Unexpected guests? Need to impress on a weeknight? Try my Lemon Pepper Chicken – it’s light and crispy, with a peppery, creamy lemon sauce that transforms your table into an elegant French dining room in less than 30 minutes.

 Do you remember the first time you tasted fresh cracked peppercorns?

The complex floral and fruity qualities can be a pleasant surprise if you’re used to a shaker of dust-like, ancient pepper that’s been passed down from table to table for generations of futile attempts at seasoning.

Peppercorns were actually used as currency in the middle ages, and there are many dishes built around the wonderful flavor of these dried berries, so make sure you enjoy them freshly-ground whenever possible. You should definitely keep a grinder in your kitchen, or at least replace your pre-ground pepper regularly in order to enjoy all it has to offer.

Simply pairing pepper with something like lemon creates a full, complex flavor profile that can carry a whole dish and create an impressive but easy-to-prepare meal that’s quick enough for a weeknight but elegant enough for a special occasion.

My Lemon Pepper Chicken recipe will be on your table in less than 30 minutes and gone in less than five.

Lemon pepper is one of those pantry staples, like Cajun or Greek Seasoning, I always have on hand. I’m a big fan of spice blends that can perfectly season a piece of fish or chicken or pork leaving nothing more than a few minutes on a grill or the stovetop between you and dinner.

Basic lemon pepper consists of lemon zest infused with freshly ground black pepper, then dried to intensify the oils and flavors of both.

Most mixes include a little salt and may have a few other complementary ingredients like garlic or onion. You can actually make your own lemon pepper seasoning if you’d like to control the salt content.

Here’s a popular seasoning recipe to try if you have a few too many lemons in your fridge:  http://www.food.com/recipe/homemade-lemon-pepper-seasoning-466949

Regardless of whether you use a store-bought variety or home-made version, the lemon will definitely hit you first, followed by the slow heat from the pepper, and it’s a great way to easily bump up the flavor on something mild like fish or chicken.

One of my favorite guilty pleasures is lemon pepper chicken wings, which is a welcome departure from traditional Buffalo sauce, and the warm, tangy coating on everyone’s favorite football food snack inspired my Lemon Pepper Chicken.

My recipe is basically a lemon pepper chicken breast, which is easier to prepare at home than fried chicken wings and definitely requires fewer napkins! Thin slices of chicken breast are seasoned with the tangy lemon pepper and lightly breaded before pan-frying, so you still get the crunchy quality we love on our wings.

The breading also helps the chicken pieces soak up a bit of the Lemon Pepper Chicken sauce that’s rich but still light and adds even more bright, lemon flavor to the dish.

After the chicken is perfectly crispy, the pan is deglazed with chicken broth and lemon juice, incorporating all the tasty bits of fond from the bottom of the pan. Then soft, creamy butter is slowly whisked into the sauce to give it a velvety consistency any French chef would be proud of.

I like to serve this Lemon Pepper Chicken with egg noodles or pasta because they both are welcome canvases for the extra sauce.

Steamed asparagus or broccoli, or even a little sautéed spinach, work well too since lemon is a typical garnish for these veggies and the sauce, well, is good drizzled on everything! Just don’t forget the chilled chardonnay . . .

RECIPE NOTES:

Lemon pepper seasoning:  Here’s the one I use most often.

If you don’t usually have lemon pepper on hand and aren’t sure about buying it just for this one dish, rest assured you can find lots of other uses for it! It’s great sprinkled into your favorite cream sauce for a quick lemon pepper pasta dish or sprinkled on cauliflower with a little bit of olive and roasted until crispy.

You can also make an epic pretzel snack mix. Just to warn you, this is addictive!

The sauce:  Do not use a Teflon pan in this recipe. The brown bits that are the foundation of an easy pan sauce aren’t created if the chicken doesn’t stick a bit in the pan. Adding the butter at the end, with the heat off, is a technique called “mounting” the sauce or “monte au beurre.” It’s a classic sauce-making technique that lets the butter melt slowly and incorporate into the sauce without separating.

The chicken: I use thin cut chicken, sometimes referred to as scaloppini, in this recipe. It cooks up quickly, and I love all the surface area that gets coated with the velvety sauce. You can buy chicken already prepared this way, or, if you have a good sharp chef’s knife, feel free to slice a boneless half breast horizontally in half yourself. This works best when it’s slightly frozen.

But those chicken wings: If you want to use some other cut of chicken you already have on hand, particularly ones with bones in them, I suggest searing them on the stove top and finishing them in the oven. You can make baked lemon pepper chicken thighs, lemon pepper chicken legs, or, yes, even lemon pepper chicken wings baked this way.  Just season and bread the pieces like the recipe calls for, then brown the pieces on all sides. Once they’re browned, remove the pieces to a foil-lined baking sheet and finish them in a 375 degree oven. The time will vary based on what cut of chicken you use – 15 to 20 minutes for thighs, for example, but the juices should run clear with no more pink in the middle.

You can prepare the sauce using the leftover bits in the pan just like in the original recipe.

Hold the butter: If you’re looking for a healthy Lemon Pepper Chicken, you can skip the frying step and the buttery sauce but still enjoy all the lemon pepper flavor. Make a lemon pepper chicken marinade with equal parts olive oil and lemon juice, a clove or two of minced garlic, a sprinkling of salt, and several turns of black pepper from your grinder.

Let the chicken marinate for about four hours, then throw it on the grill. Voila! Grilled Lemon Pepper Chicken! You can throw a few slices of lemon on the grill along with the chicken for a special garnish.

Quick and Easy Lemon Pepper Chicken. Dinners done in less than 30 minutes and it's all done in one skillet