If you have ever sat down in the teacher’s lounge with me at lunchtime, you know there is a 98% chance that I will be eating a turkey sandwich. During my first year of teaching, I found that I could buy a pound of deli turkey and a loaf of bread and have an easily-put-together lunch for every day of the work week. I am now in my fourth year of teaching, and I continue to follow the same pattern. Of course, I do tire of having the exact same lunch all of the time, but I also like not having to think about what I’m going to take to work the following day, especially considering that my brain, overtaxed from making a thousand decisions at work each day, is barely functioning by the end of the evening.
Yet all of these loaves of store-bought bread and pounds of deli turkey meat have been rather pricey. On a typical week, I spend about $14-20 on bread and turkey alone. Ouch! I also am ingesting lots of added sodium and who knows what else (I’m usually too scared to read ingredient labels). I’ve become determined to find a more economical and healthier way of having sandwiches for work. For the bread, I’ve already learned how to bake delicious Honey Wheat Bread that puts the light bread I’ve been buying this past year to utter shame. For the meat, I decided to try roasting and slicing a whole chicken. It might not be my usual turkey, but chicken is close enough.
I used Mark Bittman’s Simple Roast Chicken recipe from How to Cook Everything. My husband once made the Herbed Butter Roast Chicken (also from How to Cook Everything) for me, which was amazing, but for my sandwiches, I was looking for a lighter option.
I bought my chicken the afternoon before DFW shut down due to ice, so I did not have a wide variety of choice. Even in the early evening, the shelves and bins were starting to look a little empty. All that was left of the fresh whole chickens were larger, 6 pound birds (the recipe calls for a 3- to 4-pounder). Priced at 98 cents a pound, however, I felt that I was getting a bargain.
When preparing the chicken for the roasting pan, I admit that I had to give myself a pep talk before sticking my hand into its nether region to remove the innards. After all, I am the same girl who used to have to leave the kitchen when it came time for my mom to prepare the turkey for our holiday dinners. I couldn’t even stand watching her reach inside the bird. So there I was, poised to plunge my hand into the dark, cold, wet unknown. I took a deep breath and went for it. I would love to say that it wasn’t that bad, but I can’t. It was gross. John stood next to me, helpfully identifying each part for me as I pulled it out. That’s the neck. There’s the liver. If I hadn’t been so focused on not losing my lunch, I would have thrown the gizzard at him.
Finally I had the chicken in the roasting pan, ready for the oven. The size of the bird meant that each step took longer; the total roasting time was at least 90 minutes. I used an instant-read thermometer to ensure that the chicken was fully cooked. Basting the skin with olive oil had caused it to brown up beautifully, and I felt a small sense of joy as I set it upon the platter to be carved.
Not having cut up a bird before, I set Mark Bittman’s illustrated carving instructions next to the platter on the table. Reading through the directions once more, I felt confident that I could follow the “easy” steps. Five minutes later, huffing in frustration, I put down the knife and called in my husband. I was hungry, I was tired, and the chicken was not carving up like it was supposed to. I turned the carving chore over to John, who at least managed to get the major pieces of meat cut and plated so that we could eat. The chicken didn’t look pretty in the end, but at least John got the job done.
Despite the difficulty we experienced in carving the chicken, it tasted delicious. The breast meat was incredibly moist, and I enjoyed every bite. I granted the recipe 3.5 stars, although John, who missed the butter, gave it 3. That same evening, I used the carcass to make homemade chicken stock (from which I made a turkey chowder and a lentil soup), also a first for me. And John and I both thoroughly enjoyed eating the leftover roast chicken on the homemade honey wheat bread for the next several days. My first attempt at whole roast chicken may not have been entirely smooth and effortless, but I am sold on the taste and cost benefits from the effort. So next time you run in to me in the lunchroom, I likely will still be holding a sandwich, but it will be a better one all around.
(By the way, if anyone has any tips for how to neatly carve a whole cooked chicken, please share!)
Simple Roast Chicken
1 whole (3- to 4-pound) chicken, trimmed of excess fat, then rinsed and patted dry with paper towels
3 TB olive oil
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, or sage leaves, or 1 tsp dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Chopped fresh herbs for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 500°F.
2. Place the chicken, breast side down, on a rack in a roasting pan. Begin roasting. Mix together the olive oil, herb, salt, and pepper.
3. After the chicken has roasted for about 20 minutes, spoon some of the olive oil mixture over it, then turn the bird breast side up. Baste again, then again after 7 or 8 minutes; at this point the breast should be beginning to brown (if it hasn’t, roast a few more minutes). Turn the heat down to 325°F, baste again, and roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 160 to 165°F. Total roasting time will be under an hour.
4. Before removing the chicken from the pan, tip the pan to let the juices from the bird’s cavity flow into the pan (if they are red, cook another 5 minutes). Remove the bird to a platter and let it rest for about 5 minutes. While it is resting, pour the pan juices into a clear measuring cup, and pour or spoon off as much of the fat as you can. Reheat the juice, carve the bird, garnish, and serve with the pan juices.
Yield: 4 servings.