If you’re the kind of person who has always wanted to cook more, read on. If you’re the kind of person who cooks plenty already but is always open to a new idea or two, read on. If you’re the kind of person who hates cooking and would rather get take-out than turn on the stove, read on… you might just change your mind.
I’m the kind of person who cooks all the time and loves it. I’m also the kind of person who is incapable of making appropriate portions. In my house, we’re either plagued with awkwardly tiny amounts of food (who knew snow pea shoots would shrink from overflowing panful to three spoonfuls? and how are we supposed to share it?) or enough for two weeks. Leftovers can be fun for the next day’s lunch, but I crave variety. Even with an abundance of food in the fridge, I love to whip up something new. The contents of Tupperware leftover containers end up in the trash as often as they end up in our stomachs: a waste of money and food.
I had to fix the problem. Since my job keeps me pretty busy during the day, I don’t have a lot of motivation to cook a different, elaborate meal every night. Here’s what I came up with. What if I told you that you could spend about twenty minutes making a stunningly delicious meal one night, then another twenty minutes transforming the leftovers into something completely new and different? Here’s how. On Day One, you will be roasting a chicken and vegetables. Sounds boring, right? Let me tell you a secret. Roasting a chicken is honestly, no joke, one of the easiest things that you can do in the kitchen. However, when you present a roasted chicken at the table, people go nuts like you should be on Top Chef. Twenty minutes of work gets that kind of reactions. I promise.
After you roast the chicken and your family/friends/loved ones have eaten their fill, you will take the leftover meat and stick it in a Tupperware container until the next day. Then you will take the chicken bones and make stock. The next night, you will add some vegetables and the leftover meat to the stock and feast upon chicken tortilla soup. When you present this at the table, people will go nuts for a second time. It’s that good and you will look like a kitchen rock star. The total hands-on time? Forty minutes. Tops.
Another benefit of this meal is that it’s inexpensive. If you buy a regular 4-pound chicken at the grocery store, it might cost you $5-6. If buy a bird from a nice farm, it might cost $12. The vegetables for roasting and the soup might run you another dollar or two. I regularly feed two people in my house (a hungry guy and a fairly hungry girl) and this is two meals for us. It’s one of the most delicious ways to stick to a budget.
Here’s how to get started.
NIGHT ONE: Salt-Crusted Roast Chicken with Vegetables.
You’re going to be roasting your chicken on top of a bed of vegetables. This will result in a one-dish meal featuring crispy, insanely delicious veggies.
First, make a couple of decisions. How many chickens will you be preparing? Personally, I’d plan on one breast or one leg/thigh/wing combo per person. Next, decide what pan you’re going to use. If you have anything cast-iron, this is the time to pull it out. Regardless, use the thickest pan in your arsenal. Thicker pan = more heat = crispier, caramelized veggies. You’ll see in the photos that I use an oven-safe nonstick skillet, but you can use anything that fits in your oven.
Then, prepare your vegetables. You can use almost anything, but I’d suggest starting with Yukon Gold potato, leeks, and carrots. Whatever you choose, dice roughly and then cover the bottom of your pan with the pieces. Shake a little olive oil on top, then add salt and pepper. Toss everything together so it’s evenly mixed.
Here comes the hardest part of the entire thing. But it’s still pretty simple. You’ll need to prepare your chicken for roasting. You are going to butterfly the chicken so it cooks evenly and the breasts stay as moist as the dark meat.
Whole chickens intimidate people, but don’t be alarmed. Buying a whole chicken saves you lots of money – it will probably cost somewhere between $2-3 per pound, as opposed to $5-9 for boneless skinless breasts. And cutting it up ranks in difficulty somewhere around making a paper snowflake. The chicken has joints where the bones naturally come together. Feel for those, cut through them, and you’ll be just fine.
You should have purchased a whole chicken from your butcher, local farmer, or grocery store. Lay that baby out on a cutting board and admire it for a while.
Depending on what chicken you got, there might be some stuff inside. I use Springer Mountain Chicken, which is widely available in Atlanta. Their whole birds usually come with the gizzards and neck tucked inside. Your chicken might have a little paper bag full of gizzards. Don’t be squeamish – put your whole fist in there and take everything out of the bird. I reserve the neck to use for stock, but gizzards admittedly aren’t my thing.
Once your chicken is clean and ready, use your knife or a sharp pair of kitchen shears to cut off the wing tips. Use the tip of your knife to feel for the joint to slice it cleanly off. If you don’t want to serve the wings, feel free to cut them off too – they’re delicious, but might be finicky to eat. Whatever pieces you remove, save it for later. It’s going to be the base of your stock. After this, you’re going to butterfly the chicken. This is a lot easier than it sounds. What you’ll do is cut alongside the chicken’s backbone on both sides, slicing through the ribs. This will allow you to remove the backbone. Then you can arrange the butterflied chicken in the pan so that it cooks evenly, remaining juicy and delicious throughout.
If you don’t want to butterfly the chicken, you don’t have to – but I strongly recommend it. Otherwise, the legs will overcook long before the breast is done, and you’ll end up with dry meat. If you’re squeamish and really don’t want to cut up the chicken, Google “how to truss a chicken” and you’ll find ways not to. But again, I really recommend butterflying it. Even if it’s intimidating the first time, you’ll soon realize how easy it is and it’ll be fine the second time.
Season the chicken with lots of salt, some pepper, and if you have any fresh herbs, mince and use those too. You can even peel back the skin and rub seasoning directly onto the meat, as long as you replace the skin when you’r done. This time, I used lemon zest from my California shipment of Meyer lemons and it turned out amazingly! You could get really creative here, but the beauty of this dish is that it’s just as great when you keep it simple. Arrange the seasoned chicken on top of the veggies as in the photo below, arranging the thighs so that they prop up the drumsticks. Your goal is to maximize the area of exposed skin, which crisps deliciously in the oven.
Stick it in your preheated-to-500-degrees oven for 20 minutes. It might smoke. Don’t worry about that – but perhaps disable your fire alarm. After 20 minutes, turn the heat down to 400 and rotate the pan. Let it roast for another 30 minutes or so, perhaps rotating the pan again 15 minutes in. If you have a meat thermometer, use it – you want the chicken’s internal temperature to hit 160 degrees Farenheit, according to USDA Food Safety guidelines. If not, peek around the bird until you see where the juices are running out. Make sure they’re clear. If not, pop it back into the oven in 5-minute increments until they are. The chicken’s skin should be golden brown and crispy.
You now have a delicious skillet full of roast chicken and vegetables.
After smelling this for the last 45 minutes, and then pulling it out of the oven, your top priority is eating chicken immediately. However, the best thing you can do for the next 10 minutes is let the chicken rest. Basically, this helps the chicken stay juicy when you cut it. If you’re impatient, now is a great time to distract yourself by arranging a little green salad or something to round out the meal. You can even make your own vinaigrette, it’s so easy! Want to learn how? Okay, here we go. You can do this with a whisk, an immersion blender, or even a regular blender. In a medium bowl, stir together the following: 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, 1/2 tbsp honey, 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp orange juice, 1 tsp dijon mustard. When it’s blended well, begin drizzling in canola oil, whisking/blending/stirring throughout. Add the oil slowly, never stopping the whisking, until you have reached the consistency you want for your salad dressing. Pour that stuff over your salad. It’s great and you’ll be shocked at how easy it was to make.
Now that the chicken has rested for ten minutes, it’s ready to be served. Make this easy on your guests by carving it for them. Place the chicken on a cutting board and slice it up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Hang onto those bones! Or, just cut it into pieces. Using a sharp knife, feel for the joints between the drumstick and thigh; cut through cleanly. Same with the wing. Slice the breasts off the bone, though; you’ll want those bones for later. Arrange the meat on top of the vegetables (in the skillet or in another serving dish if you want to be fancy). Dinner is ready!
After you enjoy the hell out of your roasted chicken and crispy delicious vegetables, be sure to reserve the leftover meat and bones. You’re going to spend five minutes tonight making stock for tomorrow’s soup.
I debated whether to include a recipe for this, because there are so many successful ways to roast a chicken that I don’t want to limit you by confining you to specifics. I decided it would be best to include a recipe to guide beginners, but please keep in mind that you can really do anything to this bird and it will taste great. Add a turnip to the vegetable mix. Season it with fresh marjoram. Add cumin, paprika, and chili powder to the salt for the skin. Seriously, the options are endless. But here’s an easy way to try it for the first time.
Easy Roast Chicken serves 3-4
1 3-4lb whole chicken
1-2 large Yukon Gold potatoes
Any other seasonings you want: fresh thyme, lemon zest…
Preheat your oven to 500F.
Peel, clean, and dice the vegetables. Place them in the cooking pan, seasoning with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.
Prepare the chicken. Remove giblets, cut off wing tips (and wings if you want), and cut through the ribs along both sides of the backbone to remove it. Season the chicken’s skin with pepper, olive oil, and anything else you want. (Lemon zest is my new obsession). Get the seasonings underneath the skin if you can. Finish the skin by seasoning it with lots of salt.
Roast for 20 minutes at 500 degrees. Turn the heat down to 400, rotate the pan, and roast in 10-15 minute intervals until the juices run clear or a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast or thigh measures 160F.
Let it rest for 10 minutes, slice, and enjoy!
And as always, thanks to Xavier for helping me with photos while my hands were busy with pollo…