A touch of lemon brings spring to the table

Lemon baked chicken with a garlic spice rub.  - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Lemon baked chicken with a garlic spice rub.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Spring has finally sprung! One drawback is that the frequent April rainfall can be a real downer. Fortunately, the delightful colorful vision of cherry blossoms, tulips and daffodils, combined with the longer hours of daylight and warmer weather, are nature’s mood elevators.

Yellow, a color associated with sunshine and happiness, reminds me of lemons and how often they’re used in preparing food and drinks: from just a slight enhancer to a powerful punch of lemony tart flavor.

If you’ve ever had a Meyer lemon, you know how wonderful they are. Not a purebred variety, with a much thinner skin and sweeter taste, Meyer lemons are a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange. They’re hard to find and can be used whenever lemons are called for.

Something that might surprise you is that lemons, while acidic when eaten, actually turn alkaline in the body, helping us maintain a healthy internal pH balance. Hot water and squeezed lemon juice are very soothing to our digestive system.

One night, while having dinner with my friend, Debra Rettman, she served a baked chicken that was so delicious I couldn’t stop tasting it. I was intrigued that even though it appeared to be just an ordinary plain chicken, it tasted anything but ordinary or plain. After my third helping, I asked her what she did to her chicken to make it taste so delish.

One of the things she did was stuff the cavity with a whole lemon cut in half, something I had often done, yet my chicken hadn’t resulted in the same delectable flavor. As she went on further, she said that after it’s done, she squeezes the baked lemon juice over the cooked chicken. Bingo. That was an important step I hadn’t done, and doing so makes a delicious difference.

Debra also rubs a whole bulb of pressed garlic over the chicken and uses just pepper as a spice. The garlic can be omitted if you’re allergic or don’t care for it. I’ve made it with and without garlic, and it’s truly wonderful both ways. The easiest way I’ve found to prepare this chicken is to purchase the prepared crushed garlic in a jar. Crushed garlic actually works better than the pressed. You can also get a crushed consistency by putting the garlic in the food processor. Whether you use the fresh garlic or the prepared, it won’t affect the taste, and buying it in the jar is so much easier.

Here’s my own version that was inspired by Debra Rettman’s delectable baked chicken.

Baked Lemon Chicken

Serves 4 to 5


1 whole chicken, about 5 pounds

2 large lemons

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ garlic bulb, peeled and pressed (or 2 tablespoons prepared crushed garlic)

1 tablespoon paprika, ground

1 tablespoon coriander, ground

1 tablespoon curry powder

Salt and ground pepper to taste

1 cup white wine (optional)


Preheat the oven to 450 degrees with the rack placed on the lowest part. Rinse the chicken thoroughly outside and inside its cavity with cold water, removing any extra parts; pat dry.

In a small bowl, make a paste with the ground spices, olive oil and crushed garlic, then liberally rub it all over the entire outside and cavity of the chicken. Salt and pepper to your taste on both sides. Fill the cavity with the lemon halves. If you don’t have room for one of the halves, place it in the cavity at the neck side and secure with a toothpick.

Place the chicken breast side down on a rack set in a roasting pan. Pour about a cup of wine and ½ cup water (or 1½ cups water only) into the bottom of the pan. You might need to add extra water as it bakes.

Bake for 35 minutes, then carefully turn the chicken over (using two large meat forks with one in the neck and one in the cavity) and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes or until a meat thermometer placed in the breast not touching the bone reads 165 degrees. Remove from oven and allow the chicken to rest for at least 5 to 10 minutes before cutting.

I love rice, from basmati to wild and every kind in between. This rice recipe is a great way to dress up a meal alongside grilled meat or fish, or as a vegetarian main course. If you’ve got any leftover fish or chicken, cut it up and throw it in this rice dish for your main course. That’s something I will do with a prepared rotisserie chicken that I pick up when I’m rushed and not in the mood to do much cooking. If you ever have a chance to shop at a PCC Natural Market, they have the best tasting rotisserie chicken available.

I’ve chosen a short grain brown rice for this recipe. Feel free to substitute any other rice you’d like to use. Just keep in mind that different types of rice have their own cooking process. For example, brown rice always uses twice the water to rice ratio and takes longer to cook, while other types use less water and cook quicker.

Lemon Rice with Peas

Serves 4 to 5


1½ cups short grain brown rice

3 cups water

1 teaspoon butter

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup leek (cut up)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large lemon

1 cup large peas (frozen is fine)

½ cup macadamia nuts (chopped)


Rinse the rice under cold water and drain. Heat the water in a small (2-quart) sauce pan until it comes to a low boil. Stir in the butter, salt and rice; reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook for about 45 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed. If you use a larger sauce pan, the rice will take less time to cook.

When it’s finished, allow the rice to sit on the stove, covered for at least a minute.

Thaw the frozen peas by resting them in hot water for about a minute, then drain. Wash the lemon and grate the skin to get about 1 full teaspoon of lemon zest. Then cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice.

Cut off the dark green part of the leek to use only the white and the very pale green parts. Wash the leek thoroughly, careful to remove any dirt that might be hiding between the layers. Slice the leek in half along its length, then cut each half into small slices. Heat the oil in a sauté pan on medium heat and sauté the leek to soften but not turn brown. Pour the oil and sautéed leek in with the rice, along with the peas, lemon juice, lemon zest and macadamia nuts. Blend well and adjust salt to taste.

Desserts are where the luscious lemon taste can shine front and center. More often than not, lemon cakes are loaded with butter and high in fat. I found a truly scrumptious recipe from a “Barefoot Contessa” cookbook that uses oil and yogurt instead of butter to produce a very moist texture and rich flavor. I changed it up in a few places, like using nonfat Greek-style yogurt instead of the whole milk version that the recipe called for, which didn’t compromise the taste or texture in the least. I also added cornmeal and some extra vanilla for added taste and texture.

Have about 3 to 4 large lemons on hand so that you’re covered. The nice thing about this recipe is you don’t need an electric mixer; a whisk, mixing spoon and spatula are enough to do the job.

Lemon Cornmeal Cake

Makes 1 loaf


1¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup cornmeal (medium grind)

½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup plain nonfat yogurt (Greek style)

1 1/3 cups granulated sugar (divided into 1 cup and 1/3 cup parts)

3 extra large eggs

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup vegetable oil (not olive oil)

1/3 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

Ingredients for the glaze:

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack placed in the middle. Prepare an 8½-by-4½-inch loaf pan (or one very close to that size) by lining the bottom with parchment paper and greasing the top of the parchment and sides of the pan with vegetable spray, then flour the pan by putting a few tablespoons of flour in the pan, tapping it all around to cover the insides and shaking out the excess.

Sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt into one smaller bowl. In a larger bowl, whisk together the yogurt, 1 cup of sugar, the eggs, lemon zest and vanilla, and blend well. Slowly whisk the sifted dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Then, with a rubber spatula, fold the vegetable oil into the batter, making sure it is all incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf and bake for 50 minutes or until a cake tester placed in the middle comes out clean. While the cake is baking, cook the 1/3 cup lemon juice and the remaining 1/3 granulated sugar in a small pan until the sugar dissolves and it is clear. Set aside.

When the cake is done, allow it to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then cut around the outside to loosen the edges and carefully turn the cake out and back over upright on a rack set over a baking sheet. While the cake is still warm, pour the lemon-sugar mixture over the cake and allow it to soak in. Cool the cake thoroughly.

For the glaze, mix the confectioners’ sugar with the 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and the vanilla. When the cake is completely cool, either brush or drizzle on the glaze. This yummy cake is sure to be eaten until it is gone.

Enjoy. Happy spring!

Cynthia Shifrin can be reached at

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