Thursday, March 1, 2012

How to Make a $15 Chicken Pay

      Someone on FB posted a link to this article from Atlanta Magazine: New Poultry Group Plans to Ruffle Some Feathers. You can follow the link and read the article to see why I am one of those people who will gladly spend $5 a pound (or more) for a pasture raised chicken and $5 a dozen for farm eggs.  It's pure squeamishness.

      I have never been a huge fan of chicken, even in the days when I thought a boneless skinless chicken breast had virtue.  It just doesn't taste good to me.  I do, however, like roasted chicken with crispy skin or what I like to call "crock pot chicken".  I honestly think the difference is the bones and the skin. What we never knew back in the low fat 90s was that all the vitamins and minerals are in those parts.  When you cook just the protein, you lose taste and valuable nutrition.  And it just so happens that when you buy chicken from a farm, you generally have to take the whole bird.  If you want it in pieces or deboned and deskinned, you have to do that for yourself.  I never do.

     Now, $15 is a lot to spend on one 3 pound chicken, so I have a few things I do to my pretty pullet to make her pay her own way.

      First of all, she's dinner.
      To make roast chicken, I just wash the bird in cold water, dry it off, and rub it with either olive oil or butter.  I thickly slather on whatever herbs and spices I am feeling like that day.  Rubbed sage, thyme, pepper, and salt are easy and always taste good.  The trick is to pick out what you are going to put on the chicken before you get your hands dirty.  Mix the herbs in a small bowl--you need a good sized handful for a 3 pound chicken.  Make sure every surface is coated in  herbs.  If you have fresh herbs, that is even better.  You can even stick some in the cavity.  Then I thickly slice an onion (save the ends of the onion and the skins for later) and lay it on the bottom of my dutch oven or roaster and lay the chicken on top, breast side up.  I put my pot in a 300 degree oven (or less, not more) and let it cook for several hours.  If the skin is getting too dark, I stick the top on. Since the time it takes to cook is dependent on the size of the chicken, I check the temperature often by sticking a meat thermometer in the thick part of the breast.  When it gets past 160 I turn off the oven and start making my sides.  Another sure way to know your chicken is done is to grab one leg and give it a gentle tug.  If the joint gives way, it is done.

       Crock pot chicken is even easier.  I follow the exact same steps except I lay  the chicken on top of the sliced onions in my crock pot and surround it with carrots cut into inch sized chunks (or use baby carrots) and small potatoes (or big potatoes cut into chunks).  I save the carrot peels and ends with the onion scraps.  I throw a little salt on the veggies, put the lid on the pot and set it on low if  I am proactive enough to start in the morning or on high if I am just starting it in the afternoon.  By dinner it will be done.  If it cooked all day, the chicken will have started to fall apart and everything will be swimming in a pot of chicken broth.  If it hasn't reached that stage, give the leg a tug to see if it is cooked through. Crock pot chicken doesn't have the lovely crispy skin but the meat is moister than roasted, so it is a trade-off.

      After dinner is when the chicken discovers that I am not done with her yet.  She's got more to pay.  I take about 10 minutes to "devastate the carcass".  I don't know if that's really what it is, but that's what my granny once told me it was called.  And I think it's more interesting to stand there devastating the carcass than it is to just pick the bones.  I strip every bit of meat that is still on the bird and collect the leg and wing bones from the boys' plates (In our family, the boys prefer dark and the girls prefer white.  I can tell how well you know my family by whether or not you're laughing right now).  All the bones, cartilage, and leftover skin goes back in the pot with the broth and bits of onion that were left from cooking.  The leftover meat gets put in the fridge.  I add the vegetable scraps to the pot and/or carrots, onion, and celery from the fridge.  Celery leaves are great as are the veggies that got forgotten at the back of the crisper drawer.  I just cover the whole thing with water and set it on the stove or turn on the crock.  I let it come up to heat until it is simmering and then turn it way down low with the lid cracked.  And then I go to bed.

     The next morning I ladle off my wonderful, nutritious chicken broth, straining it into a large glass bowl and putting it in the fridge (after I have had a cup for breakfast).  Once I've removed most of the liquid from the pot, I cover the bones and veggie scraps with water and let it heat up again.  I'll continue to strain broth and add water every 12 hours or so until the bones are falling to pieces.  I'm not really sure how many quarts of broth I get this way, but it's a lot.  That $15 chicken gives up every bit of her minerals, collagen, and protein.

     For lunch (or dinner) that day I make chicken soup.  I cook some rice to have in the soup, using some of the chicken broth instead of water.  I always cook rice this way because the nutrition in the broth is added to the rice (which doesn't have much nutrition on it's own).  A bowl of rice cooked in chicken broth with a big pat of grassfed butter is a great thing to hand to a child--they have no idea how many vitamins and minerals they are eating. They just think it tastes good.  So, to make the soup, I cut up half an onion (or the whole thing if it is small), 3-4 carrots, and 4-5 ribs of celery.  I save the veggie scraps in a baggie and stick it in the freezer for next time.  I saute the vegetables with butter, coconut oil, or lard in a soup pot until they're starting to soften.  This is the point where I add salt and pepper as well as whatever dry herbs I feel like.  Again, thyme and sage are a good choice. If I happen to have fresh herbs like parsley, I save that til the end.  Because my husband likes heat, I add about a quarter teaspoon of crushed red pepper. Meanwhile, I skim the fat cap off the broth that I strained that morning. There's no need to get every bit of the fat, I just don't want the soup to end up super greasy.When the veggies are tender I pour the chicken broth into the pot, and let it heat to a slow boil.   I turn down the heat, put the lid on, and let it simmer for a little while.  The leftover chicken gets chopped small and added to the pot after the veggies are soft.  Once the pot is heated through again, I will add extras if I have them: frozen peas and/or corn, fresh herbs or spinach cut into ribbons, a few drops of hot pepper sauce if it needs it.  Put some rice on the bottom of your bowl, ladle some soup on top, and that's meal #2.

      Of course, the bones just keep on giving.  Once each batch of broth has chilled in the fridge, I decide what to do with it.  Some of it gets consumed right then and there, as my coffee substitute.  One bowl stays in the fridge for one more day because I am going to make taco soup with it.  In that case, I leave the fat cap on, to help keep it fresh.  Another batch gets skimmed and put into mason jars and frozen for another day of soup or stew.  A lot of it gets frozen in ice cube trays.  Once it's frozen, I store the little cubes of broth in a big ziploc bag in my freezer.  Every time I make rice, I pull out some of those cubes of broth and throw them into the rice cooker.  If I am making something and I need to add water to the pot, I add a few cubes of broth instead.  If I'm making mashed potatoes and need to add liquid, I add broth.  Each time I add broth, it heightens the nutrient density of whatever I am making.

     Long after that chicken dinner is a distant memory, she will still be contributing her nutrition to our family.  I think I got my money's worth.


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