Monday, September 19, 2011

the whole chicken!

[This post featured at Sortacrunchy's "Your Green Resource"]

Like most of meat-eating America, I used to gravitate toward the boneless, skinless chicken breasts at the store.  They were neat, lean, easy to cook . . . and they cost more than any other cut.  Additionally, because I'm a freak and always wanted to make sure they were totally cooked before eating, I would cook them until they were tough and dry.  I would cut into them repeatedly during the cooking process (to see if they were still pink) and release all the juice from inside the meat.

My husband has always favored dark meat.  It's juicier, usually more tender, and it's more forgiving when you cook it.

And a whole chicken?  I thought that cooking a whole chicken was insane.  Don't you have to wash it first, and spread icky chicken germs all over your ever-loving kitchen?  Doesn't it take eighteen hours to cook?  Isn't it a huge amount of meat?

A few Christmases ago, though, I asked my family to gift me with cookbooks.  My brother and his wife gave me one called The 150 Best American Recipes.

I have never really had a dud of out of this cookbook.  Some of the recipes are fussy, requiring specialty ingredients or tricky techniques.  But some are so blissfully simple. 

One of the recipes I tried was for a salad with chicken from the famous San Francisco restaurant Zuni Cafe.  It was one of the afore-mentioned fussy recipes.  There was a bread salad, and greens, and you had to roast a chicken and then wait for it to cool to shred and put over the bread salad.  I skipped the salad part and decided to just make the chicken.  It was magic.  Here were the main pointers that converted me into a whole-bird person:

* Buy a small chicken!  Most of the ones you will see at the store are like five or six pounds.  Dig around and find the smallest one.  Don't go above three or three and a half pounds.

* Let the chicken dry in the fridge first for the crispest skin.  This sounds bizarre and illness-inducing, and it's not for the squeamish.  But if you salt a chicken and then leave it uncovered in the back of your fridge for like a day, the skin will tighten and dry out and when you roast it it will be so deliciously crackly.

* Roast it at the highest heat you can muster without totally smoking out your kitchen.  They recommend 450, I think, but we don't have a hood vent.  So I usually go around 400 or 425.  This cuts the cooking time down a lot. 

* Use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the chicken!  Don't just cut into it over and over.  You're looking for 165 when you stick it in between the thigh and body.

So here's the "recipe," which is really just a way to do it.

1 2-3 lb chicken
Sage leaves (optional)
4 garlic cloves
salt and pepper

A day or two before you're going to cook the chicken, uncover it, work the skin up around the breast and thighs, and stick a whole peeled garlic clove and a sage leaf or two between the skin and meat on each side of the breast and each thigh.  Season thoroughly with plenty of salt and pepper, both inside and outside the bird.  Allow it to sit, uncovered, in the fridge until you're ready to cook.

Preheat the oven to 425.  Take a cast-iron skillet and let it get very hot on the stove.  Drop the chicken in breast-side down, and let it cook for two minutes.  Then flip the bird using tongs and transfer to the hot oven.  After ten minutes, flip it over again.  After ten more minutes, flip it again so the breast is up.  Leave it for five to ten more minutes, then check the temperature.  Let it cook, breast side up, until the internal temp is 165.  Pull it from the oven and let it rest ten minutes, then carve and enjoy.

This recipe will really only serve two or three people.  So, if you have more than that, roast another chicken at the same time.

I love this recipe.  I make it probably every other week.  I save the carcasses after we're finished and use them to make chicken stock:

chicken carcasses
three carrots, unpeeled
three stalks celery (you can skip this - I personally hate buying celery because I never use it all before it gets all limp and weird)
one whole onion
three garlic cloves

Cut the carrots and celery into two inch chunks.  Cut the onion into quarters.  Put all ingredients into a large pot or Dutch oven and fill with enough water to cover everything.  Bring to a rolling boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer.  The longer you simmer, the better.  Don't tell the fire department - I often leave it on low and let it sit overnight.  Once you're satisfied with the taste and seasonings, let it cool completely.  Strain out all the solids and discard.  Put it back in the pot and let it sit in the fridge for several hours.  Most of the fat will rise to the surface.  Skim it off with a spoon and discard.  Then you can use it, or I freeze it in ice cube trays and then pop out the cubes and keep them in a plastic bag in the freezer.  Each cube is usually about two tablespoons. 

There you have it - a two-for-one on Munchee Monday.  Really, though - if you have never considered becoming a whole chicken person, try it sometime.  It's not really that hard, and you make a statement to the poulty industry that you're not interested in breeding and genetically modifying chickens so they have Dolly Parton breasts.


David the Librarian said...

Glad you like the cookbook. I thought it looked pretty cool when we picked it out. I think we're going to try to use our crock-pot a lot this fall/winter. And we just got a new veggie steamer/rice cooker that we need to break in. Any suggestions?

David the Librarian said...

I like your new blog background too! Now get a new profile pic - I think that webcam photo you have now makes you look weird... said...

Oh I am so happy you end up using the bones for stock.
It is a lost art!

Andrea said...

I love a good roasted chicken! I never knew the dry out part. Hmmmm. Need to give that a try. Thank you for linking up to Your Green Resource!

Emily said...

Thanks to all for the compliments! This is a great recipe. In fact, I made it just last night! I broke my own rule, though, and used a 4.5 lb chicken because that was the smallest one at the store.

Jan/ said...

When you pick a larger bird, you get more meat in proportion to the bones, thus getting a better bargain on your chicken. I always buy the largest bird I can find, because there are so many things I can to to get three meals out of one chicken.

Emily said...

Yes, most of the birds at the store are so large. The only thing I worry about is that they were force-fed or genetically engineered to be so big. Plus, the more pounds, the longer the cooking time, which was one of the turnoffs for me about initially cooking a whole bird.