Archive for February, 2010

Baking A Whole Chicken

roasted chicken
Long long ago (which in this digital age means a few decades prior to now) people used to eat chicken for fancy Sunday suppers. After a day at church, the family would gather around the dinner table. Bobby, with his favorite baseball cap set next to his dish, and Sue, with hair in pigtails, claimed the drumsticks. Meanwhile Mother in her apron and Father in a button-down shirt had their fill of the breasts or thighs. After dinner, Ma would collect the remainder of the chicken — carcass, drippings and all — so she could make a nice soup or meat pie later in the week. Doesn’t that sound homey, and well… quaint?

Well, in the modern-day equivalent of this scenario, this is my house on a Sunday (although insert a morning reading the New York Times instead of church, bickering kids who roll their eyes at their parents for the mild-tempered Bobby and Sue, and jeans with t-shirts and sweaters for the clothes. Oh, and toss in a crazy dog and a messy house). I’ve also been known to make a whole chicken on a Tuesday or Thursday (or, as you’ve probably picked up by now, any day of the week). So although my version of this American tale is a little different, the premise remains the same: I bake a whole chicken for one dinner, and then wrap up everything (and I mean everything) that is left for another meal (or two) later in the week.

Although my method for cooking chicken was once de rigueur in America, it now seems old fashioned. Chicken, however, is more popular than ever. According to the USDA, “Chicken consumption more than doubled between 1970 and 2004, from 27.4 pounds per person to 59.2 pounds.” Yet during this time of increased chicken eating, the tradition of baking a whole bird for a family dinner has almost disappeared.

Most poultry eaters these days simply pick up a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts at the grocery store (and that’s only if they’re actually cooking dinner instead of picking up take-out). They think that not having to deal with those bones makes cooking easier (a notion I will argue in a second). Plus most people are also more interested in the breasts because they have less fat than those delicious thighs and legs. But if you’re cooking from scratch (that is, not purchasing something pre-cooked with a ton of fat, salt and starches added to it) one leg or thigh will not clog your arteries or make you fat, especially if you eat it with a large serving of vegetables. According to the Daily Plate (a food calorie site), a thigh has 237 calories, while a grilled skinless breast has 120 calories; sure the calorie count is almost double, but 237 calories for a main part of your dinner is quite good when you consider that a chicken burrito has 334 calories in it. Also, if you eat that chicken breast lightly breaded and fried (as many people will), you jump up to 247 calories with 133 fat calories (the baked thigh has only 12 fat calories). That thigh is no longer looking so fattening, is it?

Now I realize that many people don’t like to make a whole chicken because they think it’s difficult and time intensive. But, just like pudding and pancakes, nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike boneless and skinless breasts, which often need to be dolled up in a pan with other ingredients because they become dry and a bit tasteless when baked on their own, a whole chicken is a simple endeavor that has juicy results. In the name of full disclosure, I need to admit that baking a chicken takes about an hour and a half, but other than the first 5-7 minutes of prep work, this is all baking time.

storing leftovers

Making a whole chicken is also a great way to stretch your food dollar as it will bear two to three meals for your family. After our roasted chicken dinner, I often make a soup out of the carcass, chicken pot pie with gravy (which I’ll cover next week), or creamy chicken and rice casserole. If I get an especially large chicken or if I make baked potatoes with the first meal (which fills everyone up) I then usually have enough chicken left over for a third meal where only a minimal amount of meat is required, such as tacos, quesadillas, or stir fry.

Here are some general directions for baking a chicken. I am not providing a recipe because this meal is so easy that strict instructions aren’t necessary. Give it a try and you’ll see how good this traditional family meal can taste, while also saving you a few bucks later in the week when you’re eating some delicious pot pies.

How to Bake a Chicken

chicken ready to go in the oven

Preparing Your Chicken

Remove the offal from the chicken (I like to cook these up for my dog, but you can do whatever you like with them, which includes sticking them in the compost bin) and rinse out the bird, including the inner cavity. Set your chicken in a baking pan and pat dry with paper towels. You want to keep the skin fairly dry so it’s crispier later.

Decide what type of fat you want to use to flavor your chicken. Now is the time to get creative. I’ve used olive oil mixed with lemon zest, fresh rosemary and garlic; butter; and even a bit of bacon fat (only about a tablespoon for the entire bird, which ends up tasting pretty amazing, by the way). Whatever you use, be sure to also season with salt and pepper (less salt if using bacon grease), as well as any herbs you like (I usually go with thyme). Spread everything all over the chicken and also under the breast skin.

Place a chopped half onion inside the cavity. This will help flavor the chicken as well as the drippings. You could also add a half lemon, herbs, or an apple.

uncovering your chicken

Baking the Chicken

I bake my chicken in a 375 degree convection oven. If you don’t have convection, just bake at 400 degrees. Be sure to get the oven nice and hot before you place the chicken in it.

covered chicken

The key to baking a great chicken is to cover it for about 60 minutes and then finish it off, uncovered so the skin gets crispy, for another 20-30 minutes or until clear juices run from the meat (the USDA recommends cooking until the chicken is 165 degrees). The larger your chicken, the more time you’ll need to bake it. Don’t be afraid to use a meat thermometer. Better to be safe than sorry.

You can use a pan with a top (such as a Le Creuset Dutch oven) or you can simply tightly cover a standard baking dish or large cast-iron pan with aluminum foil. I’ve tried both methods with equally succulent results. Either way, covering the bird will keep the juices from evaporating in the hot oven. You’ll also get some nice pan drippings that you can use later in the week for a soup or chicken pot pie gravy base.

pan juices

If your chicken drippings start to dry out once you uncover your pan, simply add between ¼ and a ½ cup of water or chicken stock to the pan. This will keep your drippings from burning. Don’t worry about the extra moisture in the oven. I’ve done this numerous times and the skin on my chicken was still crispy.

Serving the Chicken
Carving a chicken can seem a bit daunting, but once you see how easy it is (below) you’ll hopefully feel ready to conquer the job. I found this great video on You Tube (what would we do without You Tube?), which stars Norman Weinstein of the Institute of Culinary Education giving instructions on how to carve a chicken. Well done, Norman!

Saving the Leftovers

Be sure to save EVERYTHING that is left over from your scrumptious chicken dinner. This means stick the carcass, leftover meat, wings, drippings and even the fat into a big container to be used later. Next week I’ll show you what to do with all this; in the meantime, happy chicken eating.

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Creamy Chicken and Rice Casserole

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Creamy Chicken and Rice Casserole

creamy chicken and rice casserole

The casserole is undergoing a resurgence in popularity. After years of being maligned as a tasteless and gloppy suburban dish made with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, it is finally coming into its own. Blame it on the economy and the rising cost of food, but high-end cuts of meat seared faultlessly and served with the perfect wine are passé in this environment: extravagant and unseemly amidst layoffs and foreclosures. Comfort foods are the new at-home gourmet chic, and there’s nothing more heartening and reassuring than a chicken casserole.

Now if you’re someone who still thinks a casserole is a jumble of congealed leftovers, than think again. This may have been the case a decade or two (or three) ago, back in the day when Campbell’s soup had a best-selling cookbook featuring dishes like Green Bean Bake and Vegetable Beef and Biscuit Casserole. But although they have a new book called Campbell’s Casseroles, One-Dish Meals and more (Plastic Comb) — okay, what the hell is “(Plastic Comb)”? — I’m happy to see that it’s ranked # 416,157 on Amazon. No. Modern casseroles are not your mama’s 1970s dinner.

Casseroles can take many shapes and forms. And while some may use leftovers, this doesn’t mean they should be avoided. After all, chicken enchiladas — which are often made with leftover chicken — is a type of casserole. And don’t forget about ooey gooey macaroni and cheese (which often uses leftover pasta) and cassoulets (which can be made out of leftover duck, sausage and beans with stellar results). Fresh ingredients that are baked together in a sauce are some of the most satisfying and affordable types of dishes you can make for a family dinner.

My Creamy Chicken and Rice Casserole is a good example for how this type of dish can really stretch your food dollar. Whether you use leftovers from a previous night’s dinner or start from scratch, you only need to use about half the meat you would normally serve your family because the rice adds substantially to the dish. And, with some local onions and mushrooms added into the mix, it is ample enough to feed a family of 4-6 people while costing less than $15 to make. Truly the perfect savory mid-winter meal.

Following is my recipe. Made with a rich onion and mushroom gravy that undergoes a velvety transformation when sour cream is added, I like to think of it as a type of chicken stroganoff. But no matter how you classify it, when it comes out of the oven all bubbly and creamy and warm, it is the ultimate in comfort food.

creamy chicken and rice casserole

Creamy Chicken and Rice Casserole

Makes: 1 large casserole

This is a great dish to make if you have leftover baked chicken (and be sure to use the juices from the baking process). But if you are starting from scratch with uncooked chicken, just poach it in some water. This keeps the meat moist and also provides a nice broth that you will use to help develop the gravy. I’ll provide steps for both methods below.

mixing the mushrooms into the chicken

Ingredients with Pre-Baked Chicken:

2 cups already-cooked chicken plus pan drippings
1 1/2 – 2 cups chicken broth
2 cups cooked white or brown rice
1 large onion halved and then sliced thinly
1 cup chopped mushrooms
1/2 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp flour
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp paprika
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs (I like to just chop up the ends of some sliced bread in a cuisinart).

Preparation with Pre-Baked Chicken:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Shred leftover chicken and set aside in a bowl.
3. Add oil to a hot pan and add the onions. Cook on medium heat for two minutes.
4. Add the shredded chicken along with the pan drippings from the previous night’s baking of said chicken (including about a tablespoon of that glorious chicken fat if you have some).
5. When drippings are incorporated into the chicken and onions, add the butter, flour, thyme, paprika and salt and pepper to taste. Stir until everything is fully incorporated.
6. Add chicken stock and mushrooms and mix thoroughly.
7. Simmer for 5-10 minutes on low heat with the cover on.
8. Incorporate sour cream and then add the rice, mixing fully. If the mixture seems thick, add in another 1/2 cup chicken stock.
9. If baking in a separate dish, this is the time to butter the inside and then set the mixture inside, topping with the breadcrumbs. If baking in the same pan you used to cook the ingredients, (which is my preference) then just top with the bread crumbs and set in the oven.
10. Bake for 20 minutes and then serve with a nice salad or steamed vegetable.

cooking the chicken

Ingredients Using Fresh Chicken:

2 chicken breasts or 4 thighs raw and on the bone
1 cup water
1/2 – 1 cup chicken broth
2 cups cooked white or brown rice
1 large onion halved and then sliced thinly
1 cup chopped mushrooms
1/2 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp flour
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp paprika
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs (I like to just chop up the ends of some sliced bread in a cuisinart).

Preparation Using Fresh Chicken:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Place oil in a hot pan and then lay the chicken inside. Season with a smattering of salt and pepper.
3. When chicken is slightly browned on the outside, add in the water and cover so everything steams. Cook for five minutes on medium heat.
4. Remove chicken and broth from the pan and then add in the onions. Add in a little more oil and then cook on medium heat for two minutes.
5. While the onions cook, strip the chicken from the bone and chop into 1/2-inch pieces. It’s okay if the chicken isn’t fully cooked.
6. Mix the chicken into the onions and add in the butter, flour, thyme, paprika, salt and pepper. Stir until everything is fully incorporated.
7. Add chicken broth you just created while steaming the chicken plus 1/2 cup chicken stock plus the mushrooms and mix thoroughly.
8. Simmer for 5-10 minutes on low heat with the cover on.
9. Incorporate sour cream and then add the rice, mixing fully. If the mixture seems thick, add in another 1/2 cup chicken stock.
10. If baking in a separate dish, this is the time to butter the inside and then set the mixture inside, topping with the breadcrumbs. If baking in the same pan you used to cook the ingredients, (which is my preference) then just top with the bread crumbs and set in the oven.
11. Bake for 20 minutes and then serve with a nice salad or steamed vegetable.

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