A sheet-pan chicken recipe for lovers of sweet and savory
By Caitlin Raux Gunther
Every July, I question my sour cherry priorities. Their season is so short, and the fruit so scarce that I rarely get around to making anything beyond one big, gushy pie and a year’s supply of homemade maraschino cherries (must-haves in my Manhattan cocktail).
But maybe, I always think, this is the summer I’ll try something new. Then the urge passes, and I never do.
Last year, though, sour cherry season lingered a little longer than usual in the Northeast, so I was able to squeeze one more recipe into the lineup. I considered jam, a cordial, even meatballs before settling on sheet-pan chicken.
Of the approximately 1 gazillion sheet-pan chicken variations I’ve cooked, sour cherries never made it into the mix. But I knew that their tangy juices would work well with the chicken fat sizzling at the bottom of the pan.
To accentuate the cherries’ sweet-and-sour character, I simmered them briefly with rice vinegar, sugar and a bay leaf. Then I spooned them over a pan full of boneless, skinless chicken thighs and red onion wedges.
As it all roasted, the smell of caramelized fruit and browned-edged chicken filled the kitchen, making me want to stay close enough to breathe it all in. I took advantage by throwing together an ad hoc sauce from thick Greek yogurt, slivered cucumber and more of that sweetened vinegar-bay leaf solution I’d used for the cherries. Dolloped on the chicken, it was a cooling, creamy counterpart to the roasted thighs, zippy cherries and soft strands of red onion.
My family ate it with a torn-up baguette to catch all the drippings, and we all agreed: It was a marvelous summer meal — even at the expense of a batch of cherry jam.
I was so taken with this dish that I tried to create something similar after sour cherry season had passed. I tried red and green grapes, then sweet cherries, then cherry tomatoes. All were good. But none matched the intense sweet-tart character of the sour cherries. (Note that I did not try this dish with thawed frozen sour cherries. I didn’t have any.)
This year, as sour cherry season approached once again, I worried I’d have to choose between pie, cocktails and my new favorite sheet-pan dinner.
Luckily, the market yielded enough cherries for me to make them all.
Chicken Thighs With Sour Cherries and Cucumber Yogurt
If you’re lucky enough to have more sour cherries than you need to make a pie, save them for this sweet and tangy chicken dish. The cherries are briefly simmered with sugar, vinegar and a bay leaf, then added to a sheet pan to roast alongside boneless, skinless chicken thighs and wedges of red onion. As they cook, the cherries absorb the chicken juices, becoming very savory and concentrated. Then, the whole thing is topped with dollops of cooling cucumber yogurt. Serve it with bread or rice to catch the juices at the bottom of the pan. If you can’t get sour cherries, you can substitute seedless red or green grapes.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
2 to 2 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 large red onion, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch wedges
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal), plus more as needed
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons minced tarragon, plus more for serving
2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
3 to 4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 bay leaf
2 cups thinly sliced cucumbers, preferably Persian cucumbers
2 cups sour cherries, stemmed and pitted
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
Flaky sea salt, for serving (optional)
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Combine chicken and onion on a rimmed sheet pan. Toss with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Add tarragon and 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, and toss to combine. Let stand at room temperature while preparing other ingredients.
2. In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, bay leaf and remaining 1 teaspoon salt over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently to dissolve sugar.
3. Place sliced cucumbers in medium bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of the vinegar solution to cucumbers and toss. Set aside.
4. Return pan to medium-low heat and add another tablespoon sugar. Once sugar dissolves, stir in cherries. Cook until cherries are slightly broken down, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and add more sugar if the cherries still seem very tart. (You’re not looking for them to be sweet, just balanced.)
5. Spoon cherries and their juices around chicken and onions. (It’s OK if some cherries are on top of chicken and onions.) Roast until chicken is cooked through and cherries and onions are lightly browned in spots, 30 to 35 minutes. Give the dish a big stir and spoon the savory pan juices all over the top of the chicken.
6. While the chicken is roasting, stir yogurt and remaining 1 tablespoon oil into the bowl with the pickled cucumbers. Season with a large pinch of salt and black pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, stir well, taste and add more salt if needed.
7. Top chicken and cherries with a large dollop of cucumber yogurt, more tarragon and a drizzle of olive oil, then sprinkle with flaky sea salt or more kosher salt, if you like.
And to Drink …
This combination of sweet-and-savory chicken and fruit, with yogurt and cucumber, feels Mediterranean, maybe even North African or Middle Eastern. You could eat this with pita bread, and you could definitely drink it with dry rosé — it’s the ideal wine for the mood of this dish and its combination of flavors. The rosé could come from Provence. But even better would be a rosé closer in spirit to this dish, maybe a Lebanese, Greek or Israeli bottle. A white or fresh red would also be fine, like an assyrtiko or moschofilero from Greece, a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley, a dry riesling from Germany or any number of Italian whites. Or perhaps a frappato from Sicily, or a Beaujolais. — ERIC ASIMOV