Endless Chicken: A Cook's Bird Of Plenty

CHEAP EATS

December 12, 1990|By Charlyne Varkonyi

The chore should have been easy. A couple goes to the grocery store. They pick up the items on the carefully planned shopping list and save a lot of money. No impulse purchases. No luxury foods like shrimp or filet mignon. Just the basics.

The trip through the produce department went smoothly even though there was a minor skirmish over the prices of the onion options. He wanted the more expensive Bermuda onions; I held out for the cheaper yellow variety.

But the real crisis came at the meat counter. I flinched as my significant other reached for the boneless, skinless chicken breasts without a second thought. Old habits are hard to break. He was still thinking like we did in the days not so long ago when it wasn't unusual to spend $20 for a free-range chicken because we loved the earthy flavor.

"No, no," I said, crying fowl. "You are missing the point. Look at the difference in these prices. The two boneless, skinless chicken breasts cost nearly $7 and this whole huge 7-pound roasting chicken is $6.60 and we can get several meals out of it." (Put another way, the boneless, skinless chicken breasts typically sell for $3.99 to $4.49 a pound while the roasting chicken is only 69 cents to $1.29 a pound.)

"But I like white meat," he said, pouting.

"Trust me," I countered. "There's plenty of white meat on this chicken. This breed is the Dolly Parton of the barnyard."

Since then, our squawking has ended at the poultry section. Now we fondly refer to our own big bird as the "Endless Chicken." It's become a staple on our shopping list and should be for anyone who wants to stretch his or her food budget without sacrificing quality. That single chicken just wouldn't go away -- dinner for two the first night from the plain roasted bird, dinner for two the second night with leftovers, three chicken lunches for two and 2 1/2 quarts of chicken soup.

Frankly, like other busy working people, I have never quite seen the point of taking all the time and effort to roast a chicken for a household where white meat is considered the only meat to eat. But this time the bird, a broad-breasted beauty with more white meat than average, was big enough to make the effort worthwhile for a weekend project.

Although food shoppers have several choices in the roaster category, we used the Perdue Oven Stuffer Roaster, a 5- to 7-pound bird that was genetically designed and raised to have more meat. The meat yield is 3 or 4 percent higher than a comparable roaster, according to Keith Rinehart, vice president of technical services for Perdue.

"This bird is older and has more of an old-time chicken flavor," says Mr. Rinehart, who worked on breeding this roaster. "It is much closer to its potential mature size." A broiler or fryer typically goes to market at 6 1/2 to 7 weeks while these roasters grow to 12 to 14 weeks before marketing.

The roaster also made wonderful soup -- a rarity for an already-cooked bird.

In the past when I attempted to make chicken soup with the carcass of an already cooked chicken, the result was a good candidate for the garbage disposal. Likewise, most cookbooks insist that the only way to make chicken soup is with raw meat. But this time, the soup was a golden color with a rich taste and a just-like-mom-used-to-make aroma. If you are still skeptical, add some uncooked meat and bones (such as the bird's neck, wing tips and giblets) along with the carcass, some dark meat and skin from the cooked bird.

Depending on how much chicken you have left over, you may get one or two additional meals. Don't worry if your family dislikes dark meat. You can disguise it easily with strong flavors. First, I sauteed some broccoli, carrots, onions and garlic in butter. Then I added the leftover dark meat from the night before, leftover wild rice and a can of golden mushroom soup with about a half can of water. The resulting mixture was seasoned with salt, freshly ground pepper and fresh thyme or oregano. It was placed in a lasagna dish and cooked at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes.

When you are shopping for your own endless chicken, there are no easy formulas. Chuck Wabeck, poultry and food product specialist with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, has done yield comparisons on different brands of broiler chickens, but he says he has no equivalent information for roasters.

But, he adds, a careful shopper can find the best yield available by comparing the roasters available in the meat case.

"Most people look at the front part of the breast, but you should also look at the rear and make sure there is plenty of meat over the bone. Feel around the drumsticks and thighs and make sure they are full. If you take care you can pick up 1 or 2 percent more yield than other birds."

Endless roast chicken

Makes 6 servings.

1 (6- to 7-pound) roasting chicken, at room temperature

1/2 lemon

salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 small yellow onion, peeled

1 teaspoon thyme or rosemary

1 bay leaf

1 sprig of fresh tarragon or parsley

2 to 4 tablespoons butter, melted

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