Three chicken and lemon recipes for the lazy cook

The perfect pair: lemon tenderises and flavours the meat
The perfect pair: lemon tenderises and flavours the meat - Haarala Hamilton

Nobody believes me when I say I’m a lazy cook. I don’t mean I cut corners – if I choose to do something complicated, I do it well. But I don’t often choose to make something complicated.

This is even more the case in summer. The heat slows my brain; I can’t be bothered with shopping. Some days I don’t go out much, preferring to sit in the coolest room in the house with a fan on. In cold weather I set off with carefully written shopping lists for meals that will make dark evenings a joy. I get pleasure out of planning a whole week of meals. In the summer I only have a headful of single words: salmon, watercress, raspberries.

What will I do with these? I’ve no idea. Most often I come back with two ingredients that are almost dull in their everydayness: chicken and lemons. Even in muggy weather I’ll pick up the unwaxed citrus and a whole bird and feel a surge of excitement. These two ingredients have such potential.

On holiday in Sicily a few years ago I christened the kitchen of our rental not with fish but with chicken cooked with rosemary, whole cloves of garlic and wedges of lemon. On the side there was a salad of oranges and fennel and a loaf of bread. Food writers bang on a lot about simplicity, but I truly appreciated the sentiment ‘less is more’ when I brought all this to the table.

Lemons are important all year round. When I listen to Desert Island Discs and hear people choose, as their luxury, cases of Puligny-Montrachet or Egyptian cotton sheets, I always think, ‘But how will they eat well without lemons?’

You can’t have fish without it (lemon heightens the sweetness of the flesh), and all the tropical fruits on the island (the mangos, the papayas) won’t sing without it. If I boil sea water I can get salt, but lemon is the other essential seasoner.
In winter, a good squeeze of lemon lifts a pot of soup or a braise. It’s a connector and heightener of flavours; its transformative powers continue to surprise me. In summer, I want its fresh, cooling acidity as well as its thirst-quenching qualities.

Some days you just want to suck lemon wedges, but also to taste the contrast between its juice and the sweetness of melon or the charred flesh of griddled chicken thighs.

It’s essential for granitas, too, either in the preparation or squeezed over them before eating (I even add lemon to espresso granita – it gives an almost salty edge to the dark depths of frozen coffee).

Chicken with lemons – isn’t that boring? Nope, not if you use the ingredients properly and don’t complicate things. The whole fruit – its skin pierced with a skewer and stuffed inside the bird – creates lemony juices as it cooks; the zest and juice tenderise and flavour chicken thigh fillets as they marinate.

When I thought about the dishes for this feature, I initially considered making fancier versions. ‘I can’t just tell them to marinate chicken thighs in lemon, garlic and parsley,’ I thought. But these are some of the best dishes I’ve cooked in a while. Simplicity also gives you time to think about vegetable dishes which are no longer the poor cousins at the table. Roast red peppers, a salad of white beans, cherry tomatoes, capers and soft herbs, courgettes sautéed with olive oil and garlic until they’ve almost collapsed, all these are good with the basic chicken and lemon combo.

The griddled dishes below take a bit more effort than a roast chicken, but they’re quick. If you’re feeling too lazy for even that, just stick cookery writer Marcella Hazan’s bird in the oven. Yes, the oven makes the kitchen hot. But you can retire to the garden. With a gin and tonic. And big slices of lemon.

On doctor’s orders Diana Henry is taking a break from her column. We can’t wait to have her back in these pages, but in the meantime we hope you enjoy these previous favourites from her archive.