Chicken is my friend. I love, love pollo. Nothing like an attractive whole chicken, roasted to perfection: juicy, tender, with a healthy-colored exterior. Yes, please. The bird is just so versatile, too. Though I’ve read more negative things about the edible bird than I care to know about, it’s my go-to protein when I’m hungry and have little time to cook. And chicken wings, while probably my least favorite way of enjoying poultry, have this enigmatic appeal. And I’d suspect most Americans do also. I have no idea and little interest in knowing how they came to be so popular and an American staple. They just are. Every rinky dink bar, all-American restaurant, hole in the wall, and some refined, more upscale restaurants, will offer a version of the crispy, smaller components of a pollo.
My sister is really the reason why I love them so much. Many years ago, about 12 or so, during one of our sisterly cooking experiments, she came up with this fun idea of encrusting them in cheesy Doritos, later baking them. They were awesome and I thought she was a genius. Salty and crunchy. You already know how I feel about those two elements. But then I found out it was a recipe she’d mildly adapted from an old school grocery store checkout stand. I loved them still since she put her own spin on them.
I tried making them last year while developing a new recipe but rather found some mild failure. It just didn’t work out so well for me. She laughed and reminded he how incredibly perfect hers were. That was fodder for redemption but I didn’t bother. Some things are really best if left where they belong. So, I went back to what I know.
These lemon pepper ones wings I just absolutely love and am (well, was) quite addicted to. I’ve featured these very ones here before, but I’ve never given them any proper attention. And to be clear, my addictions aren’t unwarranted or out of nowhere. There’s always a good reason for my discovery and attachment to something I know I have no business consuming more than for a special occasion. So it would be these little guys have a similar story.
Unbeknownst to me when I first moved to Atlanta in 2006, chicken wings are the IT food of that city. Chicken wing spots were everywhere. I’m talking Starbucks-in-Manhattan kind of everywhere. I was so confused. I tried so hard not to settle on the stereotype. But I was so intrigued at the plethora of chicken offerings around the perimeter. Chicken wings everywhere. And of course, the good ones, the real good ones were shady looking spots nestled in even more shady looking strip malls. The one next to my first apartment would be the culprit for these entering my life.
A little nook — owned by an enthusiastic African man — in walking distance from my place was known for the best wings on the west side of Atlanta. It took me one good visit to be hooked and never order wings elsewhere the remainder of my stay down there. He had six or so wing flavors on the menu, but I remember a friend ordering the lemon pepper ones for me. They were so incredibly amazing, embodying every imaginable quality in a chicken wing, I couldn’t even begin to understand how it was possible I fell for them. I was far from a chicken wing girl. I found them messy and too fussy to eat.
But I was hooked. So hooked I had his number in my cell phone. I started with their order of 6 and then 12. And didn’t share. Well, until I had to.
My obsession with those lemon pepper wings lasted for one year. I came to screeching halt and eliminated them altogether when I realized I had gained some pounds. Friends came over? Order lemon pepper wings? Parents came in town and I didn’t have time to cook? Order lemon pepper wings? Have meetings for events I was hosting? Order lemon pepper wings. They were my waist line’s demise at the time. Oh, but they were so good! So perfect. So crispy. So tangy.
In all of their glory, I allowed them to stay in close mental proximity in case I needed to make a call. They’d be my comfort food.
And then the right opportunity to revisit them came up! While writing a column for an outlet a few years ago, and few years after moving three miles always from that spot, I was assigned a piece on Superbowl fiesta foods. It was so obvious that wings were going to make the list. I mean, what party, at least of that casual nature, does not have chicken wings on the table line up?
I wasn’t going to yield to my obsessive habits, so I went for the kill and made them myself. And even better, decided to fancy them up with a mango chutney of sorts to either dip into or slather on. For my sake, I needed something extra special to Latin-fy or Caribbeanize them, you know, because there’s nothing Latin about lemon pepper chicken wings. The process was riddled with anxiety as I was so intent on getting it right. But experimenting was equally delicious as I made my own lemon pepper rub and mango sauce.
I ended with a batch almost as perfect as that dingy hole in the wall near my old apartment, but definitely sexier and just how I wanted them. I wanted to be in full control of the size of the wings. And I wanted to create the perfect balance of tartness, sweetness, and spiciness. And the golden color.
And this my friends, is what I enjoyed to my hearts content: a bucket full of piping hot, melt in your mouth, lemon pepper wings I’d modestly rate 4 stars and a twirl. You know what good does to us, right?! We become happy souls.
For my chicken lovers, especially chicken wings, try these. You’ll be delighted at making your own basket of perfectly crispy, beautifully golden, and juicy alitas de pollo. And you’ll now have something to add to your party food rotation. With March Madness in full effect, spring around the corner, and pool parties being thought of, you just can’t avoid these!
Tell me! What’s your favorite chicken wing recipe? I need to expand my repertoire.
Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.
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HOMEMADE LEMON PEPPER CHICKEN WINGS
- 1 lb. chicken wings, legs and thighs
- 2 cups mango-habanero sauce (recipe follows)
- canola oil for frying
- 2 lemons
- salt and pepper to taste (add more pepper for a spicier wing)
Rinse and pat dry chicken pieces. Season with salt, pepper and juice from fresh-squeezed lemons. Cover and let marinate for 30 minutes. In deep fryer or large skillet, heat oil and cook chicken for 10 minutes or until gold brown all around and somewhat crispy. Place paper towel on large plate and transfer chicken to plate allowing excess oil to be absorbed. Transfer chicken to large glass dish or large bowl. Pour mango-habanero sauce over chicken and cover all pieces. Use a wooden spoon to blend will if needed.
- 3 tbsp. peanut oil
- 2 small Spanish onions, finely chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 6 ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted and roughly chopped
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 3 habanero chiles, minced
- 2 tbsp. grated ginger
- 3 cups apple vinegar
Heat oil in medium saucepan on medium high. Add mangoes, habaneros, onion and garlic and cook down until onion is transparent. Reduce heat to medium and stir in sugar, vinegar and ginger. Add salt to taste. Reduce heat to low and cook sauce for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and add sauce to blender or food processor. Pulse for a few minutes until sauce has thinned out.