September 2, 2010 by Leah
I did something for the first time yesterday that will shock many people who know me. That’s right, I made chicken stock. The shock value lies in the fact that I love to cook and it’s almost unbelievable I wouldn’t have done this before. The time was ripe, though; as part of our economy drive, I have been working on improving my “homemaking” skills that never really got off the ground (like bread making).
I’ve been getting to know and love the whole chicken over the past year. The first time I remember hearing about someone roasting a chicken, the cook in question was a reporter friend of mine who was always scraping by on little to no money and a diet of beans and rice and the occasional roast chicken. From this example alone it dawned on me that a whole chicken held some serious potential for frugality.
I roasted a whole chicken for the first time last fall when I was still trying to impress Aaron into dating me (thanks, Anna, for turning me on to Alice Waters’ bird-flipping method, btw) and since then have made several, all turning out more or less delicious.
While the point of this blog is to follow our journey into frugality, I really think that paying the premium for organic food will have a positive financial impact on our long-term health. (Also, I love food.) Since moving to Southern California where one can find pretty much anything one wants to buy, the chicken-purchasing options (free-range, organic, grass fed, air chilled) have multiplied.
First, I discovered a free-range organic chicken in a bag for a bit over $16 (not prohibitive, I decided, based on the fact that we could make at least four meals out of it) at my local Sprouts “farmer’s market” grocery store. (I go there for the bulk foods section.) It was good, but it had still been filled out with a saline solution of some kind, which I found strange with the “organic” label. It’s common for poultry labeled “all natural” to be plumped with saline solution, particularly if you buy it from the frozen foods section. Even chicken that isn’t injected with saline solution is generally water chilled (in this country, anyway), which means it spends enough time in a heavily chlorinated water bath (with many other dead chickens) to absorb between 2 and 12% of its body weight in water – and you end up paying chicken prices for that water weight.
Last weekend, I discovered that Whole Foods (which is much more conveniently located than Sprouts, being a mile from our house and across the street from the actual Sunday farmer’s market) offers organic air chilled chickens for something like $3.79 a pound. This made a 4.3 pound chicken just over $16, and the entire weight was bird. (And it was wrapped in paper, not plastic. Cool.) I bought it, as well as some boneless, skinless, air-chilled, organic breasts from the same supplier ($8 for two, or $7.99 a pound). (Fine cooks tend to think boneless, skinless chicken breasts are the most boring things in the world, but they are hard to beat for convenience.)
Not content with my step up to air-chilled chicken, we decided the thing to do would be to cook this bird on the grill. As always, I seasoned the chicken the day before we were planning to use it. For cooking, we used the traditional “beer can” method: you stuff aromatic herbs (garlic, basil, rosemary) into half a can of good beer (Trader Joe’s Simpler Times Lager, in this case) and insert the beer can into the chicken’s cavity. (Some people call this “beer butt” chicken, for obvious reasons.) Then you sit it up on a hot grill, but not directly over the coals, for what turned out to be just over an hour – or until all your meat thermometers scream at you that the chicken is done. (PS: Charcoal chimney. Get one. Best thing ever. No lighter fluid taste.)
This was one yummy bird – flavorful and crispy skinned, even though we overcooked it a tad due to my incredulity that it could be done so fast. The taste was definitely superior to water-chilled chicken – it tasted like a more honest chicken. (We found the same thing when I finally baked the organic, air-chilled breasts in an almond crust last night – the chicken itself was REALLY good, and a completely different animal from, say, boneless skinless frozen chicken breasts that I will never again buy for the freezer.)
Here’s where the frugality kicks in: we had dinner from the chicken one night, and leftovers for lunch the next day. (That’s two meals.) I picked the rest of the meat off the bones to reserve for a chicken, leek, and white bean soup I love to make. (Another two meals, at least.) During this process, it hit me that I could be doing more with the mostly meatless carcass than throwing it in the trash. So, I dug out the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (just kidding, it was actually next to my bed) and looked up how to make a chicken stock. It was brilliantly simple and allowed me to use up some limp carrots and celery that had been languishing in the back of the vegetable crisper. The only thing about making chicken stock is you have to be home as it “barely simmers” for four to five hours – but, you don’t have to do more than occasionally check on it, and you can stop the process at any time and run out on an errand if need be.
By early yesterday evening I had 11 cups of homemade chicken stock. Normally I pay $2 to $3 for a carton (four cups) of low-sodium organic chicken broth, and homemade stock is infinitely better and can be used in many, many ways. So I not only saved the money (say $8) I would have spent on three cartons of broth, I saved hauling them home and then throwing them in a landfill. Talk about frugality! I’m completely taken with this stock thing and will start trying to buy more meats on the bone to keep up this trend.