Thursday, 15 January 2009

Roast Chicken Dinner & Uses for Leftovers

Posted by: Kate
Living The Frugal Life

Like the other new writers here at Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op, I was surprised and thrilled to be invited on board. I've been writing my Living The Frugal Life blog in earnest for a little under a year now. I've found that blogging and reading the blogs of others on their personal simple, green, and frugal journeys to be very encouraging, enlightening, and rewarding.

I thought about writing an introduction for myself here at Simple Green Frugal Co-op, but I've decided that just doing a meaty first post would be just as effective. I'm generally preoccupied with thinking about food. For me, budgeting, reading recipes, keeping laying hens, and vegetable gardening are first and foremost only means to the end of eating very, very well. Food preservation and supporting local food producers are just hedges for my belly in an uncertain world.

So I thought to start out today with a frugal meal walk through: Roast Chicken Dinner & Uses for Leftovers. I know this won't please the vegetarians among you, but I can't be all things to all people. Just about everyone else loves a roast chicken dinner. I think that preparing something like this intimidates people who don't think they can cook, and that makes me sad. If you have an oven, you can cook a roast chicken. This post will tell you how to cook it and how to stretch the extras into several other meals.

If you judge the difficulty of this meal by the amount I have to say about it, you'll likely be intimidated. Don't be. I just tend to run on a bit much when I discuss food and cooking. The amount of effort to make this meal is really quite reasonable.

Your ingredient list for this meal:

1 whole fresh chicken, 3.5-4 pounds
a few stalks of celery
2 medium carrots
1 small onion
1 small apple or lemon
about 1 tablespoon of butter, softened at room temperature
salt & pepper

a few sprigs of fresh herbs, such as rosemary, parsley, thyme, oregano, etc.
about 1 1/2 cup of white wine for sauce, or 1 tbsp. flour for gravy

You'll also want to add some vegetables to accompany the chicken. I recommend something green (salad, steamed broccoli, green beans, or kale) and/or some roasted root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, potatoes, turnips, beets, etc).


Start by adjusting an oven rack about one-third of the way up from the bottom of your oven. When it cooks, the chicken should sit in the middle of your oven. Preheat your oven to 425 F or 220 C.

Clean the celery and chop it roughly into 1" pieces. Peel the carrot and chop it into 1/2" thick rounds. Peel and roughly dice the onion. Collectively, these vegetables are called mire poix in the French culinary terminology. They will form a sort of savory cooking rack for your chicken, holding it off the bottom of the roasting pan so it doesn't sit in its own juices, while adding plenty of extra flavor to those juices, which will form either a gravy or a simple au jus sauce, on which more below.

I highly recommend a cast iron skillet as the cooking pan for roast chicken. If you don't have one of those, any roasting pan with sides 2"-4" high will do. Dark metal pans in general do better than Pyrex baking dishes. Choose a pan wide enough to easily accommodate the chicken. You want neither too little nor too much space around the roast. In your pan, mix the mire poix vegetables together and spread them in one even layer. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over them.

Now to prepare your chicken. First check the cavity for giblets. If you find any, remove them and add them to the pan with the vegetables. They will add extra flavor to whatever sauce you prepare from the pan juices. (If you want an especially rich sauce, ask your butcher for extra chicken organs such as hearts, gizzards, etc. These should be very cheap or even free if you're making a large purchase.) Also look at the skin of the chicken just inside the cavity. You may see a lump of fat on either side of the opening. If so, pull them off with your fingers. This is valuable fat. Either add it to the mire poix, or reserve it to render down for schmaltz (see below). Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel.

Many people still rinse a chicken before cooking it. I don't. A rinse with water does nothing to clean the meat. All this does is spread any possible contamination around, including into your sink. Any bacteria present will be killed if the chicken is properly cooked. For whatever it's worth, the FDA now recommends against rinsing meat.

Wash the apple or lemon, whichever you are using. Quarter the apple, or halve the lemon. If using the lemon, squeeze the juice of one of the halves into the cavity of the roast and put both halves inside. If using the apple, simply put as many of the quarters into the cavity as will easily fit. If you are using a fresh herb add a sprig or two to the cavity as well. Next, take the softened butter and smear it with your fingers to thinly coat the skin of the chicken all over.

If using a fresh herb, gently loosen the skin of the chicken with your fingers, by working it underneath the skin starting from the neck area. You want to create a pocket to place the remaining fresh herbs in, without tearing the skin. Work gently, but loosen the skin as far as possible. Then place the sprigs of herbs directly on the meat under the skin. This will impart the flavor of the herb to the fairly bland breast meat. Replace the skin as well as you can so that the top of the breast is well covered. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the chicken, and place it, breast side up, on the bed of mire poix in your roasting pan. It's now ready for the oven.

If you want roasted vegetables with your chicken, prepare them now so that they can go in the oven at the same time. A good general method for roasted vegetables is to cut them into roughly equal pieces, add a couple of cloves of garlic, coat it all with oil, season however you like, and then cover them with aluminum foil for their initial cooking period. The foil can be removed during the last 15 minutes of cooking to crisp them up a bit.

Place the chicken in the oven and immediately lower the temperature to 400 F, 205 C. The cooking time for your chicken will depend on the size of your chicken. I recommend checking a 3.5-pound chicken after 50 minutes of cooking. A 4-pound bird should go for just over an hour before the initial check.

The best way to determine doneness in a chicken (or any other roast for that matter) is with a meat thermometer. Place the thermometer lengthwise in the breast meat, making sure you have at least one inch of the thermometer inserted, and that it is not touching any bone. I cook my chicken to an internal temperature of 160 F, or 71 C. There are plenty of food safety authorities out there who will tell you that poultry must be cooked to 185 F. Realize that this recommendation is designed to protect food processors from lawsuits. A temperature of 185 F is some serious overkill and will turn your roast poultry into shoe leather. When you cook a roast to a given temperature and then cover it and let it rest, the temperature continues to rise anyway. Pulling your roast chicken from the oven when the temperature reads 160 F is completely safe. If you see a slightly pink tinge on the meat at that temperature, that doesn't mean it's still raw. You're just seeing the hemoglobin being released in some of the juices.

If the chicken has not reached 160 F/71 C when you first check it, return it to the oven and give it 10-15 minutes for every additional 5 degrees F/3 degrees C it needs. When it has reached the proper temperature, remove it from the skillet and place it on a serving platter. Cover it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil, and cover the foil with a kitchen towel or two.

Au jus or Gravy

Now the fun begins in earnest. You get to make a sauce to gild the lily. Au jus methodology first: Use a metal spoon to scoop the vegetables (and giblets if you've included them) into a bowl, and add a cup of dry white wine. Stir the vegetables around in the liquid a bit and let them soak for a few minutes. Meanwhile scrape away at any lovely stuck-on brown bits on the bottom of the skillet. Put the remaining 1/2 cup of wine in the pan and continue loosening and dissolving any solids. Now strain the wine the vegetables have been soaking in back into your roasting pan. Press on the vegetables a bit to get all the tasty goodness out. If you used a skillet to cook your bird, just put it over a burner on medium-high heat. If you cooked in something else, transfer the liquid to a small pot. Check the chicken under its covers. If there's any liquid on the platter or in the cavity of the bird, add it now to the wine and pan drippings. Reduce the liquid for about 5 minutes, until about 1 cup of slightly thickened sauce remains. Put it in a gravy boat. Ta da! That's your au jus! Simple, no?

Gravy is a little more complicated. Remove the vegetables and scrape the pan as you would for the au jus. Add 1/4 cup of the white wine or water and thoroughly scrape and loosen the brown bits. Drive most of this liquid off over low heat without scorching the juices. Sprinkle a tablespoon of flour over the pan drippings and raise the heat to medium-low. Stir the flour around to combine thoroughly with the fat in the pan. Cook the lumps that form for at least three minutes. Add about 1/4 cup of water to the pan and thoroughly incorporate it with the flour mixture, smoothing out any lumps as best you can. Add 3/4 cup more water, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring and smoothing after every addition to avoid lumps. Add the accumulated juices on the platter or in the cavity of the chicken. If you like the giblets in your gravy, chop them up and add them to the gravy boat.

Now you get to eat your chicken and vegetables with the sauce of your choice. Dig in and enjoy!

Leftovers (and other options) from a roast chicken

Any leftover meat should be stripped from the carcass before refrigerating the bones. It's easier to accomplish now than it will be after chilling. Save the bones, in the freezer if necessary, for making stock. The meat can be used in an enormous variety of ways. Sandwiches, soups, chicken salad, strata, pasta, pot pie. Really, you could go in almost any direction with leftover roast chicken.

Chicken salad is my usual warm weather use for leftover roast chicken. I like to add plenty of crunch to my chicken salad with vegetables like fennel, chard stalk, celery, grated celery root, or water chestnuts. And curry powder blended into mayonnaise makes a great curried chicken salad. You don't really need a recipe for chicken salad. Just shred the meat, add whatever other chopped up vegetables you want in there, and blend with mayonnaise, a little at a time, until the mixture looks right to you.

In winter time, I usually also have leftover roast vegetables. If I were always sufficiently motivated, the chicken and veg would be the basis of a pretty good pot pie. But I've found an excellent "cheater" method for using up these delicious ingredients with a minimum of work. I just put some of the leftover meat and vegetables in a bowl, add a dollop of the leftover au jus, and cover the bowl tightly with aluminum foil. Then I pop it in the toaster oven for about 25 minutes. The roast vegetables are wonderfully refreshed by the gentle steaming action in this preparation. It makes the leftovers disappear fast. Here's a picture of my lazy housewife "pot pie," ready to go in the oven, and featuring our homegrown All Blue potatoes.

And speaking of that leftover au jus, another great use for this culinary elixir is as a dressing for green salads. I know this will sound weird to some. But give it a try sometime. Heat the au jus in a microwave briefly, and stir it up very well. (The fat will have risen to the top, and the cold will have given the sauce a gelatinous quality.) The flavor is very intense, so drizzle just a small spoonful over your greens.

Alternately, stash your extra au jus in the freezer until your next batch of roasted potatoes. The A good dollop of this concentrated chicken essence makes potatoes substantial enough to eat almost as a meal by themselves. Very tasty, and nothing goes to waste.

Then there's the stock to be made from the bones. Be sure to discard the lemon or apple you put in the cavity before making stock, otherwise you're in for some interesting stock. There are highly disciplined cooks who will go the full nine yards in making chicken stock. Nine times out of ten, I take a very simple approach to making stock from leftover chicken bones. I put the bones in a pot, with enough water just to cover. Then I raid my freezer for the parsley stems I save for this purpose, and throw a good handful of those into the water. Sometimes I'll add a bay leaf; sometimes not. I bring the water to a gentle boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. After a couple of hours, I throw out the solids, and perhaps strain the stock. It can be frozen for a few months, or used immediately. Recently, I used some homemade chicken stock as the basis for that classic chicken dinner from the south of the US: Chicken and Dumplings. You might use the stock to make chicken soup with the leftover meat and a few other ingredients.

Finally, for advanced students of thrift, I'm going to talk about schmaltz. If you grew up in a Jewish household, you probably know all about this already. I learned about it only recently. Schmaltz is rendered chicken fat, and it's used in many Jewish recipes. This is definitely a waste not, want not situation. Why let this ingredient go to waste when it can replace costly butter or cooking oil in many recipes? I've found that fat from any type of poultry is like culinary gold when used to cook potatoes, especially homegrown potatoes.

You can get a little fat from a chicken you're going to roast without sacrificing a rich sauce made from the drippings. The skin of the chicken contains a lot of fat, so leaving most of the skin in place for the roasted bird will keep it moist as well as provide you with drippings. But some of the fat and skin can be reserved for making schmaltz as well. Those lumps of fat from just inside the cavity, for instance can be dedicated to schmaltz. If there's an excess of skin from the neck area, that can be trimmed off. Also, even the skin from the back of the bird, which always remains on the underside when roasted, can be trimmed off and used for schmaltz. This skin never crisps up anyway when roasting, and the mire poix it rests on keeps this area moist even without the protection of the skin. Finally, the wing tips can be removed and included with the rest of the trimmings.

Place the trimmings in a small pot and heat it gently over medium low heat. When the fat begins to melt and the skin begins sizzling, reduce the heat to low and let it cook gently for about 30 minutes, turning the trimmings occasionally so that the fat renders evenly. Remove and discard the solids before the fat cools. (Or feed the crispy skin to pets or anyone who enjoys it.) This can be done while the chicken cooks, or within a few days at most if there's too much going on in the kitchen. From the trimmings shown above, I got about 1/3 cup of schmaltz. In Jewish cooking, onions are often added to the trimmings to flavor the fat as it renders. I usually skip this step, just to keep a more neutral flavor. This fat should be kept only briefly in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed jar, as it will spoil rather quickly. It will keep for about a week in the refrigerator, and perhaps two months in the freezer. Use it to roast or panfry potatoes. I've used it for hashbrowns, to make a decadent version of bialys, and in pyttipanna too. If you want to save up a large amount of schmaltz for a specific purpose, it would probably be better to save the trimmings in the freezer and then render the fat just before you need it.

Well, I think that about covers the uses of a whole roast chicken. I've you've read along with me this far, I think you'll see why making your own is a more frugal option that picking up one of those rotisserie chickens that seem like such a bargain. If you have other ways of making the most of a roast chicken dinner, I'd love to hear them in the comments.