How to Transform a Roast Chicken Into Three (or More!) Comforting Meals
Call it loaves and fishes, but for poultry.
Knowing I have a whole chicken in my fridge or freezer provides me with reassurance. Long before these current days of quarantine cooking, I’ve been known to say, "Roast a chicken, feed your family for a week." In truth, this is debatable since I do not know the actual size of your family, but I do know that no matter how small or large your contingent may be, having a whole chicken at home has the ability to provide three to four inspired meals. And, in times like these, when a run to the grocery store requires latex gloves and stirs up my already-ever-present anxiety, knowing I can make soulful and soothing dinners with an ingredient that keeps on giving, helps me to keep calm and cook on.
There is an incredible number of ways to roast a bird. I tend to keep mine simple, using liberal amounts of kosher salt and black pepper and the occasional flecks of Aleppo pepper to season it. If I know I’m going to be making broth, I don’t want a lot of other competing flavors so I can have the freedom to go in multiple directions for future meals. There are certainly times for harissa-painted, citrusy, fancy chickens, but this isn’t one of them.
Our Queen Samin would encourage you to season the chicken in advance and leave it uncovered in the fridge overnight and when I remember to do so I feel very accomplished. But lately, I haven’t had the foresight and I’m ok with that too. Instead, about an hour before I want to roast it, I pull my chicken out of the fridge, take out the giblet bag (if there is one), place it in an oven-safe pan, and season it well, inside and out. I’ll crank my oven to 450 degrees and when the oven comes to temperature, I’ll slip in the bird. I will baste occasionally with any fat that it’s rendered and start checking it at about 45 minutes for doneness—the drumstick should wiggle easily in its joint and juices should run clear when the bird is pierced between the drumstick and thigh. At about just short of an hour, I have a beautifully lacquered bird with nearly shatterable, crispy skin.
I’ll allow the chicken to rest for 10 to 20 minutes and then serve it simply alongside some lettuces that have been tossed with a bright vinaigrette and perhaps a piece of toast, too. Condiments also have the opportunity to play an honorable supporting role. I’ve been known to pull out Dijon mustard, Russian dressing, a salsa verde-type sauce (if on hand) for everyone to use should they choose. And just like that, meal one is done.
If I haven’t ravaged the entire bird by the next day, I’ll make the split decision to either use whatever leftover meat there is to cobble together a chicken salad for sandwiches or I’ll take the remaining meat off its bones to stir into the broth that I always assemble from the roast chicken's carcass.
Making broth provides me solace and I’ll take it anywhere I can get right now. Because I do roast a lot of chickens, I usually have a few carcasses stashed in a large plastic bag in the freezer. But even if you do not, it is very possible to make flavorful broth from just one. I have no exact recipe for making broth, nor do I recommend one. I look at it as an opportunity to use what I have, which more often than not includes a halved skin-on yellow onion, or leek tops, or both, a few celery stalks with their leaves, a carrot or two, a head of garlic halved crosswise, and a handful of parsley. I throw everything together in a pot and cover it with about seven to eight quarts of cold water and bring it to a simmer. I’ll let it go for a couple of hours, tasting it along the way (I’ve been known to salt and sip a mug of broth for lunch), to see how everyone is getting along. When the flavors are to your liking and the broth has taken on a golden color, salt it to taste, and allow it to cool before discarding the aromatics, straining and storing.
I like to use some of this broth for soup (more on that below), and I'll still have broth left over to work its way into another dish that’s not soup, like risotto or cooked grains, chili or a braise. You can also freeze and store the broth for a couple months if you'd like.
Lately, I’ve been making a lot of soups with small pasta shapes like orzo, ditalini or fregola and grains like farro or barley that cook directly in the broth. I’ll start with a clean-out -the-fridge base of onions, shallots or other alliums, garlic and maybe some fennel and celery, if available, sauteed in olive oil until tender and golden. I’ll then add in a tablespoon or so of tomato paste or harissa and stir for a minute or so. Then I'll add about 6 cups of broth and bring everything to a simmer before adding in my starch, be it pasta or grains. A few minutes before the starch is finished cooking, I’ll fold in whichever wiltable green in my fridge is on their last legs, such as escarole, broccoli rabe or lacinato kale. If using, the cut-up leftover cooked chicken goes in then too and the whole thing simmers until it’s warmed just through. When ladled into wide bowls and drizzled with chili oil and topped with a handful of grated cheese, it's a soup that makes us forget for a moment that we’re cooking not just for sustenance, but also for comfort.