One Chicken Feeds Forty

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille."

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

There are certain ingredients that are essential to any ethnic kitchen.   If you are Italian, you can’t do without fresh garlic.  Mexican?  Corn tortillas and cumin.  Indian?  We got your garam masala, right here.

But if it’s a Jewish kitchen: let’s face it, things will come to a complete standstill without the most essential element of all: a whole chicken.

If you happen to be a Jewish vegetarian, or even a Jewish vegan <shudder>, don’t despair.  Your mother and I will wait here patiently for you to return to your senses.

OK, back with us?  Good!  Now unwrap that chicken and rinse off the blood.

All meals Jewish spring from the humble chicken.  And the beauty of it is that the dishes you prepare need not even be traditional Jewish ones.  We’re sneaky that way.

OK, so let’s get started.  With a sharp knife, trim the fat and skin connecting the breasts to the thighs.  Once you have taken it to the backbone, it’s no great trick to bend the chicken back into full Cow pose, and while it’s marveling at its new-found flexibility–chop it in half.  Then trim off the wings, since it won’t be flying off anytime soon.

Set the breasts aside, and take everything else–except the liver, yuck, throw that nasty thing away–and rinse thoroughly, then put it in a stock pot and commence to boiling covered.  I like to throw in a few bay leaves and about five whole bruised garlic cloves.  That’s just how I roll.  If you plan on kissing me, you had better love garlic as well.

That’s going to consume about four hours, so now is a good time to turn your attention back to those breasts.  I just dot them with butter and black pepper and slide them into a broiler set at 400 for about 25 minutes per side.  Once they are out, I can either gobble one down instantly or exercise self-control and use them each as the basis for a new meal.  But most days, I have little in the way of self-control.  So away I gobble.

Meal One:   gobble down a chicken breast, with cooked brown rice toasted in chicken juices on the side.

The extra breast will eventually face the music in a cast iron skillet stir-fry of brown rice, baby bok choy, zucchini, onion, and cherry tomatoes, and topped with Tamari-roasted almonds.  That will feed four normal people, or three abnormal ones.

Meals Two through Five:  Chicken/Brown Rice/Veggie stir fry.

Now that the stock has patiently bubbled its way to perfection (this I can tell because the chicken meat is falling off the bones), I remove it from heat and fish out the chicken parts, bay leaves, and garlic cloves.  These I throw away.

You heard me!  Throw them away.  Everything you want is still in the pot.  There’s more nutrients in sawdust than there are in that chicken now.  So don’t get sentimental on me.  Out they go.

Why are you making that face?  Oh, didn’t believe me, eh?  You had to taste it.  Well, serves you right.

At this point, it’s good to strain the stock through a strainer or cheesecloth, because there will likely be some small stealth bones that sneaked past you.  Once the broth has been strained, let it sit undisturbed a while, until you notice a layer of pure chicken fat rising to the top.  Using the utmost care, skim that off and set aside.  DO NOT toss it out–not if you want to feed forty people.  Seal it in a plastic container and refrigerate.

Now you have unadulterated broth, which can be used in roughly a thousand ways to make soup or stew.  I swore off flour a while back, so no chicken noodle soup for me.  For this batch, I have decided to go with Tomato Lentil Soup.

So I will be adding lentils, onion, carrots, celery, and cubed tomatoes and letting simmer for about thirty minutes.  Closer to the end, they will be joined by tomato sauce and/or tomato paste, depending on consistency, and spices: tarragon, thyme, dill weed, salt & pepper, some brown sugar and a splash of white vinegar.

Or something completely different.  I don’t believe in recipes, which means I never make the same thing twice.  Since my liberation from the tyranny of restaurant work many years ago, I revel in the unexpected, the spice not taken.  Slavish attempts at reproducing past glories no longer interest me.  So either it works or it doesn’t, but always in a new and interesting way.

Wow.  This thing has certainly grown.  Hope it’s edible.

Meals Six through Twenty-Six:  Tomato Lentil Soup.

Time to go back to the fat we skimmed off the top of the stock and refrigerated.  Now that it has had time to harden, it has congealed into a tallow-like mass that Jews refer to as ‘schmaltz’.  Heart surgeons refer to it as ‘another weekend on Martha’s Vineyard’, but that’s a different story.

Schmaltz has many potential uses, but the most common one is as an indispensable ingredient of matzoh-ball soup.  It’s what gives those little balls of joy their lighter-than-air quality when boiled in chicken broth.  And one chicken yields enough schmaltz for at least fourteen servings.

Meals Twenty-Seven through Forty:  Matzoh-Ball Soup.

But wait, I hear you protesting.  Where do you get the broth for the Matzoh-Ball Soup, since you used it all up doing the Tomato Lentil?

You’re right.  We’re going to need another chicken.

And on it goes.

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