19 October 2008

sunshine on command

If you'd ask me if there is a specific scent to any given season, I’d be hard pressed to give an answer. Of course, a lot of scents jump into my mind the very instant I think of any place, weather, or season, in this case.

Summer, especially, is a hard thing for me to put an olfactory label on.

There is the scent of pine trees in the sun, warm and dry, reminding me of the Croatian islands and childhood vacations at the Cote d’Azur.

And of course, smoke. Smoke from campfires in the forests of northern Portugal, smoke from the barbeque at the pool, from my parents’ fireplace in their wintergarden. All of those, naturally, only being the prelude for other favorites: of herbs burning among the embers, rosemary especially, of steaks and squid on the grill, sizzling and steaming.

There is the smell of lavender, of tomato fields, lemon peel and olive oil, of warm concrete and even the dry brown smog of Paris in July, or the cloying stench of harbour water and rotting seaweed – the list is endless.

But if you turn the question around, and instead ask me if there is any one scent that instantly reminds me of summer, the answer would come like a snap.

Lemon chicken and potatoes. The lemon potatoes even more so than the chicken.

Don’t ask me why, but that scent of crisp potato wedges, dark and fragrant in their coat of almost burned lemon juice always sets my mind to ‘summer’ mode. Suddenly, I’m buzzing with ideas of goat cheese that would work wonderfully if marinated, or of squids on the grill that might almost be as good as those I had as a kid on that beach in Greece. It makes me feel as if I had spent a day in the sun.

For me, it is the scent of summer.

There is something imminently more-ish about this dish. Something deeply satisfying that made the whole family sit around the messy baking tray, eating just one more wedge despite being already stuffed, scraping and dipping and trying to get as much of the scented oil and concentrated juices onto their last piece.
Which, of course, it usually wasn’t.

And this recipe has one absolutely endearing quality that sets it miles apart from all other summer food I know – it is just as good in winter. It’s completely unaffected by the season outside, and the ingredients, as simple as they are, are available all year round in passable quality.

Now that the time of the year has come where the drizzle is never ending, and cold is seeping into my bones that has nothing to do with the temperature, I always know that I am only an hour away from a plate of sunshine on command. And yesterday evening was the perfect opportunity for this.

Lemon Chicken and Potatoes
(serves four, though we usually double the amount, as leftovers make great office lunches)

for the chicken
1 large chicken
1 large lemon
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon of rosemary, dried and ground
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon of honey
1 tablespoon sea salt
some olive oil
chilli to taste (we prefer about a teaspoon of chilli flakes, or two to three small dried pods)

for the potaoes
1 kg of potatoes
1 large lemon
200 ml olive oil
1 heaped tablespoon thyme (or more, if you like. I do.)
1 teaspoon of rosemary, dried and ground
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sea salt
chili to taste

If necessary, clean the chicken.

Cut the zest off the lemon, chop it very finely. Quarter the remaining lemon along its length.
Only use the yellow peel of the lemon, with none of the white stuff as it gets bitter. I think it is easiest to get off the lemon with a really sharp potato-peeler.

Mix the spices and the lemon zest with salt and honey; add some olive oil so the rub will be moist but not too runny.
If you have a mortar and pestle, this is the moment to use it, especially to get the fragrant lemon oils out of the zest. Probably a food processor will do just as well.

Rub the chicken with the spice mix, using all of it. Stuff the peeled and quartered lemon inside the chicken’s chest cavity.
Use the entire rub, if some falls off, it’ll just spice the potatoes.

Leave the chicken to rest.
Half an hour is fine, two hours or three is better.

Meanwhile, clean the potatoes if necessary, and cut (unpeeled) into wedges.
Try to keep the smallest diameter of the wedges approximately the same, so they will all be done at the same time. I usually quarter them along their longest side.

Mix the lemon juice, the olive oil, spices, honey and salt.
Spice with a little chilli if you like, but normally the lemon alone will have enough zing to keep things interesting.
I usually add the second lemon’s zest to the chicken rub, but you can also add the lemon peel to the potatoes for added scent. Just warn your guests that it is decoration and not very tasty…

Put the potatoes in a big bowl and toss with the dressing until they are evenly coated.
This is usually the perfect moment to make a truly memorable mess out of your kitchen, especially if you are preparing a batch of 10kg as I did a few weeks ago… Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Pour the potaoes onto a high-rimmed baking tray (or into a large oven dish), the chicken on a gridiron above them and put into the oven at about 180°C. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes (or more for bigger batches), and turn once or twice so both the chicken and the wedges have a chance to brown evenly on all sides.
There should be hardly any liquid left among the potatoes, and they should be crisp outside and soft inside. Both the tray and the potatoes should be smudged with a fine, brow layer of caramelized, partially burned lemon juice. Actually, you might want to line the tray or the dish with non-stick paper, as the lovely, tasty stuff is close to impossible to get off again.

Take out of the oven and leave to cool for a moment, then serve.
This is mostly to allow the juices recover a bit and resolve some of the caramelized lemon juice. And of course, the wedges are fragging hot inside, and we have had more than one unhappy accident with overeager eaters…

As a side, you can serve any green salad, and my mother-in-law and me especially like to have heavy, Greek-style yoghurt to go with it as a dip.

Leftovers make a perfect office lunch the next day, hot or cold, once again with some yogurt.


Anonymous said...

Hi Reuben!
Sunshine on command - it was great to follow your thoughts, ideas and inspiration for this wonderful & simple meal. Carry on! We are proud of you.


Anonymous said...

Hallo again, nun versuche ich es nochmal. Wo bleibt das Essen?
Ich freue mich schon auf die farbenprächtige neue Ausgabe, die das leckere Essen von "damals" zeigt. Schmatz! Einige Sachen sollten wir auch für das Sommerfest vorsehen. Vielleicht auch die Eierplatte?
Tschüss und Schmatz!

Mel said...

Still the best lemon chicken ever! I've cooked it twice since you sent me the recipe and it's been a hit both times! Love ya Mel