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.
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.