Many people forget about the power of citrus. I admit I was one of those people, even though I spent time growing up in Florida where citrus groves abound. Lemons were my family’s top choice. We used lemons for lemonade or sweet tea or the tangy glaze on a pound cake. Once all of the yellow liquid had been squeezed out, the lemon itself was tossed into the trash. I never knew that the best part of the lemon had just been dumped. Thrown in a heap. Discarded as if useless.
Years later, I would learn the outer skin of the lemon was the true flavor carrier for the fruit. That’s where all of the natural oils live, and those oils impart the true essence of the lemon’s aroma and taste. There are several types of tools on the market that will create strings of zest in a variety of widths and sizes. If you’re in a pinch, carefully use a fine grater to remove the fruit’s outer peel.
In many recipes, you’ll find the lemon’s skin–or zest–listed as an ingredient when you want to add the right touch of brightness without the sour quality of the juice itself. Of course, limes, oranges and grapefruit are also prime candidates for zesting. You can then use the zest for almost any and everything–salsa, soup, jam, compound butter, cookies, cupcakes, salad dressings, ice cream, cocktails. From sweet to savory, citrus zest will do its best to add subtle flavor to the dish, especially a dish featuring poultry. Lemon is the perfect zinger in a cream sauce over cooked penne pasta and baked, sliced chicken.
If you are short on time, you could even use pre-roasted chicken breasts. Just remove the skin, slice and toss into the sauce towards the end. For a lighter sauce, substitute neufchatel, low fat sour cream and milk for the cream cheese, sour cream and heavy cream, respectively. You could also use whole wheat penne pasta for extra fiber.
Lemon Parmesan Chicken and Penne – Serves 12
- 4 pounds chicken breast, butterflied and flattened to 1/2″
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 3 tablespoons dried basil
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, divided
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 shallots, minced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup flour
- 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
- 1 cup sour cream
- 3 eggs, whisked
- 3 cups heavy cream
- Zest of 3 lemons
- 1 1/3 cups parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- 3 pounds penne pasta, cooked
- Olive oil
- Season the chicken with the garlic powder, dried basil and a 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt. Drizzle a bit of olive oil into a deep, wide pan over medium high. Once hot, brown both sides of all the chicken breasts, approximately 30 seconds per side, and lay the meat on a baking sheet. Add more olive oil to the pan if necessary to prevent sticking. Slide into a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes or until cooked through. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
- In the same pan used to cook the chicken, add the butter and melt completely until it begins to sizzles. Drop in the shallot and garlic, tossing to coat. Cook the shallot and garlic for 1-2 minutes before stirring in the flour. Stir constantly to form a buttery paste, cooking for another 2-3 minutes until a toasty brown roux forms.
- Mix the cream cheese into the buttery flour, then stir in the sour cream until smooth. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. Scoop about 1/4 cup of this mixture into the whisked eggs and combine them very well, then pour the eggy liquid back into the large pan of sauce. Keep stirring.
- Next, add the heavy cream and reduce the heat to medium low, continuously stirring all the while. Cook the sauce for another 3-4 minutes without allowing it to come to a boil. If it begins to bubble, reduce the heat slightly.
- Finally, sprinkle the lemon zest and parmesan into the sauce. Cook another 6-8 minutes, reducing the heat again if necessary.
- While the sauce continues to thicken, slice the chicken breasts into thin strips and drop them into the sauce. Once all of the chicken is in the pan, remove from heat. Pour everything over the cooked penne and toss well to coat. Serve immediately.