Oh humble chicken, you have been much-abused. Penned-in, overfed, packaged on sterile Styrofoam and pumped full of watery broth, deboned, all-too-often rendered dry and tasteless.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course.
Out of a whole set of reasons which are probably suited for a separate blog post, Jill and I made the decision over a year ago to stop buying conventionally raised & processed meats. I could say a lot, lot more about how and why we did this and how glad I am that we did, but for now I’ll just stick with: I’ll be damned if the chicken sure doesn’t taste a heckuva lot better. You know, like food you’d actually want to eat.
I also find it brings great satisfaction to use the bird in its entirety, from neck to wingtip. It’s what your grandma—well not my grandma, but someone’s grandma—would do. I want to be that grandma in the kitchen: thorough, efficient, capable, fearless.
So let’s reclaim the chicken in all of its juicy, satisfying glory! It’s amazing how well you can feed yourself and, if applicable, your family, with one respectfully-treated bird.
Today’s somewhat complicated post proceeds as follows:
Roast a chicken
Make chicken salad out of leftover breast meat
Make chicken stock using the carcass
Make chicken soup with the stock & any remaining chicken meat
You don’t have to go through all of these steps, of course; you can easily make the chicken salad or soup with a store-bought rotisserie chicken. But I hope at some point you will take a second look at the humble chicken, perhaps splurge on a free-range version, and spend some time in your kitchen with her, for she is so much more than the zebra-striped grilled breasts she’s so cruelly reduced to.
Okay. There are lots of fancy recommendations out there about tucking slivers of garlic under the skin or mixing up ten-ingredient spice rubs with which to coat the entire bird, and you can do all of that, I am not going to stop you.
But promise me you’ll try, at least once, the almost sinful simplicity and ease of roasting a chicken practically naked. Planning to eat it for dinner? Roast some potatoes and parsnips (drizzled in olive oil, seasoned with salt & pepper) underneath. Planning to reserve the meat for later? Roast carrots, onions, a few cloves of garlic, & celery underneath to transfer directly into a stock pan.
Take the chicken out of the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to cook it. Preheat your oven to 450°.
Using paper towels, dry the chicken extremely well, inside and out. Cover the skin liberally with salt (kosher, if possible) & pepper. You may stuff the breast with herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, etc. and/or half of a lemon.
I like to roast my chicken this way: in the roasting pan go the potatoes and veggies. On top of those, I set a small rack (the same kind I use for cooling baked goods), and on top of that, I set the chicken. This allows for more even cooking than if the chicken sits directly on top of the vegetables.
You can truss the chicken, as you see I did here, but honestly I’ve roasted without and just don’t think it’s necessary. Roast the chicken, breast side up, for 45 minutes to an hour, depending upon the size of your bird.
Make sure you let the bird rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting into it. Divide the bird into breasts, legs, & wings, but watch out for eager kitchen visitors trying to snatch bites from over your shoulder (ahem, cough, Jill, cough cough).
CURRY CHICKEN SALAD
My version of the classic. You’ll see I like my chicken salad chunky, but feel free to chop everything into smaller pieces if you prefer. Tastes even better the next day.
2 cups cooked chicken breast meat, chopped
1 apple, peeled, cored, & small-diced (I used a McIntosh)
1 rib celery, small-diced
½ cup pecans, toasted & chopped
¼ cup red onion, small-diced
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup Dijon mustard
1 tsp. curry powder
splash of white wine vinegar or lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients. Serve on toasted bread or, if you must, lettuce.
HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK
Just as with roasting a chicken, there’s no one way to make chicken stock. If you do make it at home, though, I swear on my Kitchen Aid mixer that it will be about 8 million times better than the stuff you can buy at the store.
Time is your friend when making chicken stock, so you can’t be in a rush. I find that a minimum of 3-4 hours are required for a concentrated, brightly-hued batch.
3 ribs celery
2-3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
splash of vinegar
salt & pepper
optional: white wine
If you roast the vegetables with the chicken, you can cut everything into big pieces and transfer them directly to a large pot along with the chicken carcass when you’re ready to make stock. Deglaze the roasting pan with white wine and then add that liquid to the pot as well.
If you’re making stock separately, dice the veggies and sweat them out in the stock pot first, with a little olive oil. Once they’re translucent, add the chicken carcass and enough water to cover the whole mess. Throw in the seasonings and a splash vinegar (said to help draw flavor out of the bones).
Bring to a boil and then simmer on low to medium heat, skimming the surface to remove any foam that appears in the first hour or so of cooking. After that, keep an eye to see how the liquid is reducing down the side of the pot. Once you can see a three-to-four-inch gap between where you started and where you are now, you’re in business. Like I said, give it at least three hours.
Allow the mixture to cool a bit before removing the carcass with tongs and then straining the liquid through a sieve. Discard vegetables and pick carcass clean of any extra meat bits.
Store the chicken stock in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container. The fat solids will rise to the top upon cooling; if you like, you can remove them. I don’t!
CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP
I made a noodle-less version of this soup for my friend Courtney a few weeks back, when she was feeling rather under-the-weather (see: germy students). She texted me the next day to say “I’m healed! And I’m pretty sure it was your soup that did it.” Hey, maybe becoming that grandma after all!
Credit for this recipe goes to Chef Roger Elkhouri, who taught the only cooking class I’ve ever taken. He was the head chef for my dorm in college and even though I hold him responsible for my Freshman 15 (it was bread and cakes for me, people, not beer!), he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and a culinary hero still.
1 yellow onion, diced
2 ribs celery, sliced thickly at a diagonal
2 carrots, peeled & sliced thickly at a diagonal
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. nutmeg
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
4 cups broad egg noodles, cooked
Cook the onion, celery, & carrots in the bottom of a soup pot in a little vegetable oil. Add the garlic once the vegetables have begun to soften. Once the mixture is translucent, add the stock and spices.
Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer gently at least thirty minutes. Add the chicken and egg noodles to warm through. Remove bay leaf, cinnamon stick, & cloves before serving.