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Chicken Legs with Summer Tomatoes and Basil

We eat a mostly vegetarian diet at home. But every so often, I like to take a good bird, sprinkle it with plenty of salt and pepper, stuff a lemon in the cavity, and roast the hell out of it — we’re talking a 500-degree oven — until the thing is so crisp that the skin has puffed up and separated from the flesh, a crisp, crackling invitation to tuck into dinner.

For some reason, it’s a recipe I associate with winter. If it’s December, and D and I get home on Friday afternoon and don’t have plans, I’ll arrange the bird in a cast iron pan, heat that oven (and my cold hands) high, and get dinner going. That and roasted potatoes, and we’re set.

Summertime isn’t meant for roast chicken. If our birds don’t get rubbed with spices and grilled, they take a turn on the stove top. In this case, we treated them with summer’s best tomatoes and some fresh basil from a friend’s garden. I browned the chicken pieces, then cooked down those tomatoes with a bit of sliced garlic and plenty of olive oil. Once the tomatoes cooked down to a sauce, I added the chicken back in and finished cooking it in the sauce. Five ingredients, 45 minutes, perfect summer dinner.

Would it be silly to include the word “summer” in every recipe from now till the end of August? I’m thinking of summer peaches with crumb topping, fried summer squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta, and maybe even some summer watermelon-gin slushies. Those peaches are not just best in summer, they’re not good any other time of the year. Do not make crumb-topped peaches in December; they will do nothing more than make you sad that August is over.

But while it’s August, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Just go to the market, get the best, juiciest tomatoes you can find, and make this chicken. (Seconds run about 99 cents a pound where I live, and they’re perfect for this recipe.) Sure, you’ve got canned tomatoes all year round. But this is a dish you want to make while the red orbs are still in season. Serve it with crusty bread and plenty of olive oil, and you’ve got the dish to tide you over until roast chicken with lemons is back in style.

Chicken Legs with Summer Tomatoes and Basil
Serves 4

4 whole chicken legs (drumstick and thigh), about 2 lbs.
Salt and pepper
3 garlic cloves, sliced
3 big, juicy red tomatoes, chopped
20 small-to-medium leaves of basil, halved if large
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Pat the chicken legs very dry and season generously with salt and pepper on all sides.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy dutch oven or deep-sided saute pan over medium-high heat. Brown chicken legs on both sides until they develop some serious color, about 3 minutes per side. (You may want to use a splatter screen — the chicken fat splatters pretty violently when the heat is up.) Remove browned chicken to a plate.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and add sliced garlic, followed almost immediately by the tomatoes and their juices. Add a pinch or salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cook uncovered for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes cook down and the liquid reduces by a third. Then add the chicken legs back to the pan, ladle some of the tomatoes and liquid over the legs, and cover the pan with a disk of parchment paper (or just partially cover it using the lid). Cook for 30-40 minutes, until chicken is cooked through and sauce is silky. If the sauce is still thin, remove the chicken legs, increase heat to medium-high, and reduce the sauce until it has thickened to your liking.

Turn off the heat and stir in the whole basil leaves. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil into the sauce, and stir lightly to combine. Serve with a big hunk of crusty bread or a scoop of rice.

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