I wake most mornings before dawn. Four-thirty to be exact. That’s when my internal clock starts ticking. Has been that way for as long as I can remember. On those occasions when I’ve stayed up way past my eighty-thirty bedtime or have had one too many craft beers, I may force myself back to sleep for an additional hour or so. But for the most part you can bank on the fact that I’ve downed my second cup of Dark Roast Community Coffee before even the most ambitious of roosters has crowed, “Cock-a-doodle-doo.”
I love the dark stillness of those wee hours of the morning. It’s during that hushed time that I check the weather (always first on my list), catch up on the latest happenings in New Orleans (via NOLA.com), scroll through my favorite business, food and drink sites on Feedly and plan my day. If there’s anytime to spare before the kids stir, I’ll pull up a recorded food show on TV. This past week, I watched (probably for the fourth time) the episode of Barefoot Contessa where Ina hangs out with Frank Pellegrino of Rao’s. I’m a huge fan of both. I adore Ina’s casual approach to great food and easy entertaining and I’m very fond of the history, awesome recipes and long-standing food traditions behind Rao’s (a hundred-year-old restaurant in East Harlem that has a reputation far greater than its seating capacity). Although I’ve never eaten at Rao’s, what I’ve read and seen remind me of the old-school, red sauce restaurants in New Orleans like Venezia’s and Mandina’s, (less the Creole-Italian offerings of course).
I bought the Rao’s Cookbook back in 1998, long before Ina and Frank hooked up on the FoodNetwork, and I have cooked from that book many times since. One of my favorite recipes from that collection, which also happens to be one of the recipes featured on that Barefoot Contessa episode, is Rao’s Famous Lemon Chicken. Simple family fare–charred chicken pieces doused in an aromatic lemon and garlic sauce. Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! After watching that show, I wanted–needed–lemon chicken. So I crept down to our big freezer in the basement and yanked out a whole bird so it would defrost in time for dinner. Unfortunately, throughout the course of the day, I forgot to check my stash of lemons. It wasn’t until the bird pieces were crackling under the broiler that I realized I had no lemons. So much for mise en place. No lemons equaled no Rao’s Famous Lemon Chicken. I did, however, have an unusually large number of over-priced limes lurking about. So after I picked myself up off the floor of despair, I set out to make do with what I had. Limes. Plenty of them. Jalapeños. Good fortune for me because they pair perfectly with limes. “Green Tabasco,” as we call it around here, for that oh-so-important vinegary equalizer (and for a recognizable dose of South Louisiana). And garlic. Because I love, love garlic. That, my friends, is how Crispy Jalapeño-Lime Chicken came to be. How’s that for inspiration?
Now, before you get started making my soon-to-be-famous Crispy Jalapeño-Lime Chicken or, for that matter, Rao’s [Already] Famous Lemon Chicken, you must understand that to achieve awesomeness with either dish you must cut the chicken into small pieces. That’s an important part of the process. By doing so, you allow each piece of chicken to achieve maximum crispness in minimal time. Cutting the bird into small pieces also makes the finished dish more approachable, which is exactly what you want when serving anything family style. When everything is done, plate the chicken and sauce on a large serving platter and set it alongside several loaves of French bread (or any good crusty bread), a crisp green salad and maybe a bowl of pasta shells. Then sit back (but only for a second if you care to eat) and watch the magic of a warm and welcoming family meal unfold. And one last thing. I include the back of the chicken in this recipe because I’m a chicken-bone-gnawing kind of girl. If that’s not your thing, throw it in a separate pot and make some scratch chicken stock or … it pains me to say … trash it.
Crispy Jalapeño-Lime Chicken Recipe
1 5-to 6-pound whole chicken
Salt and pepper
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded, halved and sliced
5 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon Tabasco Green Pepper Sauce
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
French bread, for serving
Preheat broiler. Remove innards from chicken and freeze for later use. Cut chicken into 15-17 pieces (2 legs, 2 wings separated into drumettes and flats, 2 thighs cut in half, 2 breasts cut into halves or thirds (depending on size) and the backbone). Place chicken in a large roasting pan and season with salt and pepper. Broil, turning once, until cooked through and slightly charred, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl combine the jalapeño peppers and next 8 ingredients. Gradually whisk in olive oil. Once chicken is cooked through, remove from broiler. Pour sauce over chicken, turn to coat and return to broiler. Cook for 4 minutes more. Transfer chicken to a large serving platter. Pour pan drippings over chicken and serve family style with plenty of French bread on the side. Makes 6 servings.