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Cooking Off The Cuff: Strong Flavors And Sour Oranges For A Chicken Dinner

02/20/2013 09:14 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2013

One Sunday a few months ago our friend Neil cooked a terrific dinner (which was no surprise to anyone who knows him). He'd cut a chicken into portions and moist-roasted it with strong flavors including particularly aromatic rosemary, garlic and - this was the memorable part - lemon halves put into the roasting pan cut side down. These lightly caramelized in the oven, which added a new dimension to their flavor when we squeezed them over our wings and drumsticks.

Contemplating a meal for a table of nine (!), I was in our Manhattan neighborhood's new branch of Fairway Market and saw an unexpected thing: a pile of bitter, or sour, oranges. "Bitter" isn't the most alluring of adjectives for a fruit, but these are in fact a useful, very orangey kind of orange - just not particularly sweet. If you nick the skin with your thumbnail and have a sniff, you'll smell one of the more powerful orange aromas you're likely to find beyond the grove; the flavor is almost lemon-sour. What, I thought, about using them as Neil had used his lemons?

I'd keep the rosemary from his dish, and I'd add two new ingredients: olives, which often turn up in Franco-Italian dishes alongside similar flavors, and speck (smoked prosciutto). All together, these would cook into a savory garnish and would define the sauce I planned to draw from the ingredients - without, I hoped, overwhelming the chicken's own flavor.

The day before the dinner, I made a base for that sauce: I bought three excellent chickens and cut them into portions, of which I saved one big breast for another occasion. I refrigerated the chicken parts in rosemary-scented brine (I could also just have rubbed them with salt and pepper and some chopped rosemary). I browned the trimmings and carcasses in a stew pan, added vegetables, browned those, and deglazed with white wine. I added herbs (parsley and rosemary), covered generously with water and simmered for 90 minutes, lid ajar, before straining, chilling and discarding the congealed fat.

In the morning I removed the chicken parts from the brine, rinsed and dried them and laid them out on a sheet pan in the fridge to dry before seasoning and cooking. An hour before dinner, I browned them, skin side down, in olive oil (using three skillets), then poured off excess fat (being careful to leave behind any poultry juices) and inserted wedges of sour orange (of course I could have used lemon or Meyer lemon) making sure that a cut surface was in contact with the pan. I needed three oranges for the task, though four wouldn't have been too many. The skillets went into a preheated 400 degree F oven. After ten minutes I turned the chicken pieces and added to each pan its share of this mixture (this quantity was for 2-1/2 fairly large chickens, but don't reduce it too much even for one or two; the proportions aren't that vital anyway): the leaves stripped from a huge branch of rosemary; 4 ounces speck cut into 1/8-inch matchsticks; and 8 ounces olives (net weight after pitting) - a mixture of Niçoise, Gaeta and big buttery green Cerignola. The breast pieces cooked for another five or so minutes; I removed them to a serving platter along with the nicely browned orange wedges but leaving everything else in the skillet. Same, ten minutes later, for the wings, thighs and drumsticks.

To complete the sauce/condiment, I simply deglazed the skillets with some of the rich brown chicken base I'd made the day before, consolidated the sauce in one pan and reduced it, tasting often, until it was delicious. I used a total of about 3 cups stock and reduced it by at least two thirds.

This would have been quite good served with chickpea-flour fries or pancakes, but it was also terrific with polenta, which didn't require much thinking to make. The almost strident flavors of the rosemary and olives and the sour but aromatic roasted oranges (which we were able, with pleasure, to eat rind and all) were nicely balanced by the chicken juices and stock. I'd wondered what the younger members of the party would make of these particularly vivid ingredients, but they seemed to eat with gratifyingly keen appetite, as we all did (though one at the table drew the line at chewing on orange rinds).

Strong Flavors And Sour Oranges For A Chicken Dinner