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Winning at Cheater's Chicken

Is that pre-cooked bird worth it?

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Cheaters never win, or so we're taught. But I cheat at chicken all the time, and I never seem to lose.

To cheat at chicken, buy a roasted chicken at the store, bring it home, and use it as an ingredient in some other dish, like enchiladas or stir-fry.

Regardless of the final form of the meal, Cheater's Chicken Soup is a given. A lot of chicken soup or broth is prepared as an afterthought from the leftover carcass, but Cheater's Chicken Soup can be made as soon as the bird gets home.

Pull the flesh off of the bones, leaving a greasy pile of skin and meat, and cut the bones into small pieces. With store-bought, slow-cooked chicken, you can count on the bones being only marginally more rigid than the buttery flesh, and kitchen scissors should easily reduce the bones into inch-long sections. It's especially important to slice through the wide ends of the long bones, where much of the marrow, nutrients, and general boney goodness reside.

Simmer the bone shards in a gallon or so of water. You can turn out a pretty quick soup this way, but it's better to simmer the bones for at least two or three hours. Then, let the pot cool to room temperature, to let the leaching of nutrients from chicken to stock run its full course, and set the pot in the fridge overnight. The next morning, skim any fat from the surface of the stock, and strain out the bones.

The stock can be stored for a day or two in the fridge, or frozen. When you're ready to make soup, reheat the stock and add carrots and celery, in large chunks, and a peeled onion, cut in quarters. Simmer for at least an hour, and season with salt, a little at a time, as the soup cooks. If you want a simple, brothy soup, salt is enough. If you want something heartier, add some of the chicken flesh, if you were able to set some aside while your family was pulling at that bird like a flock of vultures.

At this point, the soup, like a freshly procured chicken, is a blank slate. You can season the soup with herbs, like dill leaf or thyme. Garlic helps. Green chile helps. Maybe a pinch of lime.

I was at the store the other day getting supplies for Cheaters Chicken Peking Spring Rolls. The plan was to make chicken spring rolls flavored with scallions and hoisin sauce, Peking-duck style.

Alas, the only flavors of cheaters chicken available were unsalted and balsamic. Unsalted sounded terribly bland, but I wasn't in the mood to roll the dice with balsamic-flavored Peking spring rolls, so I went with bland.

At home, the vultures dug into that bland bird like they always do, barely pausing to notice the lack of salt or any other seasoning.

As the bones simmered, I made my rolls.

I rehydrated a sheet of rice paper by dipping it in a bowl of water and spreading it out on a plate to soften. In the center of the sheet I placed chicken, scallions, and hoisin sauce, along with cabbage, basil, mint, and little dollops of mayo and Vietnamese chili garlic sauce. I rolled and repeated, and then served the rolls with soy sauce.

The meal was great, but I couldn't help wondering why I had paid three times the price for a bird that was simply heated. Maybe I was losing at cheating.

The next day I brought home a five-pound bird that, according to Whole Foods, had received regular spa treatment and occasional trips to Disneyland, yet cost only a few dollars more than the one-pound cooked birds in the deli area.

I rinsed my happy, dead chicken and put it in the oven at 350, unseasoned. The entire process took about a minute.

I really wanted to add a little seasoning, but for the sake of science I left it plain, wanting to see if it was possible to screw up a chicken.

But after a couple of hours I broke down. Having just flipped the bird to breast-down in the juices, I couldn't resist sprinkling salt, garlic powder and thyme on the moist underbelly of the freshly turned chicken. Then, I lined the perimeter of the pan with large pieces of potato and carrot, before sending it back in the oven for more. I cooked it mostly with the lid on to keep in the juices, uncovering under high heat at the end for a few minutes to crisp the skin.

All of this hassle took another five minutes out of my day, and the result was spectacular, better than Cheater's Chicken. The vultures were especially voracious around the bird that evening.

If you're looking to bust out the cranberry sauce and whatnot, then you should probably do something a little more involved with your home-baked chicken. Brine it overnight in salt water to add flavor and moisture. Stuff it. Use a meat thermometer to make sure it's perfectly cooked.

But if you're just looking for a shortcut around the cheating process, either because you're too cheap to cheat, or are just a better person, the most important ingredient is just a little foresight. Put the bird in the oven, and then get back to your life.

Because luckily, it's really hard to screw up a chicken, unless you dry it out. And if you do, you can make extra chunky chicken soup.

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