My husband and I grew up in a church that kept a loose form of kosher, the Jewish dietary guidelines that govern, among other things, what kinds of meat to eat. Pork products were strictly forbidden, as were all shellfish, smooth-skinned fish like sharks and catfish, and mammals other than split-hoofed ruminants. Reptiles, scavengers and birds of prey were right out, but barnyard poultry was definitely in. To sum up, when my husband and I were younger, we never ate an Easter ham, but we were well-versed in roast fowl.
Although we no longer abide by any dietary proscriptions other than attempting to practice occasional moderation, we still find comfort in old habits. That means when we eat meat, it’s usually chicken. It’s the familiar former clucker that I rely on when I want a nearly effortless dinner.
Here’s how it goes: I’ll thaw a package of chicken thighs or legs (for food safety fans, the recommended method is 12 to 24 hours in the fridge) without having any idea what I’m going to do with them. At about 5 or 5:30 p.m., when everyone’s tummy is starting to rumble, I’ll come into the kitchen and stare at the chicken, thinking, “What — you again?” as though it’s the chicken’s fault that it hasn’t cooked itself. In a hunger-induced panic, I try to figure out how to make the chicken tasty with the least possible expenditure of time and effort.
This is where the one-pan chicken dinner comes in handy. The recipe is basically this: Put everything in a pan with some chicken, then cook it. Boom! Dinner! The potential variations are staggering and entirely customizable to whatever is on hand in your pantry, fridge or garden. My standard is a 2-quart Corningware ovenproof dish layered with onions, salted chicken thighs, carrots, potatoes and sometimes celery, if I can slip it past my celery-hating husband. (“You think you can hide it from me, but you just can’t,” he said a few weeks ago, glumly pushing a piece of cooked celery around his plate.)
Yesterday, though, I felt like something different. I’d had butter chicken for lunch (a microwave meal, of course) and I delighted in the way the rice soaked up the spicy sauce. I really wanted to create some saucy goodness for dinner, something to spoon over rice, with tender chicken falling off the bone and vegetables steeped in flavorful broth. I wanted something more than the standard potatoes, carrots and the dreaded celery.
I started by bathing the bottom of a baking tray with olive oil, then spread chopped onions over that, along with salt, dried thyme and basil and fresh chopped rosemary. I nestled four bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, generously salted, atop the onions. I found the remnants of a bag of baby carrots and box of cherry tomatoes and tucked them in around the chicken. I chopped up a few fire-roasted red peppers plus a couple of cups of frozen tricolor peppers and added them to the mix. The sauce may be unrepeatable, but I’ll tell you what I did: I had about a ¼ cup of ranch dressing left over from a vegetable platter. I also had two containers of tangy tomatillo salsa left over from Mexican takeout. Did I put them together? Yes I did! I also added some of the liquid from the roasted red pepper jar and a squirt of lemon juice.
My moment of inspiration came when I found the jar of marinated artichoke hearts in the pantry. Not only are the artichoke hearts delicious, but the marinade is also packed with vinegary zing and herbaceous flavor. I put the artichoke hearts with the vegetables and mixed the marinade in with my ranch-salsa-lemon-pepper sauce. I sampled it somewhat warily, but it tasted great — creamy, herby, tangy. I poured everything over the chicken thighs and vegetables, plus a little extra salt for the vegetables. I put the whole shebang the oven and baked it for an hour at 350 degrees (long enough to make sure that the chicken reached a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees).
Meanwhile, I steamed a big pot of rice. When the chicken was done, I poured the sauce — now rich with chicken broth — over the rice and spooned the vegetables and chicken on top. It had a definite Mediterranean flair, likely the combination of olive oil, lemon, pepper and sun-loving herbs with the mellow yet distinctive addition of artichoke. When I make this again, I aim to up the artichoke ante by adding a 12-ounce jar instead of a 6-ounce jar. The more artichokes the merrier!
I’ve got a bone to pick with Wallis Simpson, American socialite and wife of the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to marry her. She famously said, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Well, I believe that a person can definitely be too rich and that body size is irrelevant. What she should have said was, “You can never have too much chicken or too many artichokes.”