Lemon lore

Rachel Roddy’s cit­rus chicken

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Rachel Roddy

In Jan­uary, my ap­petite seems to turn in­wards, away from any sort of de­pri­va­tion, look­ing for com­fort and a buf­fer against a cold, dark world. These first weeks of the year call for soups, broths and pas­tas, mashes, beans and braises, while at the same time de­mand­ing bright­ness, whether that be in the form of crunch or acid tang.

The best de­scrip­tion of such bright­ness I know comes in Clau­dia Ro­den’s in­tro­duc­tion to her Book of Mid­dle Eastern Food. She writes of eat­ing a weekly meal of ful medames when she was a school­girl in Paris. She de­scribes how ev­ery Sun­day, along with her cousins and broth­ers, she would visit rel­a­tives. They would each cer­e­mo­ni­ously pre­pare their own plate of this tra­di­tional Egyp­tian dish, sprin­kling the fava beans with olive oil and sea­son­ing, squeez­ing over lemon, then plac­ing a hot hard­boiled egg in their midst. “De­li­cious ec­stasy” is how she de­scribes it, the beans’ earthy taste meet­ing the acid tang of the lemon, mel­lowed by the oil and the crum­bling egg, a warm yel­low among the brown. She also de­scribes how in Paris, ful medames – con­sid­ered a poor man’s dish in Egypt – be­came in­vested with all the glo­ries and warmth of Cairo, her home town and the em­bod­i­ment of all that for which they were home­sick.

It has been more than 20 years since I first read this pas­sage (which is still the rich­est in­tro­duc­tion to any food book I own), but I can still re­mem­ber think­ing it was the first book to put an idea into words for me, that food and flavour are a repos­i­tory for feel­ing and mem­ory. Cairo and Ro­den’s ful medames were thou­sands of miles from my Hert­ford­shire and Lan­cashire pub child­hood – a place I was more likely to evoke with a ba­con sand­wich and a pint or a slice of malt loaf. Yet, away from home my­self, I could iden­tify with her long­ing. Her idea that a bite of some­thing could con­jure up an­other place or time res­onated.

Whether I made a ba­con sand­wich or bought a loaf of Soreen, I don’t re­mem­ber. I do, how­ever, re­mem­ber mak­ing a Cam­den Town at­tempt at ful medames: white beans with olive oil, salt and pep­per, a hard­boiled egg and a squeeze of lemon. I had to run to the cor­ner­shop to buy the lemon. Now, it wasn’t that I didn’t know the power that a few drops (or a half moon in a gin and tonic) might wield, but Ro­den’s “acid tang” summed up well the idea that a few drops of juice, were a sort of culi­nary high­lighter pen re­in­forc­ing other flavours – in this case, the beans and the crum­bling yel­low yolk, to be eaten look­ing out of the win­dow of a flat in north Lon­don that rat­tled ev­ery time a train passed.

Jan­uary is, of course, a good time for acid tang as le­mons are at their best and most abun­dant from now un­til March. I am re­minded of this ev­ery day as I walk my son to school past the dozens of lemon trees rooted in the gar­dens on Rome’s Aven­tine Hill, their leaves de­fi­antly green, branches laden with fruit filled with liq­uid sun­shine to be squeezed on to what­ever is on your plate – beans and egg, salad, a ring of cala­mari or a piece of fish – or to­day’s chicken and pota­toes.

In this recipe, there are also an­chovies (which melt obe­di­ently into the oily foun­da­tions, serv­ing as the great sea­soner), gar­lic, stri­dent rose­mary and chilli. And these are all drowned in wine like a ring­mas­ter tam­ing the strong per­son­al­i­ties into a rich and silken gravy.

Whether or not it is de­li­cious ec­stasy, it is cer­tainly a dish in­vested with some ev­ery­day glo­ries, steady com­fort and deep bright flavour.

Chicken with pota­toes, an­chovy, rose­mary and lemon

I usu­ally be­gin cook­ing this dish on the stove top and fin­ish it in the oven, but you could do it all on the hob. How­ever you choose to pro­ceed, the cook­ing should re­sult in ten­der pieces of chicken in a pool of con­cen­trated sauce, its crown as golden as syrup.

Serves 4

4 tbsp olive oil

1 chicken – about 1.5kg – jointed into

8 pieces

2 gar­lic cloves, peeled and crushed 6 an­chovy fil­lets

A sprig of fresh rose­mary

A pinch of dried red chilli

Zest and juice of ½ lemon

Salt and black pep­per

1kg pota­toes, peeled and cut into

2cm wedges

250ml dry white wine

1 Set the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. In an oven­proof fry­ing pan or casse­role large enough to ac­com­mo­date the chicken and pota­toes in a sin­gle layer, warm the olive oil and then brown the chicken on all sides, start­ing skin-side down. Once browned, lift the chicken on to a warm plate.

2 In the re­main­ing oil and chicken fat (pour some away if you feel there is too much), gen­tly fry the gar­lic and an­chovies over a low heat, nudg­ing them with a wooden spoon so they dis­in­te­grate into the fat. Add the rose­mary – keep­ing the sprig whole for a gen­tler flavour, or chop­ping it for a stronger one. Add the chilli, lemon zest, salt and black pep­per, and stir.

3 Add the potato wedges to the pan and stir again un­til each is glis­ten­ing with the oil.

4 Re­turn the chicken to the pan (it might be a squash, but the in­gre­di­ents should all shrink dur­ing cook­ing). Pour over the wine and al­low to bub­ble on the stove top for 10 min­utes be­fore putting the whole lot in the oven for 40-50 min­utes, bast­ing ev­ery 15 min­utes or so and squeez­ing over some lemon juice dur­ing the last 10 min­utes of cook­ing. By the end of it, the bot­tom of the chicken and pota­toes should be ten­der, sur­rounded by lots of oily gravy, and the top golden.

he idea that a bite of some­thing could con­jure up an­other place or time res­onated

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