The Irish Times Healthplus: Chicken Everywhichway

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  • Your friend the chicken

A friend stopped me in our local shop recently and confessed that my family had been the topic of conversation in his house over several days.
“Your poor children, having to survive all week on just one chicken....!”, he joked. Well, I hope he was joking, at any rate. This piece is about two things: frugality, always a great virtue in the kitchen; and improvising, making two, or tree or five, things out of one base ingredient.

“The morning was one of those true still mornings in summer before the heat comes, the door open on the yard. Earlier that morning he must have gone through his hives… and while he was talking some jam fell into the beard and set off an immediate buzzing. Without interrupting the flow of his talk, he shambled to the door, extracted the two or tree errant bees caught in the beard, and flung them into the air of the yard”.

That is the late, great John McGahern remembering, in an article from 1991, his time as a youngster visiting his bee-keeping neighbour, Willie Moronoey, from whom the young McGahern borrowed books.
The passage has always struck me as the epitome of peacefulness – imagine being so relaxed that you don’t even notice bees in your beard! – and it came back to me recently as I listened to a news report that many families in Ireland are being forced to switch their mortgages to interest-only payments.
For families forced into that position, there will be no such Willie Moroney mornings, for the stress of debt is ever-present, a cloud over your consciousness, a burden not only on your mind but, even more pertinently, on your health.
It is at stressful times such as this that we most need the comfort of good home cooking. Soulful, true food can lift us out of despond better than anything else. And if we can somehow marry good food to thriftyness, then we win twice over.
My favourite method of marrying thrift with deliciousness is to make a roast chicken dinner into three or – maybe – even four meals. Impossible? Well, yes it is impossible if you only have an industrially-reared supermarket bird, which won’t have enough flesh and strong bones to let us get maximum value.
But if you have a good fowl from Carlow Chickens, or Margaret McDonnell’s Ballysax birds, or a Born Free bird from Waterford, or a Mullan’s farm chicken from Northern Ireland or one of Sandra Higgin’s Carbury chickens, then you are away on a hack, and those delicious dinners are coming at you.
The system is simple. Roast your chicken for Sunday dinner, and enjoy it with the family with all the trimmings. Of course, if you have a big brood, or just a few teenagers, there may be little flesh meat left, but after dinner make sure to collect every edible scrap from the bird and combine it with whatever is left.
Now, using the picked-clean carcass, make a chicken stock: put the bones in a pot, cover with water, add sliced onion, carrot and celery along with bay leaves, and let it simmer away for an hour or so, skimming off any frothy stuff from the surface.
With your stock, you have the basis for meal two, a chicken risotto, where you cook Italian Arborio rice in the stock. You can add some pieces of the left-over chicken flesh to it, but equally you can save the chicken and just flavour the risotto with mushrooms, or courgettes, or celery.
If you aren’t comfortable making risotto and you don’t have Arborio rice, make a pilaf with standard white rice, but again use the stock for cooking the rice to make it very flavourful and nutritious, and again add chopped mushrooms, or chopped sweet peppers, adding the cooked chicken at the last few minutes as the rice comes to be completely cooked.
You can also use some of the stock to make a rich velouté sauce – a white sauce made with stock rather than milk – which will be used to give you meal three: a chicken gratin.
This simply involves placing your slices of left-over chicken in a dish and covering your chicken with the velouté, or with a standard white sauce, sprinkling on some breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan, and letting the dish brown in an oven for twenty minutes or so. This is one of my kids’ favourite dinners.
To bulk the gratin out, add some cooked broccoli or leeks, or cooked mushrooms, though the kids will hardly thank you for the mushrooms.
Another option with the left-over chicken is to make a chicken pie, option number four. Line a dish with slices of streaky bacon, toss in your pieces of chicken and add some quartered hard-boiled eggs. You can also add some cooked carrots, or tinned artichoke hearts, then throw in some chopped parsley, chopped spring onion, moisten with a little of your stock, then cover with some pastry and bake in a hot oven for thirty to forty minutes. This pie is beyond good.
Another kid’s fave which I have added into the repertoire recently and which gives you a fifth option is to use the chicken to make Thai green or red curry. Just fry your Thai paste in a little vegetable oil, add in a tin of coconut milk – if you have any stock left then add it in also – let it simmer for a few minutes, then add florets of broccoli, thin slices of carrot, pieces of baby corn, chopped up sweet pepper, let the vegetables cook in the milk and when they are ready add in the pieces of cooked chicken. Serve with white rice.
All of these dishes are super-duper comfort food, good for the health and the heart, just the thing for straitened circumstances and hard times.