Another reason to love bistro food: Chicken with Lentils [Poulet aux Lentilles]

by Terry B on March 11, 2009

A dry spice/herb/salt rub replaces liquid brining for the chicken, which is then roasted atop the lentils and vegetables, spreading its juices and flavor throughout the dish. Recipe below.

You know me and the B word. Sure, I’m an unrepentant Francophile, but I’m an even bigger bistrophile. Still, when I came across a cookbook titled Bistro Chicken and promising 101 bistro recipes with chicken, even I thought that was drilling a bit deep. Then I looked inside.

This pleasantly peasanty sounding dish was the first one I opened to, somewhere in the middle of the book. It seemed the kind of hearty, humble meal that might be one of a few offerings on a given night in a little neighborhood place. Or even the only dish in some smaller, more eccentric spot: “Here is what the chef made tonight. Eat it. You’ll like it.”

And you will like it. The chicken thighs are coated with a dry spice/herb/salt rub for 4 to 6 hours, effectively brining the meat without a liquid bath. Then the dish is built in layers for roasting. First, a bed of partially cooked lentils [French lentils from Puy, if you can get them]. Next, a layer of carrots and onions topped with a garlic/herb/spice mix. And finally, the chicken thighs, along with some water and wine. As the chicken roasts, its juices flow into the vegetable/lentil mix below, flavoring the entire dish.

Ginning up the flavor. One of the key ingredients in the spice rub mix is coarsely chopped juniper berries. I recently wrote about the simple pleasures of smelling onions cooking. Well, when I started chopping the juniper berries for this dish at 10:30 on a recent Sunday morning, the kitchen filled with the smell of gin. As Epicurious.com informs us, “These pungent berries are the hallmark flavoring of gin. In fact, the name is derived from the French word for juniper berry—genièvre, which is the name for gin in France.” And Wikipedia tells us that these astringent berries aren’t really berries at all, but a seed cone “with unusually fleshy and merged scales, which give it a berry-like appearance.” In other words, a tiny pine cone. No wonder gin smells like Christmas trees. On a practical note, this means do chop them by hand, on a cutting board with a knife; don’t put them in your spice grinder. Once cut into, they have the same tarlike stickiness you would associate with pine trees.

While the scent is quite powerful when you’re chopping juniper berries [and may make you crave a gin and tonic, even at 10:30 on a Sunday morning], its effect on the final dish is much more subtle, adding a nice freshness to the mix. Thyme and a pinch of ground cloves also play a role in this flavorful meal.

I said you’ll like this dish. We loved it. When I first read the recipe, it sounded like it might be good, and I was curious about cooking with juniper berries. It blew right past good to an omigod moment with the first taste of the lentils. And it reminded me—again—of what makes the best bistro cooking so good. Everything seems simple, humble even. But there are wonderful complexities at work, subtle nuances that come together to produce something far more than you expect.

Chicken with Lentils [Poulet aux Lentilles]
Serves 4 generously
Adapted from Bistro Chicken

1/3 cup coarse sea salt [see Kitchen Notes]
15 juniper berries, coarsely chopped [see Kitchen Notes]
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon dried thyme, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat

2 cups lentils, preferably French [see Kitchen Notes]
5 cups water
1 cup sliced yellow onion
6 or 7 medium-sized carrots, peeled and sliced on a diagonal [2 cups]
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 cups water
1/2 cup white wine

Mix sea salt, juniper berries, ground cloves, 1-1/2 teaspoons of the thyme and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper in a small bowl. Arrange chicken thighs in a single layer in a non-reactive pan [I used the 13x9 glass baking dish that I later used to roast everything]. Sprinkle the spice/herb/salt mixture on both sides of the chicken, rubbing it in to evenly coat. Cover and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours or longer [I went about 7 hours because that's how the day went].

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Cook lentils in 5 cups of water for 20 minutes. While the lentils are cooking, rinse the chicken and pat it dry. If you used the glass baking dish for storing the chicken with the dry rub, wash it now. Drain the lentils and place in the bottom of the baking dish. Spread the onion and carrots over the lentils. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, 1 teaspoon of the remaining thyme, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of ground pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Sprinkle this over the lentils and vegetables. Arrange chicken thighs on top of the lentil/vegetable mixture and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon of thyme. Carefully pour 1-1/2 cups water and the wine around the chicken.

Place baking dish in oven and roast for about 1 hour, until chicken juices run clear when pierced and lentils are cooked through. Remove from oven and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then serve chicken thighs on individual plates with lentils and vegetables heaped alongside.

Kitchen Notes

Really coarse salt, of course. When I first read the recipe, I thought I might be able to substitute coarse kosher salt for the coarse sea salt. But looking at the sea salt at The Spice House, I saw that it was much more coarse than the kosher salt, closer to sidewalk salt than it was to the kosher salt. A similar volume of kosher salt would probably dissolve too much, oversalting the chicken.

Juniper berries. Marion has cooked with them in the past, but I have to admit, this is the first time they’ve appeared on my radar screen. I got them at the Spice House, which also sells spices and herbs online. But I also called Whole Foods; they carry them too, at least in some locations. I honestly haven’t had a chance to check out their general availability in supermarkets, but do seek them out—they add a wonderful, subtle touch to the flavor of this dish. I’m looking forward to finding other ways to use them.

Lentils. Flavorful, full of nutrition and readily available, it’s no wonder these little legumes appear in so many cuisines around the world. If possible, use French lentils from Puy, often called the caviar of lentils and known for their peppery flavor. If they’re not readily available, regular brown lentils are fine.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Randi March 11, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Since Gin and Tonic is my favourite alcoholic drink I’m sure I would enjoy this. I have never even seen juniper berries but I think I may know a few places that have them…I hope.

Laura March 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Oh lord I can taste all of that chicken juice and fat coursing through the lentils now…and that is what I’m craving at 10:30 in the morning! Gorgeous, I’m making it this Sunday for dinner! By the way, the NYTimes ran an article today about roasting a chicken atop bread so the bread soaks up all of the chickeny juices…if you’re in a roast chicken mood it may interest you…it certainly interested me.

altadenahiker March 11, 2009 at 4:06 pm

I’m a big believer in dry brining (altho I can screw even that up from time to time). Those water baths are so messy and I think they make the meat taste bloated.

Are juniper berries cured? You can’t just go out and pick them from a tree, I suppose?

And if you lived closer I’d loan you my copy of Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare, by Jane Sigal.

Ronnie Ann March 11, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Wow Terry! This sounds truly amazing. What a comforting mingling of flavors. The kind of dish that appears humble (to use your word) but can knock your socks off. Gotta say the 1/3 cup of salt scared me a little until I read your note. As always good readin’ and good eatin’.

Ronnie Ann

Terry B March 11, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Randi—I had to work up to gin and tonic, but now I find it absolutely refreshing, especially in the summer.

Laura—Thanks for the link! Another cold snap is barreling through Chicago, so I’m totally in the mood for roast anything.

altadenahiker—In trying to answer you intelligently, I came across the alarming information that some juniper berries can be poisonous. Here’s a helpful article on the topic by Leslie Land, in the New York Times: “Juniper Berries? Be Picky”. My take away from reading it is buy them. And regarding the book, you did the next best thing to loaning it to me: You prompted me to go to the library website and order it. Thanks!

Hi, Ronnie Ann! Yeah, really coarse salt is the key.

Tina Marie March 11, 2009 at 4:41 pm

That looks geat. I don’t know where to find juniper berries either. Would there be a substitute, do you think?

Tina

Kate March 11, 2009 at 5:45 pm

This is definitely going into my Sunday dinner file. I love lentils and I love gin.

For commenters who are looking for juniper berries, I can usually find them in the spice section of a decent grocery store, or you can do what I do and order top quality spices online — my favorite sources are Penzey’s and the Spice House.

altadenahiker March 11, 2009 at 6:37 pm

You’re getting the book? That’s so darned cool; can’t wait to find out what catches your eye. And the book is written on the same stiff butcher paper used for some bistro menues.

Terry B March 11, 2009 at 7:31 pm

Thanks, Tina Marie! There really doesn’t seem to be any decent substitute—the flavor is just so distinctive. But see Kate’s comment right below yours.

Kate—Thanks! I was going to mention Penzeys. Living near The Spice House, I haven’t had to avail myself of their offerings, but I’ve heard nothing but good stuff about them.

altadenahiker—now I’m really pumped to get my hands on the book. What are some of your favorite recipes in it?

Toni March 11, 2009 at 9:00 pm

I am literally salivating….I love this style of cooking. It’s simple and honest, and it’s what always attracts me to European restaurants. They are not into the idea of “food as art”, but rather food as food. Do I love this, or what?

Next time I’m in New Mexico, I will pick some juniper berries and send you some. We had an endless supply of them.

Chocolate Shavings March 12, 2009 at 12:05 am

That looks like the perfect comfort food!

Alta March 12, 2009 at 1:22 pm

This looks SO tasty. Do you think it would work with boneless skinless thighs? (they are what happens to be in my house at the moment) I’m worried they’d get too salty or something.

FoodGeekLee March 12, 2009 at 7:00 pm

I’m in heaven! What a delightful combination, must admit though a little anxious about the juniper berries – but there’s always a first time! On a mission to buy juniper berries!

Terry B March 12, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Thanks, Toni! Looking forward to it.

Chocolate Shavings—It’s kind of comfort food elevated, with nice subtle things happening in it.

Alta—The advantages of the bone-in, skin-on chicken for this dish are the visual appeal and the added fat to be rendered, giving nice flavor to the lentils. I tend to use boneless, skinless chicken thighs for when I’m going to cut up the meat into chunks—for a soup or a stew or something. That said, you could cook the dish with the chicken at hand, then cut up the chicken and mix it in with the lentils and serve it as a hearty soup or stew.

FoodGeekLee—Thanks! The juniper berries will end up being quite subtle, so don’t worry.

katrina March 12, 2009 at 9:15 pm

This recipe ( and your delightful writing and photos) instantly had me starving for this comforting dish! Just the thought of the juniper berries mingling with the lentils and chicken and carrots……swoon. Thank you so much for an unfussy, delectable recipe.

Susan from Food Blogga March 13, 2009 at 2:55 am

Juniper berries are popping up quite a lot on blogs lately. Funny, I just saw them at an organic market the other day. I should snag some next time I’m there.

altadenahiker March 13, 2009 at 7:03 pm

I originally bought the book for an authentic Boeuf a la bourguignonne recipe. Salmon mousse is rather delicious. Plus some of the recipes from Normandy — one of my favorite places on earth. I have two other favorite French cookbooks: Lulu’s Provencal Table and The Cook and the Gardner.

altadenahiker March 13, 2009 at 7:04 pm

Gardener. I can’t spell any better in English than in French, obviously.

Terry B March 13, 2009 at 7:20 pm

Thanks, Katrina!

Susan—It really is funny. I’ll write about something totally random [I think], only to see it everywhere.

altadenahiker—So are you trying to wear out my welcome at the library? I’ve now ordered these books too. Thanks!

Ashley March 14, 2009 at 5:30 pm

This looks wonderful! What a lovely combination :)

altadenahiker March 14, 2009 at 6:32 pm

I’m pretty sure Lulu’s will be your favorite.

Christina March 15, 2009 at 3:35 am

I love them juniper berries. I’ve been playing with them since I got Sarah Raven’s cookbook a while ago. I second Altadenahiker’s recommendation of The Cook and The Gardener. There are some fantastic winners in that big book.

And, after looking through it, you’ll probably be able to see why I love it so much.

Is spring springing for you yet? I hope so.

Terry B March 15, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Thanks, Ashley!

altadenahiker—Now just waiting in geeky anticipation for the library to come through.

Christina—Spring is flirting with us. After temps in the 20s earlier in the week, they claim we’re going to get up to about 55ºF today. We’re heading out soon for one of the beaches in the city that has a bird sanctuary. Now’s a great time to actually get to see stuff, before the trees leaf out.

Kevin March 16, 2009 at 1:04 am

That looks like a great one dish meal!

Ulla March 17, 2009 at 5:50 pm

That looks so healthy and fantastic not only that it is frugal! Thanks for the inspiration!

Cherie March 19, 2009 at 11:17 pm

For those living in the Los Angeles area, I find Puy lentils at Gelsons. $5.49 a box — but worth it.

Terry B March 21, 2009 at 5:08 am

Thanks, Kevin!

Ulla—You’re welcome! Hope you like it.

Cherie—Thanks for the tip! Here in Chicago, Treasure Island is a great source for a number of varieties of lentils.

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