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Monday, March 1, 2010

Leftovers by Design: Chicken

I was having one of those days. Tired and hungry at five o'clock after a very busy day during which I hadn't thought even once about dinner. There were some leftovers from the previous evening's experimental spaghetti squash "lasagna" with stinging nettle pesto, but I wasn't in the mood for that (and apparently, no one else has been, as it is still in the fridge, untouched). Lots of leftovers from a chicken I'd roasted previously, too. In the pantry, chicken broth I canned after last week's stock making class, and in the freezer, corn I froze last summer. Happened to have some hard-boiled eggs in the fridge (now that our hens are laying in earnest, I usually have a stash of hard-boiled eggs). Chicken-corn soup is a family favorite and with just a few basics on-hand, something I can put together in just 15 or 20 minutes. Making soup using meat leftover from a roast chicken and what I have on hand demonstrates my favorite technique for dealing with those too-busy-to-cook days; what I call leftovers by design.

A couple years ago as I began cutting back on our family's meat consumption, I hit upon the idea of cooking a large amount of meat (one 3-4 pound roast, a whole chicken or turkey breast) once a week, serving just a portion immediately, and creatively using the leftovers in a number of completely different meals later on, so it would not feel like we were eating leftovers all week. I found that not only was this economical, but it helped me save time in the kitchen as well. Often it seems that the preparation of meat takes more time and hands-on effort than any other part of a meal, by getting that work out of the way once a week, I spent less time overall, without resorting to massive and exhausting "once-a-month" cooking and freezing sessions. Typically, in the summer,  I grill and use the leftovers in salads. During the rest of the year, I mostly make roasts and use the leftovers in soups. Here's what I did most recently with a whole chicken.

Roast Chicken
1 whole roaster (5-7 pounds)
sea salt
1 lemon, cut in half
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon butter

The night before you plan to roast, brine the chicken. Brining makes for moist, flavorful meat. Place it in a large pot and add just enough water to cover, noting how many quarts of water you have used. Heat one more quart of water on the stove, and dissolve two tablespoons of salt and two tablespoons of sugar for every quart in the pot plus the one on the stove. Once the salt and sugar are dissolved, remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature (you can speed cooling by putting the pan in a couple inches of water in the sink). Add the salt and sugar solution to the pot with the chicken. Brine overnight.

The next morning or after eight hours, remove the chicken from the brine, rinse it and pat it dry. Place the chicken breast-side up in a pan just large enough to hold it, then into the refrigerator, uncovered. Air dry for several hours--the longer, the drier the skin and the crisper the skin of the cooked chicken.

Preheat the oven to 475F. Place chicken breast-side up in a roasting or baking pan. Cut off the wings tips--poultry shears are handy for this, but a sharp knife will do. Mix 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper together. Rub butter all over the skin, then sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper mixture. Place lemon halves in the cavity and sprinkle salt and pepper inside the cavity as well. Place chicken into oven with legs pointing toward the back of the oven. Roast for about 1 hour, checking the temperature after 50 minutes by inserting a thermometer into the thigh, being careful not to touch any bones. Yes, fat will sputter all over your oven. Smoke may billow out of it. Have no fear. You are roasting the most amazing chicken ever. Just turn on the fan and open some windows, maybe have someone else stand by the nearest smoke alarm and fan smoke away from it with a dish towel whenever you open the oven.

When the temperature reaches 160-165F, remove chicken from the oven. Allow to rest for 15-20 minutes before carving. After dinner, remove meat from the carcass; don't forget the delicious bits on the back. Store in fridge. Save the bones...I even save the one the kids have gnawed on...and put them in the freezer. Or, you could start some stock.

Chicken Broth from Leftover Carcass
1 carcass
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1 onion
(or, having planned ahead, a couple cups of frozen vegetable trimmings, saved just for the purpose of flavoring stock...)
1 bay leaf (optional)
½ teaspoon thyme (optional)
1 tablespoon vinegar (I usually use cider vinegar)

Place carcass and vinegar in a stock pot and add enough water to cover, about 2 quarts. Let sit for one hour, giving the vinegar time to draw minerals from the bones into the water. Bring the pot to a boil, then immediately turn heat down until a steady gentle simmer is maintained. Using a large spoon, skim the foamy impurities that rise to the top of the pot, but don't get too obsessed with this step. Cook for 5 to 8 hours, adding the vegetables, bay leaf, and thyme during the the last hour of cooking. Remove from heat, then strain the stock from the vegetable and carcasses through a couple layers of cheesecloth or a thinly woven dish towel (potato sack cloth) lining a colander. Freezes well for months, refrigerates for a week or so.

Chicken Salad Sandwiches
Uh...mix mayo, celery seed, salt, pepper, and chopped cooked chicken together in a bowl. Serve between two slices of bread, maybe with some arugula, watercress, or other greens if you have them on hand. Lunch in an instant.

Chicken-Corn Soup with Dumlings
I do this with and without the dumplings, depending on my mood and time, though really it takes only a couple minutes more of active work time.

1-2 tablespoons ghee, butter, or olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1-2 stems celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon sage
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 quart chicken broth
1-2 cups frozen corn
1-2 cups cooked chicken meat, chopped
1 egg
½ cup milk
1 cup flour
2 eggs, hard-boiled and chopped (optional, but authentic!)

Melt ghee in a heavy-bottom soup pot over medium high heat. Saute onions and celery in butter until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, thyme, sage, salt, and pepper and saute for 1 minute, then immediately add chicken broth. Add corn and chicken. If there is not enough broth to generously cover the meat and vegetables, add some water. Whisk the egg in the milk, then mix with the flour. Bring soup to a simmer, then add spoonfuls of dumpling batter to the soup. Cook for another 5-7 minutes, stirring gently. Add chopped hard-boiled eggs just before serving.