enough of that fantastic lemon flavor. After trying numerous versions, watching dozens of TV cooking shows on the topic, and browsing hundreds of online recipes, I finally figured out the trick. All of the recipes that were able to coax the lemon flavor into the meat and the juices used not just the juice or the peel, but the zest. Finally! Lemon chicken with a flavor and aroma that was neither acidic or overpowering, but which literally brightened the bird and everything that was cooked with it.
When you zest citrus fruit like lemons you actually release the essential oils in the skin. If you simply peel it, the oils, and consequently the flavor, stay inside the skin and can’t work their magic. I use a Microplane hand grater, made for grating spices like nutmeg, to efficiently zest citrus fruit. It gets all of the zest off without cutting too far down into the bitter pith (white part of the skin). I actually use this tool for much more than nutmeg and citrus. It seems to find its way into nearly every meal I make. It’s a toss-up between my Microplane and my fine mesh strainer for favorite kitchen tool. Aww, look, all the knives are getting jealous!
I made this recipe for the first time about a year ago for a lunch date with my boyfriend. At that point our relationship was fairly new and, given that we have completely opposite schedules, we were struggling to actually find time to spend together. Between our jobs, hobbies, and other friends, it was a nearly impossible task. So we started having weekend lunch dates. We didn’t love going out to lunch/brunch on the weekends because, as anyone who has ever lived in DC knows, getting into a decent spot on a weekend can involve a very, very long wait. So, while he went to bed at 5 am, when he got home from work, and slept until 1 pm, I would get up at 9:00 am, go to the grocery store, clean my apartment up so that it was presentable, and get busy in the kitchen. By the time Andy showed up at my door with a perfectly paired bottle of wine, our feast was ready.
A year later we’ve settled into a slightly different routine with more dinners than lunches, but every once in a while we still have a great weekend lunch date. He shows up with his bottle of wine and, sometimes, I still get butterflies when I hear the knock at the door. This is definitely a tradition I plan to keep.
This lemon chicken is prepared “butterfly” style (a.k.a. spatchcocked), which involves cutting out the back bone and opening the bird up so that all of the skin and meat cooks and browns evenly. It can just as easily be prepared with a whole cut-up chicken, a trussed chicken, or any chicken bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces. Most of the vegetables are roasted with the bird and take on the gorgeous lemon flavor as well. I love that the radishes lend their color to the sauce and stay slightly crunchy. This is a thoroughly satisfying meal that will feed four people (or two with leftovers).
Lunch Date Lemon Chicken
1 medium whole chicken, 4-5 pounds
1 small to medium onion
10 small radishes2 stalks celery
3 small to mediumYukongold potatoes
4-5 medium carrots
½ cup frozen peas
1-1 ½ cup frozen pearl or petite onions
2-3 whole garlic cloves, paper/skins on
Approx 3 cups chicken stock or broth – preferably homemade
2-3 tsp salt
1 tsp white sugar
2-3 tbsp olive oil, plus more to toss with vegetables
3 tbsp softened, unsalted butter, divided
½ cup white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
2-3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Prepare the veggies: dice the onion, slice the radishes in half, cut celery into large pieces (so that they can be easily removed later), cut the potatoes in one inch cubes, and peel and slice the carrots in thin diagonals. Toss them with olive oil and set aside.
Defrost the pearl onions and set peas out of the freezer (they will defrost as you cook). Next, zest all four lemons in a small bowl. Add salt, sugar, and olive oil, stirring to make a paste.
For the chicken: Butterfly the chicken by removing the backbone and the wishbone. Refer to the videos of Jacques Pepin in Let’s Talk Turkey…. Err, Chicken. Once you butterfly the chicken you’ll need to loosen the skin in order to use the lemon zest paste. From the ends of the breasts near the legs, insert your fingers between the skin and the breast meat and gently work to pull the skin away from the meat by breaking the connective membrane. It should come apart fairly easily. Repeat for the thigh/leg portions by going in through the slits you made between the body and the thigh as directed in video. Once the skin is loose, work small portions of the lemon paste into the pockets and lightly massage into the chicken.
Now it’s time to prepare the whole pan to cook. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Use a lightly greased roasting pan or 9” x 13” Pyrex dish. I would love to be able to use a fantastic roasting pan with a rack, but alas my tiny “apartment” sized oven is too small for it. Instead, I use the vegetable as a “rack” so that the chicken sits mostly above the liquid and can brown evenly. Place the veggies, already tossed in oil, in the pan and make a slight well for the bird. Place the bird on top so that it all fits snugly and tuck whole garlic cloves into the veggies. Rub the bird with the remaining softened butter, then season the whole pan with salt and fresh cracked pepper (I always use sea salt and rainbow peppercorns). Add white wine and 1-1 ½ cups of chicken stock, depending on how much will fit in the pan. The veggies should be about ½ to ¾ covered. Reserve the rest of the liquid.
Place the pan in the oven and roast at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 and continue to roast for another 45 minutes to 1 hr, depending on the size of the bird. Use a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast to determine when it has reached 165 degrees internal temperature, at which point the meat is cooked through.
While the chicken is in the oven, work on the pearl onions and peas. In a small sauté pan, heat 1-2 tbsp butter and a drizzle of olive oil. The oil will keep the butter from burning. Make sure the onions are drained and fairly dry (wrap bunch in a paper towel before cooking), and then add to sauté pan. Season with salt and pepper. Brown the onions on medium/medium-high heat, shaking pan every 30 seconds or so until they are lightly browned on all sides, or even slightly caramelized. Add ½ cup of chicken stock to the pan and reduce the heat. Let the onions cook while the stock is reduced and absorbed. Repeat this step 1-2 more times until there is thick, syrupy sauce and onions are soft and flavorful (tasting helps here!). Turn off the heat and add the peas, tossing to coat with the sauce. Set aside until chicken and veggies are finished roasting.
To finish the chicken: When the chicken has been roasting at 375 degrees for about 30-40 minutes (45-55 minutes total), remove the pan from the oven. Using large forks and a spatula, temporarily transfer to a plate. With a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables and whole garlic cloves from the pan and set aside. Retrieve the whole garlic cloves and set aside. They should be soft. Carefully strain all of the pan juices into a bowl. A fine mesh strainer is great for this step as it will remove all of the small chicken bits and solids and leave you with just the liquid. Set the pan juices aside for a moment and return veggies and chicken to the pan, put it back into the oven, and continue roasting until the chicken is cooked through. This step is a bit of a time saver, but if you’d prefer not to deal with it just wait until the chicken is finished cooking to make the pan sauce.
F0r the pan juices/sauce: As the juices cool you’ll notice that the fat separates from the juices and stock. To speed this up, place the bowl in the fridge for 5-10 minutes, then use a spoon to skim the fat off the top into another bowl. Reserve the fat for glazing the chicken when it’s resting before serving. Place the rest of the juices and any remaining stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, reducing the sauce by a third on low heat. You can add the roasted garlic at this point, which gives it a sweet and savory richness. Take the garlic cloves and squeeze them out of their papers. Smash with a knife until it forms a paste, then whisk into the sauce. Use as much as you like. The juices will be slightly pink because of the skin of the radishes. This is not an indication that the chicken or the juices are not cooked. When the sauce is reduced, turn off heat and add 1-2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley.
To serve: Remove bird from the oven and place on a large platter. Remove the large celery pieces from the roasted veggies, then mix the pearl onions and peas with the. Pile them around the chicken and serve the pan sauce on the side. If you’d prefer to carve the bird first, start by removing the thigh/leg quarters at the joint. Then use a sharp knife to break the breast bone. You should be able to pull the bones off the back of the breasts fairly easily and then slice them horizontally. Once again, refer to Jacques Pepin’s masterful instructional video about how to carve a roasted chicken (above).