Monday, May 25, 2009

One Chicken, Two Meals

My dear readers, I'm sorry it's been so long! Life has been very busy. Not too busy to cook, just too busy to write about it! I'll try to catch up a few meals over the next couple days.

Last weekend I made a roast chicken dinner on Sunday, followed by mahtzoh ball soup for Monday. I was going to be out, and wanted to leave dinner for the family for Monday night.

Learning to roast a chicken, make gravy, and make stock are fundamentals that cooks perfect their whole lives. Everyone has different preferences. I'll give you my techniques - see if you like them, or augment them yourself to your own preferences.

Sunday dinner was roast chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, roasted beet salad, and broccoli. Monday was mahtzoh ball soup, a dinner salad, and hard rolls. In the interest of today's topic being how to get two meals from one chicken, I'm going to focus on those elements.

Roast Chicken
Brown Chicken Gravy
Mahtzoh Ball Soup

Roast Chicken
1 roasting chicken - 4lbs. or more
2-3 carrots, trimmed and diced (peeling is optional, but scrub if not peeled)
2-3 stalks celery, trimmed and diced
1 large yellow onion, trimmed, peeled and diced
Kosher salt

When roasting a chicken, I have three objectives: (1) develop the flavor of the chicken as much as possible, (2) cook the breast and dark meats such that both are tender and moist, and they are done at about the same time, and (3) develop the pan juices for the most delicious possible gravy.

I've read and experimented a great deal on this topic. This is the technique I now use to achieve these goals.

24 hours before roasting, rub a generous amount (2-3 T) of Kosher salt all over the inside cavity and outside of the chicken. Wrap with plastic wrap and keep in the refrigerator until 1 hour before roasting. This process of salting the meat a day ahead of time is equivalent to brining. However, I find brining to be more unweildy - you have to find refrigerator space for a large pot - and it takes a lot more salt.

One hour before baking, remove the chicken from the refrigerator. Preheat the oven to 375F. Trim and dice all of the vegetables. Place a rack in a roasting pan. Scatter the vegetables all over the bottom of the pan. Place the chicken on the rack breast side down [if the neck was included, lay it directly on the bottom of the roaster with the vegetables], and place in the oven.

The sole purpose for the vegetables is for them to brown and add flavor to the gravy. You'll be watching them carefully. For a rich, brown gravy, the vegetables must be very well-browned - almost burned. But if they scorch, the gravy is ruined.

To complicate matters a bit, you are also roasting a chicken. Total roasting time will be about 20 minutes per pound of chicken (e.g., 1:40 for a 5-pounder). However, you'll be using other methods to fine-tune the cooking time. I find I often cook them longer than this rule of thumb. Further, by starting the bird breast-side down, you'll brown and cook the legs and thighs first, which keeps the breast moist. But to brown the breast, you'll need to flip the bird at some point in the baking - typically about 2/3rds through.

After the first hour or so, you should check the pan every 10 minutes. You are looking for the doneness of the veggies, and also the color of the back-side of the chicken. When the chicken is a rich caramel color, turn it over. The breast will be light and will show the marks of the rack, but don't worry, the rest of the cooking will take care of that.

When the veggies are as dark as you dare let them go without burning, add a cup or two of water to the pan. Water does not need to completely cover the veggies, but it must completely cover the bottom of the roaster. The chicken, however, should not have water on it. [For the science-minded, the temperature of liquid water cannot exceed its boiling point, about 212F. Browning reactions occur at higher temperatures. As long as the veggies are kept moist, they will brown no further. Because of this, adding water too soon will also stop the browning. Deep browning creates flavor. Fat remains liquid at higher temperatures, so the chicken fat rendering into the pan will continue to brown the veggies until water is added.]

After you flip the chicken, watch the color of the skin. When it is becoming deep brown, insert a digital thermometer into the thickest part of the breast. It should reach about 165F to be done. Don't let it get much above this, or it will dry out. [The exterior of the bird is hotter than the interior, and will continue to cook the interior after it's removed from the oven, typically raising the temperature another 5 degrees or so until the inevitable cooling down.]

Remove chicken from the roaster and place it on a cutting board to rest - at least 10 minutes - before carving.

This method will produce a well-browned, crisp skin and deep, rich flavor without added butter or other ingredients. If you want, you can stuff the cavity of the bird with herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, bay leaf and Italian parsley. If you do so, remove before making stock (see below).

Save every bit of bone, skin and unused meat from this step. It will become the foundation of your stock. Save the bones from the thighs and legs. Also, save any juices that drain from the chicken before and during carving, and add those to the stock as well.

Brown Chicken Gravy
pan drippings and roasted carrots, celery and onions from roasted chicken
buttermilk (1/2 pint or more)
2-3 T butter
2-3 T flour
salt & pepper

First, make a roux with the butter and flour. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, stir in the flour, and cook over medium-low heat until the flour and butter are nut brown, stirring often. I use a whisk for this. The amount of roux you make will depend on how thick or thin you like gravy. I like a relatively thin gravy. Making a brown roux will enhance the color of the gravy, and deepen its flavor.

In the mean time, place the roasting pan over a burner (or two burners if it is oblong and reaches two burners). The secret to this stage of gravy making is heat and speed. Have all ingredients ready, and get this process done fairly quickly. Add 2-3 cups of hot water to the pan (I often use water from boiling the potatoes) and bring to a vigorous boil. While it's coming up to temperature, use the whisk or a spoon to scrape loose all of the brown bits clinging to the sides and bottom of the roaster. This process is called "deglazing", and is the source of much of the flavor in your gravy. If your roasting pan has a lot of brown glaze left on it when you clean up, you missed a lot of flavor!

Once the pan is deglazed, pour in the buttermilk, whisking vigorously. I love buttermilk gravy. If you don't, just use an additional cup or two of water. At this point, all of the veggies are still in the pan. Bring back to a full boil. Now, working with about 1/4th of it at a time, whisk in the roux. Keep the gravy boiling - this emulsifies the fats and creates a smooth, homogenous gravy. With each addition of roux, let it fully dissolve and cook into the gravy. You'll see it thickening. Stop adding roux when the gravy is at a desired thickness. Reduce heat to low. Grind a generous amount of black pepper over the gravy and whisk one more time.

Place a medium-mesh strainer over a bowl large enough to hold the gravy. Strain the gravy into the bowl. [There will still be tiny bits of veggies in the gravy. If you are a purist for a velvety, pure gravy, use a chinois or fine-mesh strainer and strain a second time. Work quickly so it stays hot.]

Check salt. Salty gravy is yummy, so don't be shy. But be careful. Over-salted gravy is ruined. Better to add small amounts at a time and mix well before adding more.

Mahtzoh Ball Soup
1 qt. chicken stock
carcass from roasted chicken
2 carrots, trimmed and cut into large chunks
3 stalks celery, trimmed and cut into large chunks
1 large onion, trimmed, peeled and quartered
1 tsp. dried Herbes d'Provence
1 tsp. whole peppercorns
1-2 dried bay leaves
1 pkg. mahtzoh ball mix (I use Manischewitz), prepared per package instructions
2 eggs
light olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced

Make the stock as follows: place the chicken carcass and all the residual bits saved from dinner in a stock pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium-low. Use a skimmer or small mesh sieve to skim off any foam that forms during the first few minutes of cooking. Add all remaining ingredients (down through bay leaves), stir once, then do not stir again. Cook for at least 2 hours. It should be bubbling very gently, not boiling. If you can't get your burner low enough to prevent boiling, try stacking two burners (if it's safe and not tippy!).

Chicken stock flavor progresses as follows: first shallow and insipid, gradually becoming richer to a sweet-savory peak, then a gradual reducing in brightness as the flavor becomes more tired. You are trying to time it for that peak. This requires regular tasting. Unsalted stock won't have its full flavor, so you have to be discerning. It will develop body and richness as it cooks. There will come a point where the bouquet is heavenly, and the broth has a velvetiness and sheen. It will have a distinct and pervasive "chickeniness". At this point, remove it from the heat.

Strain the stock twice - first through a medium-mesh sieve, then a second time through a paper towel in a large sieve, or through a chinois [without the paper towel]. The paper towel method takes some practice - none can spill out - but it produces a clear broth with most of the fat removed.

Discard bones, skin and veggies from the stock. Rinse and wipe out the stock pot and return the strained stock to the pot. If you have more than a quart at this point, bring it to a low boil and reduce it (evaporate off some water) until it is about 1 quart. Now, check salt and add some until desired saltiness. You're making soup now, so get it to the level of saltiness you like your soup.

In the mean time, prepare the mahtzoh ball mix and dice the carrots and celery. Add the veggies to the stock, then form mahtzoh balls one at a time and drop into the soup. Cover tightly and cook according to the instructions, 25 minutes or so. Serve, or refrigerate and save for lunch or dinner later - this will keep several days.

[Note: if you've gotten the stock right, the chilled soup will be gelatinous. This is caused by dissolved marrow and connective tissue from the chicken, and is a rich source of flavor and nutrients. If the chilled soup is runny, either the stock didn't cook long enough, or it wasn't reduced enough.]

Technique & Timing
Since this post doesn't follow my normal format, most of these topics were woven in above. On timing, I prepared all of this in one night. That may sound formidable, but it's not too bad. Except for the final stage, the carrots, celery and onions can be rough-chopped - especially in the stock. Most of the elapsed time is taken by roasting or simmering, during which you can do other things.

One more thing: ever had demi glace, that super-rich beef-broth-based sauce served in high-end restaurants? You can make an extraordinarily rich and delicious chicken demi glace as well. After you've double-strained your stock, return it to a clean pot with the heat on low. Gradually reduce it to about 1 cup. If skin forms on the top, remove it with the back of a spoon (the film will cling to it) - this film is made of impurities that you can gradually clean away in this manner. Eventually, skin will no longer form. When the stock is reduced to a cup (this will take several hours, and it will seem like the pan is almost empty), carefully pour it into a bowl or measuring cup with a spout. It will be deep-golden in color, and very velvety, with incredibly intense flavor. Pour a little - 1/4 cup or so - into snack-sized ziplock bags and freeze [write the date and contents on the bag in permanent marker to remember what they are and when you made them].

I use chicken demi glace to finish stir-frys, make quick pan-sauces for roasted potatoes, in pasta dishes, or to enrich soups. Pretty much anywhere you want rich, intense chicken flavor.


  1. Nice stuff. I only discovered that I could make stock at home a couple of years ago, and was amazed at how easy (and delicious) it is. I usually simmer mine for at least 8 hours, but am now tempted to try shorter periods.

  2. Thanks, Kevin! Cooking time varies by type of protein. Fish stocks are the most delicate, followed by poultry, then beef. I've even made a stock with shrimp shells that is delicious. The key is to only cook the bones/shells until peak flavor is reached. After the bones are removed and the stock is filtered, you can reduce as much as you want to intensify the flavors. Thanks for reading!!

  3. I'm excited to try your matzo ball soup recipe, hopefully before next passover. :-) Thanks for the post and the info.