Chicken tray bake with plums, lemon and thyme

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When people ask me what I cook during the week, my answer is usually pasta or a tray bake.

If you’re not familiar with tray bakes, or sheet pan dinners as they’re known in the States, then you’re in for a treat.

In a nutshell, tray bakes are a one-pot meal, but on a tray. Everything is assembled, cooked and served on the one tray which means almost zero washing up.

It also means you can have things like roast chicken on a weeknight and not be sitting down to eat at 10pm.

They also look really impressive when they hit the table which is exactly what you want out of a dish that took you no time at all to prepare. Minimal effort for maximum results is what we’re talking about.

Plums and garlic on a board for chicken tray bake with lemon and thyme recipe
This chicken tray bake was made with plums, while they were in season and at their best.(ABC Life: Julia Busuttil Nishimura)

How to build your own tray bake:

  • First, you simply need to choose what is going to be the star — chicken thighs like I’ve used here are great, pork chops, fish or steaks of cauliflower are all things that get a good workout in my kitchen.
  • Next up are the other ingredients that are going to accompany your main — vegetables, aromatics, spices and herbs. I’ve made a marinade for the chicken here, but that is definitely optional, although a good thing for flavour.
  • If you didn’t want to make a marinade, a simple herby sauce made from chopped parsley, lemon zest, garlic and olive oil is going to bring everything to life — this is especially good with the cauliflower.
  • With tray bakes, I think of what combinations I like to eat together. So maybe it’s salmon, broccolini and ginger, and I’ll turn it into a tray bake. The possibilities are endless. Just be mindful of how long things take to cook.
  • Either chop the ingredients with their cooking time in mind, partially cook things if they require longer (like potatoes) or add ingredients in halfway or towards the end if they are going to burn or don’t need much time (like fresh peas).
  • Woody herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano roast really well. More delicate herbs such as parsley, basil, mint and coriander are best scattered over after cooking.
  • Some of my favourite combinations with chicken are lemon, cherry tomatoes and potatoes; chickpeas, cherry tomatoes and chorizo; grapes, walnuts and olives; mustard, green beans and potatoes.
  • I’ve made this chicken tray bake with plums, which are in season at the moment so they are at their best (and most affordable).
Chicken tray bake with plums, lemon and thyme recipe uncooked
For an Asian twist on this tray bake, instead of thyme, you can use some grated ginger and soy in the marinade.(ABC Life: Julia Busuttil Nishimura)

Tips:

  • If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, use ground fennel instead of the seeds and finely chop the garlic on a board. Everything can then be simply mixed together in a small bowl.
  • Chicken on the bone has much more flavour and stays moist when roasting — Marylands can be used too; however, they will need about 10-15 minutes longer in the oven.
  • For an Asian twist on this tray bake, instead of thyme, you can use some grated ginger and soy in the marinade, throw in a star anise and swap out the white wine for some sake or shaoxing rice wine. Once it’s cooked, top it all off with coriander and sliced shallots and serve with steamed rice.
  • Tray bakes can usually be assembled the night before, covered and kept in the fridge, making for an easy dinner the following day. Just be sure to bring it back to room temperature before cooking.
Chicken tray bake with plums, lemon and thyme cooked
Chicken tray bake with plums, lemon and thyme is great served hot with crusty bread and a green salad.(ABC Life: Julia Busuttil Nishimura)

Julia Busuttil Nishimura is a cook, author and teacher. Her work celebrates simple ingredients, seasonal produce and the joys of coming together at the table. Her cookbook Ostro was released in 2017. She lives in Melbourne with her husband, Nori, and son, Haruki.ROASTINGCHICKENFAMILY DINNERDINNER

Ingredients

For the marinade:6 chicken thighs (approximately 1.2 kilograms), skin on, bone in1 tsp fennel seedsSea salt2 cloves garlic, peeled1 Tbsp brown sugar2 sprigs of thyme, leaves strippedZest of a lemon60ml (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive oilFor the tray bake:6 firm plums, I used blood plums but any are fine2 cloves garlic2 sprigs thyme, plus extra for serving60ml (1/4 cup) white wine

Method

  1. 1.Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. 2.Arrange the chicken thighs, skin side up in shallow roasting tray.
  3. 3.Toast the fennel seeds by placing them in a small pan over a medium heat, until you can begin to smell the aroma of the spice, about 1 minute. Set aside to cool.
  4. 4.Place the fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle with a three-finger pinch of sea salt and bash until the fennel seeds are mostly ground up. If you don’t own a mortar and pestle, see tips above. Add in the garlic cloves and continue to pound to crush them into a paste. Add in the brown sugar, thyme leaves, lemon zest and olive oil and stir with a spoon until combined. Spoon the mixture onto the chicken and, using your hands, spread it all over the thighs.
  5. 5.Halve the plums and arrange them among the chicken. Using the heel of a knife and your hand, press down to bruise the garlic then add this to the tray, nestling it amongst the plums and chicken along with the sprigs of thyme.
  6. 6.Pour the wine into the base of the tray and roast in the preheated oven for around 35-40 minutes or until the chicken is golden and cooked and the plums have collapsed. To check for doneness, remove one of the thighs, turn it over and check the meat next the bone. It should come away fairly easily from the bone. If you want to get technical, insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh — it’s cooked at around 75°C. If the chicken is cooked through but the skin hasn’t crisped up as much as you would like, simply place the tray under the grill for a few minutes or until golden and crispy.
  7. 7.Depending on which plums you have used, there may be quite a bit of liquid. I usually pour off all of the juices from the tray into a small saucepan and simmer over a medium heat for 3-4 minutes to reduce. You can either serve this sauce alongside the traybake in a small jug or just pour the juices back into the tray, which is what I usually do. Check for seasoning, top with more thyme and serve hot with crusty bread and a green salad.
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