One chicken, four meals

Buy a good bird and reap the rewards

August 25, 2008

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.

chicken tikka
Make Grilled Chicken Tikka Masala from the legs and thighs of your chicken.

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.

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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.

There are 6 comments on this item
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1. by Rebecca T. of HonestMeat on Aug 26, 2008 at 10:15 AM PDT

Your description of organic chickens is misleading. First of all, a “stress-free environment with room to move” means absolutely nothing when you are talking about tens of thousands of chickens in a huge, ammonia-filled building. You could say the same exact sentence when talking about conventional chickens. A “clean, safe outdoor area” means a sterile enclosed outdoor area with no growing vegetation for the chickens to eat. Shouldn’t they have access to pasture? Also, there is nothing in the organic rules that says an organic chicken is to live longer. They may take a little longer to grow out, but there is no rule giving them an extra week or two of life. Organic chickens you find in the grocery store live just as miserable lives as conventional ones. They still are jam-packed into smelly buildings and they still stand around on their own manure all day with little to no access to sunshine, growing vegetation, or scratching for bugs and worms.

2. by anonymous on Sep 18, 2008 at 10:57 AM PDT

Please re-consider your comments about kosher chickens in light of the recent Agriprocessors’ scandal. As a person who keeps kosher, I have always eaten and enjoyed kosher chickens. Now, however, I have sworn off all meat until the rabbinic authorities and the relevant prosecutors get to the bottom of what was going on there. Never mind horrendous animal abuse, but also stunning labr rights violations (including unsafe and abusive conditions for child laborers) have been alleged.

3. by Erika on Sep 23, 2008 at 3:09 PM PDT

Why is pastured not listed? Pastured chickens can be healthier than all of the above. They have access to fresh air, and eat green grass and yummy bugs, and live happy lives. I agree with Rebecca - Organic means little besides they are fed an organic diet, and butchered at an approved organic butcher. Free range means they are not in cages - yet the chickens can live their entire lives “roaming free” in a dirty barn! This author just missed the point. Look for chickens that are pastured, and you will be eating a wonderful product, and supporting a responsible and ethical farmer.

4. by Rhonda on Sep 30, 2008 at 6:32 PM PDT

I second the vote for pasture-raised chickens! They have fantastic flavor, healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and are often humanely raised (althought not guaranteed - therefore know your farmer!). I’m willing to pay a premium price and eat less chicken than get cheap food that has led a terrible existence.

5. by EvaToad on Oct 19, 2008 at 12:36 PM PDT

Well, I’m here to make a NICE comment!

Ellen, this idea is genius. I’ve been cooking whole chickens and using the carcass for stock for a while, and I often end up with extra chicken and use that.. etc. But I’ve always roasted it.

I tried this idea tonight (having recently moved to London on my own, without my boyfriend to eat the other half of meals). The resulting soup broth was really wonderful: I added ginger, rice stick noodles, green onion, and a dash of fish sauce. The meat was, as promised, incredibly silky and moist. I’ve already prepped the thighs/legs with an Indian spice rub (done while the rest was poaching), and I’m looking forward to cooking a delicious two- or three-meal curry tomorrow evening.

Anyhow, I just wanted to tell you how great this was. Sometimes the simplest ideas just never occur to you, eh?

6. by Cyndi on Nov 3, 2008 at 1:49 PM PST

Articles like this are so helpful because they get people to think about food in different ways. I wanted to make a few comments about your definitions though.

Unfortunately, kosher animals are not raised any differently from nonkosher animals (and, in fact, are usually raised together and separated only for slaughter). They can be given all sorts of nasty things and treated in hateful ways. The only difference is how they are killed and how the meat is handled afterwards. There is no reason why meat can’t be kosher and organic, but it’s only been recently that there have been producers who do both.

There is a movement called ecokosher that focuses on sustainability, no use of chemicals/toxins, and humane treatment (remember, the Torah didn’t specify how to raise food animals because animals then were all raised in families, not feed lots).

You’re right about “free range” not having much meaning. Ditto “cage free.” But you left out pastured animals. That means not being fed grain (except perhaps as supplement if needed) but letting the animals forage for themselves in well-managed pasture. For chickens that would include lots of bugs, seeds, and so forth. Check out this site for sources:

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