When we talk of something tasting like chicken what we really mean is that it tastes like nothing in particular, which is what most supermarket-bought chickens taste like. Believe it or not, chicken used to taste like something – that something being chicken.
Chicken varies considerably in price and quality (usually the two are interrelated) from the $6.99 supermarket brand frankenchickens who have had their beaks and wings clipped and spend their lives in a tiny cage, to free range, organic, corn-fed birds who read Proust every evening and can cost anywhere between $15 and $25 a pop. At least it actually tastes like chicken.
Fact is, twenty years ago chicken used to be regarded as a treat food – if that. They were prized mainly for their ability to produce eggs and were, on the whole, extremely expensive. If you are eating chicken two or three times a week, a $20 chicken is a bit expensive (well, out of the question really) but if it’s only once or twice a month and you can feed about four or so people twice then it’s not looking so bad. I only ever buy whole birds because it means that I can see where my meat is coming from – chicken pieces often come from birds which have imperfections (often caused by disease) on the other cuts and are not fit to be used as a whole bird. It also means that you have the carcass left from which you can make stock – perfect for adding extra flavour to soups, stews and risottos.
Turn your oven up to 220°C. Then wash the chicken – just run it under a cold tap for a minute (don’t forget the cavity) and dry it off with a couple of paper towels. Trim off the excess fat around the opening and cut off the wing tips. Season the inside of the cavity with salt and pepper and stuff it with half an onion, a lemon cut in half or some peeled garlic cloves and some fresh herbs – parsley, thyme and rosemary are good. Then truss the bird. This means tying it up tightly with twine so nothing can get out of the cavity and so the bird cooks evenly. How you flavour the bird is up to you (the purists say all you need is a little salt and pepper) but I use a mixture of about 50g softened butter and two tablespoons of Dijon mustard which I brush over the bird and finish with a covering of salt and pepper. Put the bird in an oven dish slightly bigger than the chicken and add a couple of glasses of cheap (but drinkable) white wine. The wine is optional but if you can’t drink for whatever reason all of the booze will have burned off by the time it comes out – I like the flavour that Riesling gives the bird (it is very high in acid which is good for the sauce), but Sauvgnon Blanc or unoaked Chardonnay are fine as well. Bang it in the hot oven and cook for an hour and 15 minutes(ish) or until when you poke the thigh the blood runs clear. Spoon over the juices every 15 – 20 minutes.
You could stop here and reduce (cook down) the juice and serve with boiled spuds and veges but if you have to feed a crowd (one bird can be pushed to feed eight), boil up some pasta, shred the chicken and skin and when the pasta is cooked and drained chuck in the chicken as well as all of the juices and some chopped parsley if you have it. This is comfort food.
Don’t forget the carcass! Find the biggest pot you have and chop up some onions, carrot, celery and a couple of peppercorns and a bay leaf (dried is fine). Sautée the veges in oil for 10 minutes and then add the carcass – fill the pot with about 3 – 5 litres of water and simmer for two hours. Strain with a colander first and then a sieve to remove the small floaties and then pour into containers of different sizes – large for soups and risotto, small for enhancing stews and you can even make ice cubes for easy access. Chill in the fridge overnight and then put in the freezer. If you want a darker stock, re-roast the carcass for half an hour before you make the stock.
With a little bit of thought you can make one bird go quite far.