Speaking of which, I have finally stopped planning each week's worth of dinners in advance. The system worked marvelously well, and I still highly recommend it. But I have been having a lot of fun flying by the seat of my pants. As long as I start each week with a pot of grains and a baked chicken, a fridge full of fresh vegetables, and some frozen beans, dinner each night is spontaneous and as quick (or slow) as I want.
I have been using the notation "(recipe #)" to indicate that a recipe number (in the printed version) or a link (digital) should be included later.
You can get the most chicken for your money by cooking a whole chicken and then picking all of the meat off of the bones to put in various recipes. (recipes #, #, #) A single chicken can provide meat for three or four meals for a small family. If you are cooking with boneless chicken breasts, you can use the broiled chicken recipe below (recipe #) or you can use the pan-fried meats recipe (recipe #). However, chicken that is still on the bone is more economical; and whole chicken is even more so.
Before cooking a whole chicken, you must reach inside the body cavity and pull out the package of giblets. The giblets are an assortment of innards and parts, and usually includes a heart, gizzard, liver, and neck. These bits and pieces can be used with other leftover chicken parts to make chicken stock (recipe #), or can be cooked and (minus the bones of the neck) can be chopped and added to a chicken gravy (recipe #). You can even do both at once by simmering the giblets in a cup or two of water (along with a pinch of salt, and an onion, or some carrot and celery, if you have some on hand) for a half hour or so to make a quick stock. Then use the stock and the giblets to make gravy.
Before cooking, it is also a good idea to look your chicken over for feather stubble that was not properly plucked when the bird was processed. If you find any, pull them out and throw them away.
Chicken can carry the disease salmonella, which is dangerous to people. Chicken must reach 165 degrees to kill salmonella. The most accurate way to know if your chicken has reached 165 degrees is by cooking with a meat thermometer. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, you can cook your chicken until the meat is falling from the bone to be sure it has surpassed 165 degrees. Overcooking your chicken in this manner, however, will make it dry and less tasty.
Whole frozen chickens should be thawed in the refrigerator for a day or two. In a pinch, a microwave (on the “defrost” setting) or cold running water can be used to thaw a chicken. However, leaving a chicken at room temperature to thaw is not safe.
(make in advance)
Boiling is the simplest way to cook whole chicken. Simply put the chicken into a pot, cover with water, add a tablespoon of salt, and boil until the meat falls off of the bone when you stick a fork in it. This will take about an hour and a half. Remove the chicken from the pot, allow it to cool enough to handle, and then pull the meat from the bones. Discard the bones, but do not discard the cooking water.
The meat is then ready to be used in any number of recipes, including chicken salad (recipe #), quesadilla (recipe #), enchilada (recipe #), and, of course, chicken soup (recipe #). The meat can be refrigerated and used over the next few days, or it can be frozen for use later.
Boiling produces chicken stock - the cooking water - at the same time. This stock will have a layer of melted chicken fat floating at the top, which needs to be skimmed off. Let the pot sit so that the fat comes to the surface, and then scoop the top half-inch or so gently into another container. Put this in the refrigerator for later, so you can use it to make chicken gravy (recipe #).
Your stock is then ready to be turned into chicken soup (recipe #), or other recipes. It can also be refrigerated or frozen for use later.
For a more flavorful broth, boil a couple of carrots, celery sticks, and an onion along with your chicken. Black pepper and garlic are also good additions, as are the giblets. You will want to discard these solids when the chicken is done cooking, because boiling them for so long reduces them to flavorless mush.
Your home-made stock may be less salty that you are used to, if you are used to stock from cans or made from bullion cubes. Add salt or other seasonings to taste when you cook with it.
Baked Chicken (make in advance)
Baked chicken tastes much better than boiled chicken, provided you do not overcook the chicken. You can bake a whole chicken, or any chicken parts, with or without bones. Plain roasted chicken is delicious with gravy and side-dishes.
A probe-type thermometer (with a wire that runs out of the oven and connects to a counter-top digital device that beeps when the desired temperature is reached) is the most reliable way of judging when chicken is fully baked.
When baking whole chicken, you can stick an onion, or apples, or other vegetables in the body cavity of the bird to add extra flavor to the meat. However, you will want to discard these things after cooking. It typically isn’t a good idea to cook stuffing inside of poultry, because the stuffing may not reach the necessary safe temperature. If you want stuffing, see recipe #.
To bake a whole chicken, you must first reach inside the body cavity and remove the bag of giblets, or confirm that no bag of giblets is present. Then sprinkle the chicken with a teaspoon of salt, and any other spices that you would like. (See the spices section # for ideas.) You can also rub the chicken with oil or butter, for more flavor.
Place the bird breast-side-up in a pan or casserole dish. If you are using a probe thermometer, this is when you insert it into the bird. Insert the thermometer into the middle of the thickest part of the meat, in the thigh area near the chicken‘s leg. In order to get an accurate reading, the tip of the thermometer must not be touching bone.
Cook the chicken until the thermometer reads 160 degrees. Take the chicken out of the oven and leave it out uncovered, and the residual heat in the outer part of the bird will cause the internal temperature to continue climbing to 165, which is the safe “done” temperature. Then, if you can, leave the chicken to “rest” (i.e. don’t cut into it) for another 20 minutes or so, so that when you do cut into it, the juices don’t run out and leave you with dry meat.
If you are cooking chicken pieces, remove them from the oven when they reach 165 degrees, as there may not be enough residual heat in the meat to fully cook the interior of the meat.
If you don’t have a thermometer, you can test for doneness by sticking the thickest part of the chicken with a knife. If the juices run clear, the chicken is done. This method can be used to check any bone-in chicken pieces, as well as whole chicken, but it does have the disadvantage of letting the juices out of your meat before the meat has “rested“. For boneless chicken pieces, cut into the chicken and look at the color of the meat. White meat is fully cooked. Note, however, that in parts of bone-in chicken, there will be some pinkish or reddish bits of meat against the bone, even when the chicken is fully cooked.
After you have carved off and eaten pieces of the whole chicken, don’t forget to pick all the remaining meat from the bones! There may be a meal or more worth of meat hidden on the bones. And save everything else: bones, gristle, and the liquids and crusty stuff from the bottom of the baking pan. These can all be used to make chicken stock.
Chicken Stock (make in advance)
After baking a chicken, all of the leftover bones and gristle, and the liquids and crusty stuff from the bottom of the baking pan, can be used to make chicken stock. If you wish to do this at a later time, then they can be refrigerated for a few days, or frozen indefinitely. If you have a large enough pot, you may want to save up three or four chicken carcasses to boil all at once. Save those giblets for this as well.
To make stock (or broth, as it is called if vegetables are included) put the leftover chicken parts in a large pot, cover the carnage with water, add a tablespoon of salt or more, and boil or simmer. The pot needs to cook for several hours for best flavor.
For a more flavorful broth, boil a couple of carrots (scrubbed clean or peeled), celery sticks (washed), and an onion (peeled) along with your chicken. Black pepper and garlic are also good additions, as are the giblets.
When the stock is done, strain or scoop out all of the solids, and throw them away. Then allow the broth to sit for a while, to give the fat time to rise to the surface. Once the fat has accumulated at the top of the pot, skim it off by scooping gently with a large spoon or a measuring cup. Reserve this fat in the refrigerator for use in chicken gravy (recipe), or to sauté vegetables in (recipe #).
Or, if you don’t have time to wait for the fat to rise to the surface of the pot, pour the stock directly into storage containers and move it into the refrigerator un-skimmed. By the time the broth cools, all of the fat will have congealed in a white layer at the top of the stock. Spoon the fat into its own container, and then use the stock within a few days, or freeze it.
Your home-made stock may be less salty that you are used to, if you have only tasted stock from cans - or worse - made from bullion cubes, which are mostly salt and MSG. Add salt or other seasonings as necessary when you cook with it.
Broiled Chicken (quick meal)
Cooking chicken under the broiler gives it a barbecue flavor that you can’t get by baking or boiling. This is a particularly fast way to cook smaller chicken pieces, such as drumsticks or wings.
Oil (preferably olive oil)
Salt and pepper
(optional) other herbs or spices, such as paprika, sage, curry spices, Mexican spices. . . You name it!
(optional) barbecue sauce (recipe #)
(optional) Italian salad dressing (recipe #)
Arrange the chicken pieces on an edged cookie sheet, or in a casserole dish. Drizzle the chicken with oil (or barbecue sauce, or Italian dressing), then sprinkle on salt, pepper, and optional spices. Set the chicken in the oven so that it is about two inches below the broiler. Then, set the broiler on high.
You will need to stay close while broiling your chicken, because it is easy to burn food under the broiler. Use your nose to tell when the chicken is cooking, and when it starts to get a little burned. (A little burning helps to give it that nice barbecue flavor, but don‘t overdo it!)
When the chicken starts to get a little burned, slide out the oven rack and flip the chicken pieces over.
To check for doneness of boneless chicken pieces, cut into the chicken and look at the color of the meat. White meat is fully cooked. In parts of bone-in chicken, there will be some pinkish or reddish bits of meat against the bone, even when the chicken is fully cooked. Check for doneness with a meat thermometer (165 is done) or stick a knife in the thickest part of the meat, and look for juices that run clear.
Smaller pieces of chicken may only take 20 minutes to cook. If you are cooking pieces of various sizes, you may need to take the smaller pieces out of the oven as they finish cooking, to prevent them from getting over-cooked.
Chicken Soup (quick meal)
There are many, many ways to make chicken soup. The ingredients you can use are almost endless, and you can toss in all sorts of odds and ends, including leftover pasta, leftover rice, leftover vegetables, and leftover meats. You can make a pot of soup small enough for just yourself, or big enough for a large crowd. Here are some possible variants that you can try:
Quick Chicken Soup (quick meal)
Chicken broth or stock
Cooked grain (recipe #) or pasta (recipe #)
Cooked vegetables (recipe #) or frozen vegetables, or fresh, chopped vegetables
Salt and pepper to taste
(optional) herbs and spices of any sort (recipe #)
(optional) milk or cream
Heat the chicken broth or stock to a boil. Add the vegetables first, if they are fresh or frozen, and, simmer until they are cooked to your liking. Add everything but the milk or cream and return to a boil. Then, remove the soup from the heat, until the pot no longer boils. Add the optional milk or cream, and heat just until steaming (but don‘t boil it). Season to taste. Serve, and enjoy!
Classic Chicken Soup (quick meal, or cook in advance)
Raw chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
Chicken stock or broth
Uncooked pasta or grain (you may want to use a grain with a shorter cooking time)
Garlic, minced (or garlic powder)
Salt and pepper to taste
(optional) herbs such as bay leaf, thyme, parsley, sage, rosemary
In the bottom of the soup pot, first sauté the onion and the chicken in a bit of oil. Add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic just as the chicken is almost done cooking. When the chicken is cooked, add everything else. Bring to a gentle boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta or grain are tender.
Chicken Enchiladas (or cheese enchiladas, bean enchiladas, etc.)
This is a great week-night recipe for use with the chicken that you baked over the weekend. Or you can use another pre-cooked meat, or frozen or canned beans. Or you can make plain cheese enchiladas by using more cheese. You can also make a fun variant for kids using raisins instead of meat.
This is another recipe that doesn’t require precise measuring, or exact ingredients. Use whatever you have on hand.
1 cup pre-cooked chicken, or other pre-cooked meat, or frozen or canned beans, or ½ cup raisins
1 ½ cups Monterey jack and/or cheddar cheese
1 package of tortillas
1 can enchilada sauce (or about 1 ½ cups of home-made, recipe #)
2/3 cup chopped greens, such as frozen kale or spinach, or cooked onion or mushroom, or other chopped vegetable
In a microwave-safe, small (9 x 9 inch or so) casserole dish, pour about a third of the enchilada sauce. Dip one tortilla in the sauce so that both sides are wet. Then put cheese, meat, and veggies in the tortilla. Roll up the tortilla and move it to one end of the pan. Repeat with the remaining tortillas, until the pan is full and all of the ingredients are used up. Pour the remaining sauce over the enchiladas, and grate little extra cheese over the top. Then microwave the casserole for about ten minutes, or until the whole dish is hot and melty. (Alternatively you can bake in a 350 degree oven until the sauce bubbles.)
Serve on its own, with or without such toppings as salsa or sour cream, or with a side-dish such as rice or refried beans. Serves two to four people.