Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken

Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone)   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone) | Image: Laura Messersmith

Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Restaurant Rules”

The Set-up: Ina’s cooking restaurant dishes at home and getting some tips from her chef friends.

The Menu: Prosciutto Roasted Bass with Autumn Vegetables, Skillet Brownies, Rao’s Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone), Peas and Prosciutto

0:44 – Ina says she typically avoids restaurant style cooking at home because it’s just too complicated. Amen. There’s a reason chefs and professional cooks need so much training!

1:26 – She’s breaking the rules today with a simplified version of a dish she had at Spago in LA: Prosciutto Roasted Bass.

2:15 – First up, roasting a ton of root vegetables – parsnips, carrots, potatoes, and butternut squash.

3:03 – Now Ina is wrapping squares of sea bass in sheets of prosciutto. Why is it that anything “wrapped” immediately seems special?

4:26 – Oh to be Ina’s assistant, treated to dinner at Spago at the end of every book tour.

5:39 – Final step is melted butter flavored with rosemary and lemon. I trust that literally anything doused in this concoction would taste amazing.

6:01 – Time to plate, the roasted fish placed on a bed of root vegetable and dressed with the flavored butter sauce. Now, Barbara, we feast!!

10:28 – Ina says she first tried Skillet Brownies at the Standard Hotel in New York and couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of the idea herself.

11:15 – Random Side Note: I love recipes with odd measurements, like the sugar (1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon) here. Maybe this is faulty logic, but it tells me that it’s been tested and tested until it’s Baby Bear level “just right.”

12:32 – Time to bake the brownies and Ina has the most adorable miniature cast iron skillet. Seriously, these babies are ridiculously charming.

13:47 – While the brownies bake we get some kitchen tips from chefs: Kevin Penner recommends covering scales with plastic wrap to prevent cross contamination, Oliver Quignon suggests a new take on plating an iceberg & blue cheese salad.

14:09 – A few more – Julia Turshen uses tongs as a press to juice citrus; Joe Realmutto sautés dried herbs in olive oil to release their flavors before de-glazing with the tomatoes.

15:11 – Brownies are out of the oven – a little underbaked, so they’re still super gooey – and Ina’s serving them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Honestly, people would pass out from the cuteness (and the sugar high) if you served brownies this way.

19:36 – Field trip time! Ina is in East Harlem at the legendary Rao’s, notable for the cooking, but also it’s old-fashioned approach to dining. One seating, not open on weekends, and tables are held for regulars – you can see why a reservation might be just a wee bit challenging to secure.

20:48 – We’re in the kitchen with Frank Pellegrino, the restaurant’s owner to learn how to make a family recipe (70 years!!) called Rao’s Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone).

21:14 – The cooking takes place in stages, first broiling the chicken, then making a vinaigrette type sauce with lemon, garlic, oregano, and red wine vinegar.

22:37 – Frank says “we don’t do complicated.” The chicken goes under the salamander/broiler for 2 minutes and “voila, lemon chicken.”

23:19 – Ina gets a taste (natch) and says it’s so, good, so lemony. I’m intrigued by the red wine vinegar…

27:34 – We’re back with Frank to make Peas and Prosciutto which starts with sautéed garlic and onions. I’m on board.

28:23 – Now comes the prosciutto into the pan and I can see why Frank says this is their most popular vegetable. Then the peas are stirred into the cooked onions and then everything gets a ladle of chicken stock.

29:05 – This dish is pretty unusual - somewhere between a vegetable side dish and soup.

29:40 – Ina and Frank belly up to the bar to chat and eat, and laugh and have a fabulous time.

Final Thoughts:
Ordering dishes in restaurants that I know I can’t make at home – fancy technique, unique ingredient, etc. – is always my strategy.

I like Ina’s approach to drawing inspiration from restaurants but in a simplified version.

One year to get a table or thirty-five years I’m still jealous of Ina eating at Rao’s!

Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone)   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone) | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
I decided to make Rao’s Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone) because I can never have enough chicken or lemon or lemon chicken in my life, and, because I’d never cooked an entire chicken under the broiler.

Chicken Cooking – First lesson, make sure the broiling drawer and/or oven is super clean or you’ll fill your kitchen full of smoke like I did. Not so good. When broiling isn’t an option, turn the oven up to 500 degrees. I dried the skin with paper towels and used a cast iron skillet to get the kind of heat retention and sear I was looking for. Problem solved!

Sauce Prep – Just a little bit of mincing, juicing, and measuring; all standard cooking techniques. The recipe as originally written requires two different pans, one for broiling the chicken the first time and a separate pan to cook the chicken in the sauce. I love a pan sauce, and it’s simpler to use the same one so I did. Frank will probably come and hunt me down for messing with his recipe, but I stand by my choice.

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, 100%. I used an 8 inch cast iron skillet, tongs, a medium cutting board, chef’s knife, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons, and a table fork for whisking. That’s it! 

Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone)   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone) | Image: Laura Messersmith

The Verdict:
Mike and I both love a good roasted chicken, but the sauce is what really sets Rao’s Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone) apart. On the surface it’s incredibly simple and really not terribly fancy – dried herbs, some lemon, etc. – all ingredients that are accessible to the home cook at a moment’s notice. The combination, however; is greater than the sum of its parts. I served the chicken straight from the skillet and we both found ourselves going back to the proverbial well to soak up more with every bite. Addictively delicious and I will never cease to be amazed at the magic of red wine vinegar. Don’t skip it! Do make this recipe!

Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone)  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken (Pollo Al Limone) | Image: Laura Messersmith