My love affair with roast chicken began long before I converted to Judaism. Growing up, my mother made a delicious recipe with preserved lemons that was the meal I requested on birthdays and special occasions. During college in upstate New York, my roommates and I would get rotisserie chickens from Wegman’s supermarket that we would eat with our fingers straight from the plastic containers. If I see a roast chicken on a menu, I can’t stop myself from ordering it.
Last spring, as I prepared to host my first Shabbat dinner, serving my mother’s roast chicken seemed like the perfect choice. My fiancé and I had just completed Exploring Judaism, a six-month Jewish fundamentals course for potential converts and their partners at our synagogue, and we were having our whole class, as well as the rabbi who taught us, over to celebrate. I knew the roast chicken would be a hit.
“But we’re having 20 people,” said Adam, my fiancé. “Isn’t roast chicken a bit ambitious?” It was true that to feed our guests I would somehow need to roast four or five chickens in my tiny New York City oven, in which I also planned to bake two loaves of challah.
“I can do it,” I said, having a tendency to approach hosting dinner parties like an extreme sport where I’m left panting, sweating and near unconscious by the time my guests arrive.
As the Shabbat dinner approached, the demands of my full-time job, planning a wedding, and studying for my conversion began to take their toll. I found myself lying in bed at night, unable to sleep, puzzling over a viable chicken roasting strategy.
The day before the party, I went to the grocery store to purchase the chickens. I loaded four of them into my basket and the weight nearly pulled my arm out of its socket. Oh, Forget it, I thought, realizing that waking up at 6 a.m. to begin a ten-hour roast-a-thon was the scheme of a mad woman. I put the chickens back, marched straight over to the prepared food counter and ordered two platters of chicken fingers.
The evening of the Shabbat dinner, our apartment filled with people who had been strangers just six months before, but now felt like old friends. We shared the unshakable bond of adults who’ve sat in a classroom and belted out the Hebrew alphabet together. Our rabbi helped me lead the Shabbat prayers (my “baruch attahs” had finally stopped sounding like “barook a Todd’s”), and much challah and wine were consumed. It was one of those lazy June evenings that seemed to stretch on forever, the mood was festive and our guests stayed late into the night. As the last couple was leaving, the wife turned to me and said, her face very serious, “Those were the best chicken fingers I’ve ever eaten.”
The next week, I had my conversion ceremony and officially became Jewish. Since then, I’ve had many opportunities to make my mother’s recipe. I think of her roast chicken as the little black dress of the Shabbat meal: it’s simple, elegant and always gets compliments. The process of converting involved taking on many new rituals and customs, and it’s nice to be able to bring my own family traditions and memories to the table. Making my mother’s chicken, I’m reminded of the many hours I’ve spent sitting at the kitchen counter watching her cook and our trips to Kalustyan’s grocery in “Curry Hill” to buy preserved lemons with saffron, and it provides the perfect excuse to call her up and chat about roast chicken, a topic about which we could both opine endlessly.
So if I’m making Shabbat dinner, roast chicken with preserved lemons is on the menu. Unless of course, I’m having more than 10 people, in which case, I know just what to do.
My Mother’s Roast Chicken with Preserved Lemon
1 3 - 4 pound chicken
2-3 preserved lemons, cut in half
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, cut into thirds
1 fennel bulb, cut into quarters
1 large onion, cut into quarters
Salt and Pepper to taste
1) If you can, rub the chicken with salt the day before and chill in refrigerator.
2) Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rub with salt, if you haven’t already, pat dry. Rub chicken with 2 tablespoons olive oil, getting into pocket between skin and chicken breast. Then take one preserved lemon and squeeze juice over skin. Stuff preserved lemon halves in chicken cavity.
3) Scatter vegetables at bottom of roasting pan. Toss the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil with the vegetables.
4) Place chicken on rack breast side down. Roast for 15 minutes. Baste chicken, turn breast side up, and reduce heat to 350 degrees. Roast for another 45 to 60 minutes or until juices run clear, basting every 10-12 minutes.
5) Remove chicken from oven and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Take preserved lemons out of cavity and roughly chop. Carve chicken and serve over vegetables, top with preserved lemon and pan juices.