Sear-Roasted Chicken with Lemon and Garlic, Served over Watercress Salad and Pignoli Vinaigrette
Pignoli nuts are one of my favorite Italian foods. I love their creamy, rich taste. I love the way they look, so smooth, so mini. Since I’ve been on this low-carb diet roll, I’ve been eating a lot of salads, and as a result, I’m constantly looking for new ways to make them interesting. Enter the pignoli. It’s a big player in Genoese pesto, of course. A simpler pignoli pesto makes a great salad dressing. Here I use a sweet little watercress salad, dressed with pignolis, as a bed for one of my all time favorite Southern Italian classics, chicken with lemon and garlic.
They used to make a good, very garlicky lemon and garlic chicken at Angelo’s in Little Italy, but that was back in the 1980s. Angelo’s was one of my father’s favorite restaurants, and it’s still open. I wonder how it is now. I’ll check it out and report back. My mother made an excellent version of the dish too, more lemony than garlicky. Chicken with lemon and garlic is traditionally a skillet dish, but I get a crisper skin when I start it on top of the stove and then blast it to moist perfection in a hot oven.
That’s a standard restaurant technique for cooking chicken to order, allowing it to arrive at the table within 20 minutes. The lemon slices I drape over the chicken caramelize in the oven, with the help of a little sugar, becoming sweet and pully. And since there’s no winy, lemony sauce with this version, it doesn’t beckon as urgently for a side of rice or pasta, or a load of bread to soak it all up. Rather, it’s a natural plopped down on a textured little salad. Another Atkins-style triumph to help us all keep the Italian flavors we love while cutting down on the excess carbs.
By the way, the best way I’ve found to roast pine nuts is by laying them out on a small cookie pan and placing it in a 400-degree oven until they’re golden all over, about 10 minutes (but you’ve got to watch them, since they can go from lovely beige to blackened to hell in a minute). Pan-roasting usually gets me half-raw nuts studded with little black spots.
For the chicken:
4 whole free-range chicken legs
4 garlic cloves, peeled and well smashed with the side of a knife
About 6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
The zest and juice from 1 lemon, plus 2 small lemons sliced into very thin rounds
Extra-virgin olive oil
A generous splash of limoncello liqueur
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous pinch of cayenne pepper
About a teaspoon of sugar
For the salad:
2 large bunches watercress, stemmed
1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/2 a small garlic clove
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
Place the chicken legs in a shallow bowl. Add the garlic, thyme, lemon zest, and juice, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and a splash of limoncello. Season with salt, black pepper, and the cayenne, and toss well. Let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, tossing the chicken around a few times to make sure it gets nicely marinated (if you need to hold the chicken in the marinade longer, refrigerate it).
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Heat a large skillet over medium flame (cast iron is good for this, and in any case you’ll need something that can go into the oven without its handle melting). When the skillet is hot, place the chicken legs, skin side down, in the skillet (no need for additional oil), leaving the garlic in the bowl. Take the time to brown them very well, about 6 to 7 minutes. Flip the chicken over, and place the lemon slices on the top, about 4 per chicken leg. Sprinkle with the sugar, and place the skillet in the oven until the chicken is just tender, about 12 to 14 minutes.
To make the vinaigrette, place the pine nuts and the garlic in a mini chopper and pulse until the nuts are chopped into tiny bits but not ground finely (you want texture). You can also do this by hand, if you prefer. Add the lemon, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and pulse once to blend.
When the chicken is done, place the watercress in a salad bowl, and pour on the dressing, giving it a good toss. Divide the salad up onto four dinner plates, and place a chicken leg on each (and remember that the skillet handle will be very hot). Serve right away.