Sometimes you want something fresh and spring-like and also ultra-exotic. I’ve got one for you, and it’s even within the scope of that recent trend to dishes with a minimum number of ingredients. Or almost within. It’s pretty much nothing but chicken, sugar and chopped-up lemons.
In a way it recalls that old-time dessert foodies are periodically rediscovering, Shaker lemon pie, which is filled with sliced lemons, complete with rind. The pie includes plenty of sugar, which forgives much of the bitterness of the rind, just as it does in marmalade. The idea of using this technique with chicken, though is a bit of a mind-stretcher.
This dish was being made in 16th-century Italy, but I don’t know whether there ever was a special name for it. It might even have been just a chef’s improvisation for a particular banquet. A 1557 cookbook titled “Libro Novo” (in full, if you insist, “Libro Novo nel qual s’insegna à far d’ogni sorte di vivande”) records menus for various dinners, including one given by Count Giulio Sacrato for the Duke of Chartres, the Archbishop of Milan and other big shots of northern Italy and southern Spain. Among the dishes at this banquet, the book lists one described as “slices of roasted capon fried with lemon juice and cut-up lemons, sprinkled with sugar and pepper.”
Everybody knows people were crazy for spices in the Renaissance, so the fact that pepper appears alone is curious. Maybe the use of sugar was enough to make the guests feel they were being treated to appropriate luxury. Sugar was still very expensive in the 16th century.
Recreating the Renaissance
With a description so sketchy, the food historian has to compromise. I tried to feel my way between the inadequate literal text, my own instincts as a cook and a decent respect for the alienness of the past. So: It says to slice. Slicing the meat off a drumstick is a messy and unsatisfying business, even with roasted chicken, and I’d really prefer to use chicken breasts, which slice quite neatly (across the grain for tenderness, of course), instead of a whole chicken.
It says to fry, but it doesn’t mention oil. Since you really can’t fry something in lemon juice and the chicken is already cooked anyway, I suspected this “frying” here meant pan-cooking.
It doesn’t say how long to cook. Softening the lemon rind takes about 45 minutes, which means cooking the chicken well beyond the minimum we’re inclined to today. You might prefer to cook the lemon rind with the lemon juice (covered) until soft and then just warm the meat up in the sauce, though it would absorb less of the lemon flavor that way.
The court chef would have used the most refined sugar available to him, but that wouldn’t be as white as granulated sugar today. I threw in a bit of brown sugar in the interests of authenticity, and I think it does improve the dish.
The dish can also be made with raw, rather than roasted, chicken. It’s more trouble to cut raw meat from the bones, and in this case you would want to fry the dark meat a little, and this would give you a little pan glaze to enrich the sauce.
However you do it, the result is rather striking: bitter-sweet, sweet-and-sour, pungent with pepper. If you don’t have much tolerance for bitter flavors, you could just pick the bits of rind out of the dish. The sauce is quite attractive.
Renaissance Lemon Chicken
- Cut the meat off the bones and cut into convenient slices.
- Squeeze 2 of the lemons. Quarter the remaining 2 lengthwise and cut the quarters into ⅛ -inch slices. Put the chicken, lemon juice and lemons into a large pan, heat over high heat until the juice starts to boil, Lower the heat, cover the pan and cook until the lemon rind is softened, about 45 minutes.
- Check two or three times to make sure the liquid isn’t cooking away; add water (or chicken stock) as needed.
- When the lemons are done, add the sugar, adjusting the amount to taste, and stir in the pepper.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.Photo: Renaissance chicken. Credit: Charles Perry