Don’t you hate it when someone improves on a dish you’ve made dozens of times, and are pretty sure you’ve already perfected?
One of my family’s favorite meals is a tangy lemon chicken recipe I found years ago in a long-forgotten cookbook that takes around 15 minutes to cook in a simple sauce of butter, olive oil and the juice of one or two fresh lemons.
Dang, has Yotam Ottolenghi got me beat.
In his latest cookbook, the Israeli-born British chef known for his expert take on Mediterranean cooking (much of it vegetarian) takes lemon chicken to the next level by pairing crispy, pan-fried chicken with a sauce that marries homemade preserved lemon with fresh lemon juice kissed with garlic, a pinch of sugar, turmeric and the warm, citrusy bite of cumin seed.
He calls the preserved lemon a “cheat” because, rather than ripening in a jar for a few weeks, the citrus slices are brought to a simmer with juice over medium heat until tender and translucent and then blitzed into a curd-like, spreadable sauce. Also a little different: Rather than simply dusting the chicken in flour to make it fry up crispy, he gives the pounded breasts a 30-minute soak in a mixture of egg white and cornstarch flavored with soy sauce.
Garnished with a crunchy mix of green onion and fresh cilantro, the end result is a standout dish with nuanced layers of flavor you’ll want to eat again and again.
If you don’t have a meat mallet, use a rolling pin or the bottom of a heavy pan to pound the chicken breast into thin pieces between parchment or waxed paper.
For a complete meal, Ottolenghi suggests serving the chicken with plain white rice and some lightly cooked greens. But it’s pretty darn delicious on its own, right out of the pan.
DOUBLE LEMON CHICKEN WITH CHEAT’S PRESERVED LEMON
For cheat’s preserved lemon
1 large unwaxed lemon, ends trimmed and discarded, cut into 1/4 -inch slices, seeds removed
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons flaked sea salt
2 large egg whites
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons cornstarch
4 large chicken breasts
6 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 green onion, trimmed and finely sliced at an angle
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and black pepper
For lemon sauce
3 tablespoons preserved lemon (see above)
3 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and roughly crushed, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Make preserved lemon: Put all the ingredients into a small saucepan with lid. Bring to a simmer on medium-high heat, cover with lid and cook for 12-14 minutes, or until rinds start to look translucent and the juice has reduced by about half. Set aside to cool slightly then transfer to the bowl of a food processor and blitz until you have a smooth, spreadable paste.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together egg whites, soy sauce, cornstarch, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper until there are no lumps, about 30 seconds.
Working with one breast at a time, place chicken between 2 pieces of parchment paper and use a meat mallet (or bottom of pan) to pound chicken evenly so it’s just 1/2 -inch thick. Transfer to the egg-white bowl and continue with the remaining breasts. Stir everything together gently to coat, then marinate at least half an hour, or refrigerate overnight if you’re getting ahead.
Make the sauce by first putting 3 tablespoons of the preserved lemon, stock, butter, garlic, sugar, turmeric and half the cumin in a medium saucepan and placing it on medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then cook for 15 minutes, stirring a couple of times, until reduced by about half. Add 3 tablespoons of sauce to small bowl, add cornstarch and whisk until there are no lumps. Whisk this back into the saucepan and cook for 1 minute on medium-high, whisking continuously, until smooth and thickened slightly. Remove from heat.
Heat 6 tablespoons oil in a large, high-sided frying pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, fry two of the marinated breasts for 3 minutes per side, or until nicely browned and just cooked through. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and continue with remaining chicken. Pour off oil into a bowl. Add lemon sauce to the frying pan and bring to a simmer on medium-high heat.
Put back the chicken breasts and cook for just 3 minutes, gently turning them halfway through. Remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons lemon juice for the sauce.
Transfer chicken breasts to a large serving platter with a lip and pour sauce all over. Sprinkle with remaining cumin seeds. In a small bowl, toss together green onion, cilantro and lemon juice and spoon over top.
“Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Extra Good Things” by Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi (Clarkson Potter, 2022, $32)