Here’s the theory: Given three attributes for dinner — good, fast, and cheap — you can only choose two, because a trifecta is virtually impossible. “Fast” and “cheap” might mean take-out or the drive-through; good it isn’t. “Good” and “fast” might mean dinner at that local, seasonal pizzeria, where the food is delicious but not exactly cheap. And “cheap” and “good” together usually negate fast, because this combo is frequently the dinner you lovingly prepare at home, taking your time and using fresh ingredients.
With a whole chicken, however, you can get good, fast, and cheap all in the same meal. Plan it right, and you can even get four meals for two people out of just one bird.
First, though, you’ll need to select that bird. Here are some of the labels you’ll encounter at the market.
Conventionally raised chickens are given drugs to speed up their rate of growth and additives to enhance their color. Cooped up in cramped, damp conditions without natural ventilation, these birds are also dosed with antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks.
Most non-organic chickens sold in supermarkets are killed after only 42 days, which means their bulk is made up of mostly fat, making them bland and tasteless. Processed and left to soak in a waterlogging bath, these birds are heavier when purchased and less flavorful when prepared.
Natural is a label for any minimally processed food that contains no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. Therefore, virtually all chickens are “natural."
Free-range chickens have room to move, but the term “free range” only means that they have been provided with access to the outdoors. The doorway to the great outdoors might be hard to find, and the small patch of ground outside might just be dirt. A bird labeled free-range could’ve been fed anything (GMO grains, pesticide-treated grains, even animal byproducts), may have been given antibiotics or hormones, and was perhaps raised in unsanitary or unsafe living conditions.
Kosher chickens may seem like a good choice since they are fed only grain (never animals or animal byproducts), are free-range in a clean environment, and are never given antibiotics, growth hormones, or steroids. However, their feed is conventional and their environment can be cleaned with chemicals.
Kosher chickens are slaughtered as humanely as possible (to cause the least amount of stress) and manufactured in a facility that complies with kosher dietary standards. They are more expensive because making a chicken kosher for purchase takes about three times as long as non-kosher.
Organic chickens are fed only organic grains (meaning non-GMO feed) and are never given antibiotics, hormones, or drugs. They are raised humanely in a stress-free environment with room to roam and exercise their muscles. They enjoy continuous entry to a clean, safe outdoor area with more space than a non-organic, intensive chicken farm. Organic chickens are also raised for at least 81 days, allowing chicks to grow at their natural rate and enjoy double the lifespan as well as a higher quality of life.
The only possible downside to buying organic chickens is the impact on our pocketbooks. But organic birds taste better and are healthier for us to consume. Consider that when you’re next at the store — the flabby, bland, drug-filled conventional bird versus the plump, tasty, clean organic bird.
Once you’ve got your four- or five-pound organic bird, rinse it and remove the legs; set aside both the legs and the neck. (The neck will go into stock; the legs will go into tikka masala.) Put the rest of the chicken in a large pot. Cover it with some chicken stock and water, then add some chopped carrots, celery, and onion. I like to add herbs (a few sprigs of parsley or thyme and a bay leaf), some peppercorns, salt, and a few crushed garlic cloves. Bring everything to a boil, then lower the heat to a bare simmer for about an hour for a soft, moist, and silky chicken poached in a delicious broth.
The reason I love to poach chicken is that you can make it into a satisfying soup all year round, using whichever seasonal vegetables are available. When the chicken is cooked through, take it out of the pot and add asparagus and peas in spring or summer, potatoes and carrots in fall and winter. If you like, simmer some noodles, dumplings, or matzo balls in the broth as well.
Meanwhile, use a fork to shred as much meat off the bones as possible. Have a taste to see if it’s seasoned to your liking. When the vegetables (and optional floating starches) are cooked, take about half of the shredded meat and add it back to the pot. Your chicken soup is ready.
As for the remaining shredded chicken, that’s lunch or dinner the next day: in sandwiches, chicken salad, or enchiladas. Or add it to cold sesame noodles tossed with green apples, scallions, and cilantro.
While cleaning up, stick the chicken carcass in a stockpot with the reserved neck and some extra vegetables, then cover it all with water. You’re going to make chicken stock by letting the mixture simmer for about two hours, until the flavors are concentrated and the volume has reduced.
Finally, if you’re planning to make chicken tikka masala, prep the marinade and let the chicken legs marinate overnight.
So there you have it: chicken soup on the first night, chicken salad or other leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day, and tikka masala the next night or so. And when you’re pulling that chicken stock from the freezer for the fourth meal, pat yourself on the back: you’ve achieved good, fast, and cheap, all on your own.
Former pastry chef Ellen Jackson is a food writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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