Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Roast garlic and lemon chicken

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Roast garlic and lemon chicken

As longtime readers will recall, Arizona lemon rancher Bill Spencer is our go-to guy for all things lemon-related. Bill can always be counted on to come up with delicious recipes - both sweet and savory - that take full advantage of the noble lemon in both lead and supporting roles.

This time he's outdone himself with a recipe for chicken with lemons, garlic and herbs. A startlingly long roasting time that can extend to 2 1/2 hours or more may seem hard to believe, but I recommend following the procedure closely, as the result is a remarkably succulent dish in which every bite of tender chicken is infused with bright and savory flavors.

This is a multi-generational recipe that, Bill says, came originally from the popular British television chef Nigella Lawson's cookbook, "Forever Summer," passed through Food & Wine magazine's "Best of the Best" cookbook, through Bill's kitchen and now mine, likely changing a bit with each iteration. (I skinned the chicken pieces and pulled back the garlic a bit, using a handful of cloves but stopping short of a whole head. If you try it, feel free to modify it back, or add your own changes ... and let us know how it went.)

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two amply, with leftovers)

Small chicken, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds (roughly 1 kilo)
About a dozen garlic cloves
Two large fresh lemons
Small sprig fresh thyme
2 tablespoons (45ml) olive oil
1/3 cup (80ml) dry white wine
Black pepper


1. Preheat oven to 300F (150C).

2. Cut the chicken into 10 pieces (two thighs, two legs, two wings, and cut each of the two breast pieces in half). As noted, I skinned the chicken pieces to save a few calories, but feel free to leave the skin on if you prefer. (As a side note, now that free-range and "natural" chickens are widely available, I've completely abandoned "industrial" chickens, and recommend the same to you all, whether you're persuaded by reasons of flavor, ethics or both.)

3. Peel the garlic cloves (Bill's version, which called for a whole head of garlic with the cloves separated, advised leaving them unpeeled, but I elected to delete the papery bits.) Cut the lemons in half, then cut each half into quarters. Pull the thyme leaves off the stalks - if you work from the tip back, they should pop right off. (I briefly considered using oregano instead of thyme for a Greek flavor, but decided to stick with the recipe on the first try.)

4. Put the chicken pieces in a roasting pan that will fit them all snugly in a single layer. Add the garlic cloves, the lemon and the thyme leaves. Pour in the olive oil and the wine, and use your hands to mix everything together so all the chicken pieces and lemon chunks are covered with oil. Sprinkle on salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and cover the pan very tightly with aluminum foil.

5. Roast for two full hours. Remove the foil (careful, it's hot!) and turn the oven up to 400F (200C). Continue roasting for another 30 to 45 minutes, or until the chicken pieces are golden brown and the lemons are beginning to caramelize around the edges. Garnish with additional fresh thyme and serve.

"This was another killer recipe," Bill wrote. "Very rich without all the fat and calories ... and the roasted lemons were to die for ... tender and not really either sour or bitter - just delectable!" We love lemons too, but we're not lemon ranchers and have access only to grocery-store product, and I have to say that we found them still a little sour for eating like fruit. But there's no disputing the splendor of that mouth-watering lemon, garlic and herb flavor in every bite of this memorable dish.

MATCHING WINE: Bill chose a red wine, Sebastiani 1999 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, and I wouldn't quibble with that. For me, though, the strong lemon presence suggested a "match likes with likes" pairing - a concept that I'll discuss in more detail in a 30 Second Wine Advisor feature some day soon - and I chose a tart, dry but fruity white wine with a citric lemony snap, the La Fontana 2003 Rias Baixas Albariño that's part of the current International Selection from California Wine Club.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Roast garlic and lemon chicken"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at

Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Prime rib for two (Dec. 30)

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Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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