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A weekend cook’s true happy hour

Special to The Times

Two BUNCHES of lemon thyme, a pound of sweet butter, two plump chickens, a ball of fresh mozzarella and an armload of bright bell peppers. I pick these up at the market, and with the odds and ends I have at home, it’ll be kismet -- the perfect Saturday morning of cooking.

When I first started cooking on Saturday mornings, I’ll admit the ritual was haphazard. But these days I buy at the market with my eye on the few hours ahead that I’ve set aside to prepare food for the weekend and well into the next week.

Two juicy roast chickens (for eating right away and for sandwiches) with a luscious red pepper sauce that also makes a wonderful dip, a salad of lentils -- served warm or cold, and fragrant lemon popovers for dinner or even brunch the next day.

For efficiency’s sake, I focus on dishes with overlapping ingredients. The shallots I roast under the chickens will be savory in a red pepper and goat cheese spread that I make for sandwiches. After I’m done zesting a fragrant lemon into popover batter, I’ll squeeze its fresh juice into the salad of lentils, roasted vegetables and fresh mozzarella. Leftovers fuel invention, and this kind of cooking gives me the satisfaction of not wasting a thing.

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Everything falls into place. I turn on the oven, put on a pot of coffee and then line up the chickens on a cutting board.

I rub the birds all over with thyme- and coriander-spiked yogurt, then arrange them in the refrigerator to tend to later. An hour gives acidic yogurt its time to tenderize, leaving me time to make the panful of hot, crisp popovers.

Conventional wisdom dictates that popovers be eaten fresh out of the oven, but I beg to differ. Even at room temperature, popovers are perfect for tearing into pieces and eating with fresh dips or brothy soups.

I’ll also dust a plateful with powdered sugar and take them to a dinner party tonight with friends; served this way they make an elegant dessert. We’ll even reheat a few popovers to go with Sunday night’s supper.

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While the popovers bake, I peel plump shallots and chop carrots and glossy peppers, toss them with olive oil in a roasting pan and arrange the chickens on top. Out come the popovers, in go the chickens: brilliant timing. I sit down with a cup of hot coffee, tear open a popover and drizzle it with honey. During these few minutes, I sit back and enjoy the sounds and smells of my bubbling Saturday-morning kitchen.

When the chicken is almost done, I put on a pot of green lentils to cook until they’re tender, and whisk together a tart balsamic vinaigrette. Next, I combine roasted vegetables with the buttery lentils, cubes of fresh mozzarella and the vinaigrette to make a warm salad. We’ll eat these lentils three or four different ways before they’re gone: piled into a popover and eaten for lunch, served alongside the chicken for supper and spooned into a small bowl as a snack later this afternoon.

When the chickens are deep brown, and their skin crisp, I set them aside. I puree the roasted shallots and peppers with sharp, salty goat cheese and set a bit of the mixture aside to eat later, spread on thick slices of sourdough toast for sandwiches made with shredded leftover chicken.

The rest of the bright red concoction flavors a creamy pan sauce, the last thing I’ll make this morning. So much cooking for tomorrow and next week is done and it’s barely afternoon; I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.

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food@latimes.com

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Yogurt-rubbed roasted chicken with red pepper sauce

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Total time: 2 1/2 hours, plus 1 hour marinating time

Servings: 8 to 12

Note: Use some of the roasted carrots and shallots in this recipe to make the warm salad of lentils, roasted vegetables and fresh mozzarella.

1 cup plain Greek-style yogurt

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon chopped thyme

2 teaspoons ground coriander

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Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 (3- to 3 1/2 -pound) chickens

1 pound (about 16) shallots, peeled and left whole

6 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks

3 red bell peppers, halved, cored and quartered

1 (4-ounce) log goat cheese, softened

1 cup chicken broth

1 tablespoon flour

1. In a small bowl, stir together the yogurt, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the dry mustard, thyme, coriander, 1 1/2 tablespoons salt and one-half teaspoon pepper. Loosen the skin around the chicken breasts and thighs, then rub both chickens all over (beneath the skin and inside the cavity, too) with the yogurt mixture. Refrigerate the chickens, uncovered, for 1 hour.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the shallots, carrots, peppers, the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, three-fourths teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon pepper into a large roasting pan and toss well. Arrange a rack over the vegetables large enough to hold both chickens.

3. Arrange the chickens on the rack, breast-sides up, and roast, basting occasionally with pan juices, until the vegetables are very tender and the chickens are deep golden brown and cooked through, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Transfer the chickens to a large platter and tent with foil; set aside.

4. Drain the pan drippings into a bowl, then skim off and discard the fat; set aside.

5. Remove and discard the skin from the peppers (it should peel off fairly easily), then transfer them to a food processor. Add half the shallots and pulse until roughly chopped. Add the goat cheese and salt and pepper to taste and pulse again until just combined. This makes a generous 2 cups of puree. Remove all but 1 cup of the puree and set aside to use throughout the week as a sandwich spread or dip, then puree the remaining red pepper mixture until smooth.

6. In a large skillet, whisk together the reserved pan drippings, chicken broth and flour until smooth, then bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until just thickened, about 1 minute. Whisk in the red pepper puree and cook until just thickened, 1 to 2 minutes more. Strain the sauce, discarding any solids, and keep warm.

7. Carve the chickens and transfer to plates. Spoon 1 to 2 tablespoons of the red pepper and goat cheese sauce over each serving and serve with the remaining roasted shallots and carrots on the side.

Each of 12 servings with 1 tablespoon sauce: 381 calories; 36 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 23 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 134 mg. cholesterol; 584 mg. sodium.

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Warm salad of lentils, roasted vegetables and fresh mozzarella

Total time: 55 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: When making this recipe, use leftover roasted carrots and shallots from the yogurt-rubbed roasted chicken. Alternatively, roast 3 large peeled carrots (cut into chunks) and 3 peeled shallots, tossed with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch each of salt and pepper, at 375 degrees until tender and golden, about 30 minutes.

2 cups French (du Puy) green lentils, rinsed

2 dried or fresh bay leaves

5 cloves garlic, crushed

Kosher salt

1 cup finely chopped roasted carrots

3 roasted shallots, finely chopped

6 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh orange juice

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup thinly sliced oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes

1 (6-ounce) ball fresh mozzarella, chopped

1. Place the lentils, bay leaves, garlic, 8 cups of water and three-fourths teaspoon salt

in a medium pot and bring to

a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until the lentils are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain the lentils well, discarding the water,

bay leaves and garlic. Transfer the hot lentils to a large

bowl. Add the carrots and shallots.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, orange juice, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, one-eighth teaspoon salt

and a pinch of pepper, or

to taste, then transfer to

the bowl with the lentils and toss gently.

3. Add the parsley, tomatoes and mozzarella and toss again gently, just to combine, then serve.

Each serving: 346 calories; 15 grams protein; 33 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 17 mg. cholesterol; 200 mg. sodium.

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Lemon-scented popovers

Total time: 50 minutes

Servings: 12

Note: This recipe calls for popover pans.

4 tablespoons melted butter, divided

2 cups milk

6 eggs

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

2 tablespoons finely grated Grano Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 tablespoons powdered sugar (optional)

1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Spray the cups of two popover pans with nonstick cooking spray, then drizzle 1 tablespoon melted butter evenly among the 12 cups; set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, zest and remaining 3 tablespoons butter until combined.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and whisk thoroughly until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.

4. Divide the batter among the cups in popover pans, then sprinkle the cheese evenly over the batter.

5. Put the pans in the center of the oven and bake, without opening the oven, for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and continue to bake until dark golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes more.

6. Remove the popovers from the oven and immediately poke each with a thin metal skewer, cake tester or the tip of a paring knife to allow steam to escape. Turn the popovers out of the pan and dust with powdered sugar, if you like. Serve immediately, or reheat later in a 350-degree oven until just crisp.

Each popover: 174 calories; 7 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 8 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 121 mg. cholesterol; 154 mg. sodium.


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