WINNER, WINNER CHICKEN DINNER
Don't sleep on this easy, elegant-feeling, kid-approved dinner (from oven to table, in 40 minutes or less).
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Last week was my son Mátyas's (eighth!!) birthday. I pulled away from the online world to live entirely in my tangible one: to soak him in and bake around the clock as only a crazed woman/mother in love would do: I baked my best chocolate chip cookies on his actual birthday, decadent chocolate cupcakes with blue and green icing for his school treat day later that week and the famed ‘The Bear’ Chocolate Cake from the cover of last month's Food & Wine for his birthday party, last weekend—his requests.
I’ll do a separate post on birthday baking soon, but Cliff’s Notes: the cake was legendary (even with some tweaks/shortcuts). We made it two-tiered, in eight layers (one of each of his eight years), complete with homemade Star Wars-themed banners and detailed Millennium Falcon and BB-8 cut-outs, made by my dear friend and uber talent, Rebecca Thuss. He was thrilled.
But, as much as my boy loves cake (and chocolate), it’s the chicken for him….
It should come as no surprise that after marrying a vegetarian, writing a vegetarian cookbook (back in 2012), and hearing my firstborn declare she also no longer eats meat—early in the pandemic (she’s two + years strong without red meat/pork)—my son would evolve into a full-on meat lover. There’s been a fair amount of grass-fed steak and steak tacos surrounding his birthday month, but what he really loves is chicken.
Mátyás is allowed to pick two lunches a week from our public school’s hot lunch program (if you’re worried about the quality of school lunch, read this). Without fail, he picks ‘Bagel Pizza’ day and ‘Oven Baked Chicken’, every time.
I’ve heard so much about the school’s oven-baked chicken I’m beginning to suspect I’ve been out-ranked by the lunchroom staff. To wit: Last night, when I was cuddling Mátyás to sleep after I’d already read to him, told him three made-up stories (his favorite request) and some real stories about my childhood, he still wasn’t ready to part for the night, so I started a game of this or that.
It goes like this:
Me: “What do you like better, my chocolate cake or oven-baked chicken?”
Mátyás (with an enormous grin, bracing himself for my horror): “OVEN BAKED CHICKEN!”
This went on round after round. I tried seeing where numerous family members, new toys, vacations, memories, and movies stood up against oven-baked chicken. I’m sorry to report it won out over almost everything, including cuddles with mama, which he found hilarious. (No, this did not make him sleepier).
The only thing that trumped OBC (as we’ll call it, henceforth): cuddles with daddy, and new episodes of The Mandalorian.
For years, I romanticized roast chicken dinners for the family, which I made once a week, even if only half the family would eat it. It satisfied my want to make a wholesome hot dinner that hit all the right notes (nutritious, filling, aromatic, and: not pasta). But, organic roasters have gotten pricy and what’s more—whole roast chicken takes a fair amount of babysitting to get it right—thighs juicy, breast not overcooked, the skin lusciously crisp. And even though I always turned the carcass into luxe golden chicken broth (more babysitting), and later soup (even more babysitting!) it wasn’t feeling like a home run anymore, for all that work.
Friends, it turns out there’s a better use of our time: CHICKEN THIGHS.
My grocery carries super reasonably priced chicken thigh quarters, whether organic or conventional. Four of them can cook all on one sheet tray at high heat (425) in about 40 minutes, yielding evenly crisp skin and juicy insides.
The lemons are vital here (see this and this about my lemon love); they soften and release juices that turn the pan drippings into sheer heaven. Other perks? I can easily freeze two thighs for a dinner later in the week when it’s just the kids and me (two zip-top bags do the trick, no breaking a bird down), and there’s still PLENTY to work with here (bones, skin, pan drippings) to make a flavorful broth or soup later, loaded with carrots, celery and tons of dill.
I’ve been making these lemony OBC thighs for the last five weeks on repeat, and I think you’ll want to, too. There are lots of ways you can build on this once you master the chicken (I have a sheet-pan chicken thigh dinner with sweet and sour kale coming out in the New York Times soon). But in the meantime, see below for a recipe for this straight-up version that works with any side (rice, potatoes, salad, crusty bread)—plus 6 other chicken thigh recipes I love (from me and other recipe writers I trust).
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OVEN-BAKED CHICKEN WITH LEMON AND OLIVES
Really, it just can’t get simpler than this. Do yourself the favor of investing in and actually using your spices! The fresher the better, naturally, but don’t stress if your coriander and fennel seeds have been hanging around, they’ll still lend flavor here. Still, the lemons are the hero, so do not skimp on them. A note that the amount of oil you start with and the pan juices this dish yields will be influenced by how fatty your chicken thighs are. Adjust as needed.
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly-cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon freshly cracked coriander seeds (or 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander)
1 hearty pinch fennel seed (optional)
4 bone-in chicken leg quarters (thigh and leg), about 2 1/2 to 3 lbs
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 lemons, thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic
2 sprigs oregano
½ cup unpitted Castelvetrano olives (or other green olives)*
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon), for finishing
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Combine the salt, pepper, turmeric, coriander, and fennel seed in a small bowl and rub them together. Season the chicken legs all over with the seasoned salt, patting on the skin. Toss the seasoned thighs, lemons, garlic, oregano, and olives in a bowl or a large heavy-duty resealable bag and toss well to coat the chicken quarters completely on all sides (refrigerate the chicken in the marinade overnight, for deeper flavor, if time allows. This is an easy and helpful make-ahead!).
Transfer to the prepared tray, laying the chicken quarters skin side up; scatter the garlic, lemons, and olives among them, and drizzle any remaining marinade over the top (don’t leave any of the precious oil or flavoring behind!). Roast until golden brown and just cooked through but still juicy, 35 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of your thighs, turning the pan front to back once for even browning (an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh should read 165 degrees). Serve warm with the pan drippings.
PREP TIME: 15 MINUTES // SERVES 4 to 6
*unpitted olives hold their shape and flavor better. Serve them with a reminder to watch for pits. Or, use unpitted olives, adding them halfway through cooking.
MORE WINNING CHICKEN THIGHS*
*Most of these recipes are paywalled. As a paying subscriber to The New York Times, I can gift a limited number of recipes each month. Write or DM me if you want a link here that you can’t access above, and I’ll do my best to share (until I run out of free shares).