On Winter Storms and Chicken Stock

Winter storm Nemo passed over New York City last night, leaving us with somewhere around a foot of snow. Mayor Bloomberg encouraged everyone to stay home. But my brother-in-law was stranded in Los Angeles and my sister Hannah was going a bit nuts trapped inside with their teething one-year-old, Wally. So I donned my shearling-lined Bean boots (thanks, Mom!) and headed outside.

We had plans to have dinner delivered. But once I experienced the sharp little ice chunks pelting my face, I couldn’t imagine asking someone else to do so on a bike. Luckily, Brooklyn Victory Garden is halfway between our apartments. I scanned their well-curated selection of meats and immediately hit on roast chicken as the ideal meal for a blizzard. I also grabbed some Satur Farms wild arugula (so tasty) and a demi baguette. As she was ringing me up, the woman behind the counter asked if I had bought this chicken before, to which I replied no. “They’re great,” she said, “but you’ll want to remove the head and feet before roasting.” I thanked her for the advice and headed across the street for a lemon and some shallots.

By the time I got to my sister’s, the ice chips had given way to light, fluffy snow. Up on the 10th floor of her high rise, the flakes whirled in every direction, but mainly straight up–a remarkable effect that I could have watched for hours. But there was a baby to be entertained. We played bouncy. We built towers and knocked them down. We read books. We hammered balls into holes and sometimes just hammered people.

By 7:00, Hannah was nursing Wally to sleep and the chicken was in the oven. It was stuffed with shallot and lemon slices; coated in salt, pepper, and olive oil; and nestled in a bed of carrots and shallots. (I find it criminal not to allow some vegetables to cook in those delicious pan drippings.) I poured some wine and commenced to watch the snow. Around 8:00 we sat down to a dinner that included the roast chicken and carrots, arugula dressed with a shallot and balsamic vinaigrette, and the baguette, which I had crisped in the oven while the chicken rested. This was my first encounter with a Bo Bo chicken, but I can assure you it will not be my last. We sat at the table for quite some time picking at the bones, talking, and knocking back wine.

I had planned to depart before the worst of the storm, but the conversation (and, it is safe to assume, the wine) got the better of me. By the time I made it out to the street (chicken head, feet and bones tucked into my bag), Brooklyn was a winter wonderland and the streets were nearly deserted. It was breathtaking.

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Today I am content to sit at home watching old movies, catching up on a long-forgotten knitting project, and simmering chicken stock.

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It is a wonder to me that anyone ever throws chicken bones away, as homemade stock is seriously easy, makes the whole house smell glorious, and adds that extra little something to just about any savory dish. At the most basic level, you toss a chicken carcass or parts thereof into  a pot with just enough water to cover and simmer. But here are some tricks I’ve picked up over the years.

  1. If you don’t have enough bones yet, or are lacking the time for a proper slow cook, just toss the bones in a plastic bag in the freezer until you are ready.
  2. You can use raw or roasted chicken, or a combination of the two. Raw will yield a lighter, more refined stock while roasted will have a bolder, deeper flavor.
  3. Crack any bones that you can manage. (Note to self: must buy cleaver.) Stock is more about the bones than the meat. Cartilage and marrow are what give a good stock–and, ultimately, a good soup–that velvety mouth feel. Breaking the bones speeds this process. The best stock I ever made was, once it cooled, the consistency of Jell-o.
  4. Add some aromatics, vegetables, herbs and/or spices. Onions, garlic, carrots, celery, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, pepper, and allspice will give you a more complex flavor. You’re not limited to these ingredients, but they all provide a reasonably neutral base from which you can build. Fennel, parsnips, rosemary, and the like would be delicious, but may point your ultimate dish in a specific direction.
  5. Keep your stock at a low simmer. A full boil will emulsify the fat and yield cloudy stock.
  6. If scum appears at the top of the pot, skim it. This will also contribute to a clear stock.
  7. Cook your stock for as long as you can stand it and at least one hour. I had a roommate who would leave the pot on low overnight, which I found alarming from a safety perspective (though her stock was good). Four hours is great. Add water as needed to keep your ingredients submerged.
  8. If you’ve got limited storage space, let the stock cook down until it is concentrated.
  9. Don’t add a lot of salt. It is very easy to oversalt when you are cooking something down and you can always season at the end of the process and/or when making your final dish.
  10. Strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer, pressing hard on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.
  11. Cool your stock, pop it in the fridge overnight, and then scrape off the layer of fat that forms on the top.
  12. Save the aforementioned fat in a container in the freezer and use it in place of or in addition to oil or butter for some extra flavor. I find that potatoes are particularly tasty. My grandma has fond memories of coming home from school to a piece of toast slathered in schmaltz, but I have yet to go there.
  13. If you’re not going to use the stock right away, pour it into ice cube trays, freeze them, and then drop them in a plastic baggie. You’d be amazed what a single cube of good quality chicken stock can do for a lackluster stir-fry or pasta sauce.

This technique works fine for turkey as well and has become my Black Friday ritual. But, as you can see, I ran into some problems when I tried to use Wally.

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Provencal Roast Chicken

I adopted Jezebel around 1999. She was so small that I quite reasonably assumed she was a kitten. But the vet put her at about three years old. Jezebel remains a delightful companion, despite her recent propensity for late night yowling. (The internet suggests that dementia is likely.) As you can see, whatever’s happening in her brain, she’s managed to hold onto her good looks.

As tiny as she was when she found me, Jezebel is now down under five pounds, so I tend to feed her whatever she wants. She and I only made our way through a small bit of this truly scrumptious Provencal-style roast chicken tonight, but I am confident that it will be just as good throughout the week.

While I once confined myself to white meat off the bone (a holdover from my vegetarian upbringing and subsequent squeamishness), I love roasting a whole chicken. The smell permeates the house. It’s economical. It leaves you with bones to make stock. And a whole chicken can be communal–even when it’s just you and your cat.

Roast Chicken with Porcini, Leeks and Root Vegetables

  • One whole chicken (5-7 pounds), rinsed and patted dry
  • 1.5 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 lemon
  • kosher salt
  • black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Herbes de Provence (lavender, savory, fennel, thyme and rosemary or some combination thereof)
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large leeks, white and light green portions sliced and rinsed thoroughly
  • 4 cups of chopped root vegetables (turnips, carrots, parsnips, beets, potatoes, etc.)
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bring a cup of water to a boil and pour over the dried porcini.
  2. Slice the ends off of the lemon, score the sides and stuff it inside the bird. Combine a tablespoon of kosher salt, a good amount of freshly-ground pepper and a tablespoon of the Herbes de Provence in a small dish. Rub this all over the bird, being sure to get under the skin to massage it into the breast meat. If you’ve got some kitchen twine and you can find a way to access it while your hands are covered in raw chicken, truss the legs. If not, whatever.
  3. Set the bird in a roasting pan breast-side down, drizzle some olive oil over the top and pop it in the oven. After 30 minutes or so, flip the bird over and baste with the pan juices. If the bird hasn’t released much fat, you can use a little more olive oil. You might also sprinkle the top with additional salt, pepper and herbs if you like.
  4. After another 30 minutes, slide the bird to the side and add your leeks and root vegetables. (I went with turnips, carrots, beets and potatoes because that’s what I had on hand.) Stir these with the pan juices and then add 1/2 tablespoon of the Herbes de Provence, salt, pepper and the porcini along with their liquid. Mound the vegetables in the center, flip your chicken so that it is once again breast-side down and place it on top of the vegetables.
  5. Continue cooking, basting the bird with the juices approximately every fifteen minutes and stirring the vegetables if needed. It should take roughly 20 minutes total cooking time per pound, but start checking your chicken whenever you get anxious or when the aroma starts to make you dizzy. I recommend ignoring whatever guidelines your thermometer may suggest and, instead, aim for getting the deepest part of the thigh up around 165 degrees. Be sure to let it rest for about five minutes out of the oven. If you’re worried about the bird getting cold, tent it very loosely–lest you steam that beautiful, crisp skin–with foil.

Were I serving this to a crowd, I would have placed the chicken on a platter, mounded the vegetables around it, and carved at the table. Instead, I hacked off of a leg and got to work.

Beach House Chicken Salad

Greetings from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

After a morning round of sunning, swimming and snoozing under the umbrella, I headed back to the house to see what I could dig up for lunch.  We’re at the tail end of a weeklong beach trip and have collectively agreed not to purchase any new groceries and instead focus on consuming what we have amassed.

Beach House Chicken Salad

  1. You know that marinated chicken that you grilled but couldn’t finish because you were also serving kale salad and grilled okra, corn, and the leftover mushroom and green bean risotto stuffed into some zucchini and eggplant that were begging to get used?  Well grab yourself a nice glass of ice water and start picking that chicken.  Two large split breasts should be plenty.  (Someone might want the leftover drumsticks later tonight.)  Remove the skin, bones and any less desirable bits.  Tear the rest into small pieces.  
  2. Now open the fridge and assess the condiment stash left by previous renters.  Half a cup of mayonnaise and a quarter cup of Dijon mustard will do just fine.
  3. Check the crisper and see what farmers market bounty you’ve failed to consume.  While mojitos were a great idea, somehow you never got around to using that mint.  And, despite having been liberal with the grilled skirt steak and homemade pizzas of nights past, you’ve still got an awful lot of basil.  Mince your herbs while pondering whether or not to take a shower.  Convince yourself that the fine film of sand will protect you from UV rays.
  4. Get another glass of water (it’s hot out there) and assess the pantry items that are spilling across the washer and dryer.  Something crunchy and something sweet would be great.  Grab a handful of roasted almonds, stick them in a plastic baggie and crush them with an empty wine bottle.  (Plenty of those on hand).  No raisins but, lo and behold, there are dried cranberries which are EVEN BETTER.
  5. Mix it all around, taste and season as you see fit.  A little balsamic and some fresh-ground black pepper can work wonders.

Your housemates will sing your praises as they roll in from the beach.  They will enjoy it on top of the leftover kale salad, as a sandwich on some slightly stale French bread, rolled up in a tortilla with some fresh tomato and, yes, straight from the bowl.  You will enjoy it on a cracker after your second trip to the beach, still in your bathing suit, standing at the kitchen counter, Campari and soda in hand, while the house dog, Obie, gazes on longingly.