I find it hard to think about food in 90 degree heat, so last Sunday morning I still had no plan for my six-year-old’s belated birthday dinner that night. The birthday boy had requested hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, so the kids were set. For the rest of us, I decided cool was the word of the day. I made a hearty roasted vegetable orzo salad with mint, an earthy mixed greens salad with quinoa, a bright Greek salad, pitchers of minty lemonade. And a simple grilled chicken, juicy and well-flavored with lemon, garlic, olive oil, oregano, thyme and rosemary, that was the surprise hit of the evening.
There are no small dinners in our family. Our nuclear family is a rambunctious six. Saturday night my brother- and sister-in-law dropped in with their four kids plus one for an intimate dinner for 13. Sunday brought the rest of the family and a few family-like friends for our regular gathering of 29: 14 adults, 6 teens, 9 kids. It’s outrageously loud but memorably fun.
Dinner for a large group doesn’t have to be hard. I make what I would make for dinner on my own, maybe with an extra dish for variety. I scale up the volume of everything and serve it up as an enormous family-style spread. It’s casual and friendly, and everyone loves to pick and choose and head back for more.
I loved how much everyone loved the Greek-inspired chicken on Sunday. But I was also delighted at how relatively little of it they ate. I’m a left-coast vegetable evangelist, and I’m always pleased when I can get my less-than-crunchy midwestern family to get excited about vegetables. They inhaled the roasted vegetable orzo, the mesclun salad with quinoa and cranberries, the colorfully crunchy Greek salad. We all devoured my neighbor Dan’s authentic Caesar salad, which he learned making tableside in his Manhattan struggling-performer days. And the herby, lemony, garlicky chicken complemented it all beautifully.
It’s an added bonus that the chicken is absurdly easy to prepare, with ingredients you probably have already. If you don’t have fresh lemons, bottled juice will suffice. Fresh herbs are wonderful if you grow them, but dried work well too. My dried rosemary comes from a formerly-fresh rosemary tree my sister-in-law gave me at Christmas. It’s sad and sparse now, like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, but I keep it around because it’s handy.
The original recipe from allrecipes.com calls for whole chicken in pieces, but I picked boneless skinless breasts to shorten marinating and cooking time.
I quickly pounded the chicken breasts, since thinner meat would more quickly absorb the marinade and also cook more evenly. You don’t need any special tools – a small heavy skillet or saucepan will work well. Cast iron is ideal because it’s so heavy.
To prevent splatters, sandwich the chicken breast, smooth side up, between two sheets of wax paper or in an unsealed ziploc bag. It’s nice to pound on a large cutting board so you don’t risk whacking your countertop.
Bring the pan down firmly on the center of the chicken.
Two or three good whacks should do it. The goal isn’t thin, it’s even. I may have gotten a little carried away with this one.
Season both sides well with salt and pepper. Put chicken in a large ziploc bag.
Mix the marinade.
Pour it in the bag, squeezing out air before sealing. Massage the bag to distribute the marinade evenly. Refrigerate the bag until ready to cook. I had a few hours, but overnight is even better.
I don’t own a grill in Ohio, so I cooked my chicken on the stovetop. The pounded chicken breasts cook quickly, only about five minutes per side. For the party I cooked three at a time in my extra large cast-iron skillet, but it was so chaotic that I forgot to take pictures. Later I cooked this single piece in a quiet kitchen.
This piece is under-flattened. I need to work on my consistency.
Since this piece was still quite thick, I turned the heat low after the initial sear so that the inside would have time to cook.
Flip and cook for another few minutes. If you’re concerned about when it’s done, poke gently at the underside of the breast (the not-smooth side) and look closely at the juice. If it’s pink, let the chicken cook on low for a minute more on the less-cooked side. Don’t overcook it – the heat will continue to make its way to the center even after you remove it from the pan. Let it rest, loosely covered, for a few minutes for the meat to reabsorb its juices.
Everyone declared Sunday’s meal the best ever. It was a perfect meal for a hot day – light, healthful, filling. And the Greek chicken was extra great with a dollop of tzatziki. I could have taken two seconds and scooped it into a bowl. But when you’re feeding 29, you need all your dishware. And this way no one had to ask, “What’s that in the bowl?”
Vegetables with a side of chicken – a meal to be enjoyed and lingered over, with room left for birthday cake. Just the way I like it.
Greek Grilled Chicken
I modified this lemony, garlicky, herby chicken recipe from allrecipes.com for an easy dinner for 30 and was tickled by the raves it received. Definitely a keeper.
- 1/4 cup good olive oil
- 1/4 cup lemon juice (about two lemons)
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary)
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried oregano)
- 3 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts (or 1 whole chicken in pieces)
- Rinse and dry chicken. If using boneless breasts, flatten each breast to even thickness. One at a time, place chicken breast smooth side up between two pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap on a large cutting board. Using small heavy skillet or saucepan, firmly hit center of meat 2-3 times to flatten it to even thickness.
- Season pieces all over with salt and pepper. Place in large ziploc bag.
- Mix olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and herbs. Pour into ziploc bag and squeeze out air before sealing. Massage chicken in bag to distribute marinade throughout. Refrigerate until ready to cook (overnight is great if you have time).
- Chicken breasts cook quickly (about 5 minutes per side, depending on thickness) on grill or stovetop. If you’re concerned about when it’s done, poke gently at the underside of the breast (the not-smooth side) and look closely at the juice. If it’s pink, let the chicken cook on low for a minute more on the less-cooked side. Don’t overcook it – the heat will continue to make its way to the center even after you remove it from the pan.
- Let it rest, loosely covered, for a few minutes for the meat to reabsorb its juices.
- For a large batch, broiling the chicken the oven is convenient. Just watch carefully and flip when browned.
- Bone-in chicken will take longer on grill, up to 15 minutes per side for large pieces. If baking bone-in chicken, sear on stovetop and finish in 350 degree F oven.
Here’s the link to a printable version.