Here at Providence Farm, we only sell our chickens whole. When folks ask if we have boneless skinless chicken breasts, we smile and kindly inform them that the breasts grow on the rest of the chicken, that they can have the breast meat as it comes: attached to the wings, thighs, drumsticks, and back.
Perhaps this is poor business practice. Likely it is off-putting to customers who prefer to minimize their contact with raw meat. But as farmers (and home cooks) we feel that comfort in the kitchen, knowledge of where food comes from, and ability to fully utilize such ingredients is vitally important for a vibrant, healthy local food community. As such, we are committed to educating customers on exactly how to use a whole chicken, and how to get the most for your money. It is in that spirit that we offer this post.
First, I’d like to offer up a few words about meat thrift generally. Or rather, I’d like to offer up someone else’s words about meat thrift, as his writing is more eloquent, and certainly more effective, than my own. The following quote comes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, excerpted from his River Cottage Meat Book:
Meat thrift is all about respect. Respect for the animals that have died to feed you. Respect for the farmers who have (assuming you’ve chosen your meat well) worked tirelessly to keep those animals healthy and contented, so their meat is as good as it can be. And respect for the whole history of animal husbandry and meat gastronomy–endeavors that until recently scorned any practice that was wasteful of the livestock on which they depended.
So how, exactly, can you be thrifty with a whole chicken (or any meat bird, for that matter)? I won’t bother with specific recipes, as they are endless, but I will provide a general method for getting the most bang for your buck.
First meal: Cook the bird. At our house we tend to roast chickens whole (look for a “how-to” page specific to heritage birds, coming soon), but the bird could also be braised or stewed, cut up and roasted, fried, grilled, you name it. Assuming you’re not planning on half a chicken per person (and you probably shouldn’t: spending your food dollars on lesser quantities of great meat, rather than piles of industrial slop, is a good idea), this will feed up to six adults: two breasts, two thighs, two drumsticks.
Second meal: Pick off the bits of meat from the remaining carcass. If you didn’t use all six larger pieces mentioned above, pick those as well. There is a surprising amount of really tasty meat tucked in along a chicken’s backbone, so don’t miss that. With these bits you have plenty of options: stir-fry, a replacement for ham in a sort of pasta carbonara, lunch salad with chicken sprinkled on top, soup, fried rice, pot pie, and on and on.
Third meal: Make a stock. For this you will need the carcass, neck, skin, and bones from previous meals: in other words everything you haven’t used yet. Some folks take stock-making pretty seriously, with specific quantities of this and that and the other, but our method is more laid-back. Fill a stock pot with water, throw in the chicken carcass and whatever else is left, and if you like add in some veggies like onions, carrots, celery, and garlic, and perhaps some herbs (fresh or dried). Don’t forget the salt and pepper. (Vinegar is also a good idea–for an informative article on the benefits of bone broth, check out this page from the Weston A. Price Foundation.) Then set it to simmer for maybe three or four hours–though it won’t hurt to go longer, say overnight–and when it’s done strain it. To do this we set a large colander atop a large metal mixing bowl and pour (carefully!–it’s hot). You could filter this through muslin or cheesecloth or some such to arrive at a crystal clear end product, but we feel this is mostly unnecessary. Voila, chicken stock. Now you have a base for soups of all kinds, a liquid for cooking risotto or other rice dishes, beans, you name it.
And there you have it: three meals from one chicken.