Saturday, April 11, 2009

Thrifty Cooking: "The Whole Chicken, and Nothing But the [Whole] Chicken"

This is one of a series of blog entries that will deal with the idea of "thrifty cooking". In these terrible economic times, when people are getting layed-off by the hundreds, we can all save a lot of money by going back to some of the skills our grandparents had in the kitchen. All it takes is a little time and a bit of confidence. I'll show you how to turn an inexpensive cut of meat into three family meals, or how to make the most out of inexpensive pantry ingredients like rice and dried legumes.

It really bothers me to pay $1.99 (on-sale) to $3.99 (not on-sale) per pound for boneless skinless chicken breast when whole chickens go on sale for 69-99 cents per pound on a pretty regular basis. Sure, I do it from time to time, but I despise it. Chicken bones don't weight a whole lot and they can actually be used to save more money, so you're really getting a better deal with the whole bird--even if you're not a fan of the dreaded "dark meat." If you know what you're doing, you can get 2-3 meals out of one bird at less than $5.

Some people have problems dealing with raw chicken. I'm not sure why. I mean, sure, I don't like to "meet" my food alive before I cook it (embarrassingly, I make the guys at the store steam my lobsters). Chicken arrives quite dead and quite headless (at least, outside of Chinatown). It's really no different than any other piece of meat. It's not going to get-up and walk away on you or make little "help me" chicken noises (mine do, but that's in my head). Try and think of it as a piece of rubber or anything you're comfortable handling. If you don't want to touch it, but you can handle looking at it, buy some food safe latex gloves.

So how about those three meals I promised?

Magic Meal #1 - Roast Chicken.
No, I'm not talking about that dried-up sawdust thing your mother made in 1983 when the USDA still recommended cooking chicken to 190 degrees. I'm talking about a finger-licking, lip-smacking, juicy chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes--the kind that will have you continuing to pick at the serving platter long after your stomach started protesting that it's too full because, well, it's just so darned good!

One of my favorite and most simple recipes is "French-Style Chicken In a Pot". The basic idea is that it cooks long and slow in a covered pot in its own juices, making the best darned gravy starter anyone could ever hope for. You DO NOT need a $300 Le Creuset French Oven to pull this off. Any oven-safe/stovetop-safe covered pot will work--even a pasta pot if it fits in your oven. In a pinch, grab the ceramic crock insert from your slow cooker (I know you have one...it's in the back of your cupboard and only comes out once a year to make chili or baked beans). Remove any plastic from the lid or choose another lid that fits tightly and do your browning in a frying pan (ceramic and stovetops don't mix). Transfer the chicken to the pot, add the veggies, lid it up, and stick it in the oven. Don't skip the browning step. That's flavor!

Now, here's the first real trick. When the chicken is done, don't serve it on the bone--we need those bones! Carve it and serve the meat. Drizzle some of the gravy or liquid from the bottom of the pan over the meat on the serving platter--it'll make it seem juicier and add to that finger-licking quality.

Magic Meal #2 - The Yellow Elixer of Life
Once you're stuffed, pick any and all of the remaining meat off the chicken carcass. Don't go crazy, but get as much good-sized meat as you can. Put that in a zip-top baggie and store it in the fridge or freezer. Take the bones and put them into a stock pot or, better yet, a pressure cooker (see below). Trim and peel a carrot, break it in 3 and throw that in the pot. Throw in 1-2 stalks of celery cleaned and broken into chunks. Take the skin off half a large onion, cut into large chunks, and throw that in too. Toss in a bay leaf or two, a couple cloves of garlic, and some black pepper. Cover the whole mess with water--just enough to cover the bones.

Stock Pot Method - Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 2 hours. I'm sure Julia Child, may she rest in peace, is shaking her finger at me from above, but you honestly don't need 8+ hours. Two hours at a gentle bubble will do just fine.

Pressure Cooker Method - If you have a pressure cooker, you're in luck! Make sure your bones and water aren't more than 3/4 of the way up the side of the pot (or above any max fill line in your cooker). Lid-up the pressure cooker, bring to full pressure on high heat (read your instruction manual for this), then adjust the heat and cook at 15 psi for 45 minutes. Let the pressure drop naturally. That's right, homemade chicken stock in less than an hour. Beat that! For those of you who are skeptical, I'll do a rant on the virtues of a pressure cooker in a separate post.

Once everything cools down a bit, strain the whole mess with a fine mesh strainer (or your pasta strainer) and place your broth into the fridge in a covered bowl overnight to congeal (like Jello). Discard the solid matter. The next day, skim-off any solid fat on the top of the broth and discard. Transfer the chicken broth into a gallon zip-top bag or other container and freeze.

Congratulations! You just made 98% fat free, low-sodium chicken stock for FREE instead of paying $1 per can at the store and there's no MSG or other junk in this one.

Magic Meal #3 - The Real Magic
You are now armed with two ingredients that can be used for 1 or 2 more meals, depending on how much left-over chicken you have. The best part of this is that you're using byproducts of a previous meal, so you're feeding your family for nearly zilch. Not too shabby, huh? Here are some suggestions:

- Chicken Salad Sandwiches
- Chicken Noodle Soup
- Chicken Caesar salad or salad wraps
- Chicken Stew or Chicken Corn Chowder
- More chicken and mashed potatoes (use the stock to make gravy)
- Chicken Gumbo
- Creamy "Chicken & Rice"
- Chicken Tacos or Quesadillas

Enjoy!

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