Monday, November 21, 2005

Step One: Buy A Whole Chicken...

Out of the average, 2-3 pound chicken you should be able to feed four people the first night and two people for another four days. At least.

Yeah, you'll need some vegetables, but those are usually way cheap.

This post was inspired by my ex's mother, who once, in the 1970s, bought a rabbit for dinner at the extended family's vacation home. The grandmother-in-law, who had scrabbled for food through the Nazi Occupation of France and the post-war food shortages, took control of the rabbit and made it last for four days, for eight people. My ex's mother finished her litany of dishes into which rabbit could be made with an indignant: "And you know what I got out of the rabbit that I bought, with my own money? One paw and an eyeball!"

I've always thought that if surviving the Occupation required knowing how to stretch a single rabbit into food for eight for four days, I would've probably starved. So, I've been practicing long-term cooking.

It's also cheaper, less wasteful, and more delicious, and it suits my intermittently intense style of thinking about food.

Across the skip, a long-term plan for a whole chicken.
Meal One: The Whole Chicken
I really advise buying organic, free-range chickens. They're tastier, more humanely raised, and they're more likely to come packaged with their giblets. Downside: they can be damned expensive. But remember! You're going to be eating it forever.

Roasting a whole chicken is what I think you want to do here. Invite friends over for dinner: this is hard to screw up.

Preheat oven to 400-425. If there are giblets inside chicken cavity, take them out because they're always wrapped in plastic. Brush olive oil, salt, and pepper on top of chicken.
Here's where things get divisive. I always chuck a bunch of things in the chicken's cavity--whole peeled garlic cloves, herbs, sometimes onions, sometimes the giblets--but many will disagree with me. Giblets do cook faster than the chicken will, so they'll often come out in the end not very appetizing in themselves (they do add yumminess, though). A raft of experts have warned vague awful things about food safety. Garlic and herbs and spices, however, do not scare me. Your mileage may vary. If you do stuff your chicken, you should probably tie up the legs. No need to get fancy: I usually use twine.
Chuck the chicken on a roasting pan, and load it into the oven.

Quick! You've got about half an hour to prepare your vegetables. You want to add them to the roasting pan once the top of the chicken browns. Some good vegetables:
smallish potatoes (don't even think about peeling them!)
fennel (coarsely chopped)
leeks and celery (finely chopped)
carrots (however chopped)
But those are just the standard Frenchie ones; I can't imagine that many vegetables would go badly with chicken.

When you see that the top of your chicken is browning nicely and looking crackely, turn the heat down to, say, 350, plop your vegetables onto the roasting pan. Pour over the chicken a cup or so of weak chicken buillion or watered-down stock.

Have some wine, prepare hors d'oeuvres or dessert, and relax. You don't need even to check on your chicken for another half an hour.

At that point, open the over door, check on progress, baste your chicken, and then wait patiently. It'll be good.

Sign of doneness: cut into the chicken between its torso and its wing. The skin should be white, not pink, and the joints should seem easily dislocatable.

Serve with rice.

Meal Two: Chicken Sandwiches!
No matter how ravenous your guests were, you probably still have plenty of white meat left on the carcass. Perfect for sandwiches. If you're running low on white meat, add more mayonnaise, lettuce, mustard, and sharp cheese. If you made potatoes with your roast and have any left over, cut them into slices and fry them up for a side dish. These roasted potatoes can serve as a booster for Meal Two and a Half. Hint: they're really good with a fried egg over easy.

Meal Three: Healthier Ramen
Add snippets of either white or dark meat in the last minute to your ramen noodles. Extra points if you have any salad to chuck into the mix at the same time.

Preparing for More Meals: Taking Stock
You've eaten all the chicken meat you can stand from the carcass. You refrigerated the extra goop from the roasting pan. You're ready to make stock. This will take a while, and you'll have to be around to monitor it, but it won't be labor-intensive.

Get a big pot. I no longer have a stock pot, but my dutch cassorole has been serving me just fine. Trim visible fat off your carcass. Skim visible fat off your goop. Then throw it all into the pot. Cover with cold water. Turn on heat to high. Get it boiling, then turn it down so that the water is simmering.

Here is the really really important thing about stock: you have to skim off the "impurities," or the little bits of weirdness that float to the top. If you do, you'll end up with lovely golden soup. If you don't, you're liable to end up with a grayish jello that still, miraculously, tastes good when heated.

For the first half hour, you should be nearby, skimming and preparing vegetables.
1 carrot (chopped, like, in five)
1 onion (coarsely chopped)
1 celery stalk (ditto)
maybe a leek, if you've got 'em.
After the chicken has been simmering for hour an hour, throw in your vegetables and a bouquet garnis (some parsley, thyme, a bay leaf, and maybe other stuff if you're moved, contained within a bit of muslin and secured with a rubber band).

This will have to simmer for another three hours. Every forty-five minutes, wander in, skim a bit, add more water to cover all ingredients, wander out.

Finally, you want to line a colander with muslin and dump all ingredients into it, pressing slightly. It would be good to have a container beneath the colander to catch the stock.

Okay, so now what?

Meal Four: Chicken Soup
Take three-ish cups of your stock, add one-two cups of water, dunk in some chopped vegetables, simmer for twenty minutes, and you've got delicious soup. The classic vegetables, of course, are carrots, celery, leeks, and turnips, but I imagine that most vegetables would be good. Extra points if you've got some chicken meat squirreled away somewhere to put in your soup, but it's seriously not required. Barley is really yummy in this kind of soup; throw a handful in at the beginning and make sure it's soft before eating. Note: you're going to need to add salt to your soup, I suspect.

Meal Five: Rich, Rich, Rich Macaroni and Cheese
Preheat oven to 350.

In one pot, boil at least three-quarters of a standard-sized box of your preferred pasta.

In another pot, reduce two cups of your stock to half its volume by letting it boil. Now reduce the heat to "way-low." Whisking constantly, combine into the stock a cup of cream or milk and, gradually, a cup of grated sharp white cheese.* Add some salt, pepper, fines herbes, and mustard.

Combine cheese mix with pasta in a cassarole dish. If you've got some old bread or crackers, crumble them over the top. Bake until bubbly. Shouldn't take more than 20 minutes.

More meals?
So far, I've just listed the ones I've tried, with success. Since your stock should probably yield more than eight cups of liquid, and I haven't yet accounted for them all, you can probably come up with more variations and iterations. Leftover meals have been largely left out of my equations here. I generally find it all too seductive to make a huge batch of whatever, thinking that I'll eat the leftovers for days, and then I open the fridge and am nauseated by the idea of eating that, again. I've stretched a single chicken to three weeks and had to throw out two-three meals'-worth of lovely chicken soup for health-safety reasons. I'm trying to move towards making quantities of prepared foods that will feed me tonight, maybe tomorrow at lunch, but no more. Stock freezes beautifully.

I know I've sacrificed innumerable carrots, potatoes, celery, and herbs to my single chicken, but remember that a carrot costs less than $0.25---in Manhattan, at that. No, the real expense will be in time and equipment.** If you have enough time to have found and read this blogpost, you probably have enough time to keep a chicken roasting or simmering in the background, even if you don't think of your websurfing time like that.

*I'm still working out the exact proportions of the cheese sauce. Last time, I used too much cream (damn leftovers, always tempting one to just "use it up, use it up!").
**Besides the stock pot/dutch oven and roasting pan, every household should have a Joy of Cooking. It's a damned good reference for techniques and ingredients, let alone its index of recipes. It's never condescending, even when it explains how to scramble an egg or how to tell when asparagus are at their prime. Everyone needs one.


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