Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cooking: Don't be a Chicken!

I became a vegetarian my senior year in high school and only started eating meat again years later after making three very tough realizations:

1. The "for real" reason why I became a vegetarian was because my boyfriend decided to go veg and so I did too.

2. The vegetarian and I had broken up years ago.
3. I like meat.

Whether it's admitted or not, I think many people of my generation fell prey to the allure of vegetarianism not for ethical or altruistic reasons, but because it was cool at the time. Now, I fully recognize that for some folks vegetarianism was a good fit and what started as a fad became genuine heartfelt philosophy. But for the rest of us, I think we knew in our heart of hearts that we didn't quite belong. Oh, I was able to spout the memorized lines from the brochures along with the best of them, but I knew I was a liar.

I felt guilty and torn and miserable: a Judah among vegetarians. I just never stopped wanting meat. I craved it with a passion. I salivated at the sight of a big juicy cheeseburger. My stomach rumbled for bacon at brunch. I drooled for fried chicken (indeed, chicken fingers would be my ultimate downfall). When I admitted this to the seasoned vegetarians, they would nod reassuringly and say, "Don't worry. The longer you're a vegetarian, the less appeal meat will have for you." I trusted, I believed, I tried all the faux-meats I could get my hands on. I even tried NOT eating the faux-meats, thinking that maybe the faux-meats were just compounding my desire for real meat. Ultimately, I had to admit that I had a problem: I just wasn't a vegetarian.

I strongly believe in the ethical treatment of animals. I believe that consuming organically-raised and free-range animals is better for reasons of health, sustainability, and long-term economy. However, I do not believe that humans are natural vegetarians. I believe humans are true omnivores, and from a biological perspective, we are meant to eat meat--along with grains, vegetables, legumes, and other edibles. I believe that being a vegetarian is a choice made for personal, religious, or ethical reasons, not because it's a natural state of being for humans.

I also believe that it's ok to kill animals for food. I would prefer that the killing and butchering is done in a moral way and in a way that is as respectful of the animal as it is of the people the animal is going to feed. This is why I buy local, organic, and free-range meat whenever possible and affordable.
One of the attitudes of the general vegetarian movement that I found (and still find) most problematic is that by declaring it immoral to kill another animal for consumption, vegetarians are removing themselves and humans further from nature. Animals killing other animals for food is an integral part of what it means to exist in the natural world. If we say that it's wrong for humans to kill other animals for food, this elevates us above nature and distances us from the very thing we are claiming to care for.

This anthropocentric attitude is a very slippery slope. In our attempts to protect nature and act as steward to the environment, it's easy to forget that we are also a part of nature and are subject to the same grisly, unpleasant, natural rules as all other creatures. There are valid religious reasons for not killing other animals for food, some of which I respect and some of which I still find troubling, but many of these religions also have a counterbalancing philosophy that grounds followers firmly in the natural world.

Incidentally, I think that it's a real problem that humans have no real predators in the natural world at this point in history. We need a few predators (and other humans don't count) to keep us honest and remind us that we're not as in charge of things as we think.

When I first began eating meat again, I usually only ate it when it was being prepared for me. On my own, I usually cooked with tofu and only the occasional chicken breast. I didn't really know how to prepare meat so that it tasted good and also so that I knew I was being sanitary. And truthfully, ashamedly, grudgingly, I admit that I was squeamish. And still am. Though my attitude is slowly changing, my initial reaction to most raw meat is, "Ewwwww." It jiggles. It's sometimes bloody. There are little veins and tendons and sinews. And it's really really hard to forget that this thing I am inexpertly hacking into pieces on my counter was once a living creature.

But if I am going to be a meat-eater, these are the things that I need to deal with. Part of respecting this creature who died to feed me is actively remembering--not forgetting--that this animal with its innermost parts exposed on my counter was indeed once alive. I work to see the beauty in an otherwise decidedly unbeautiful moment. When I can afford it, I respect the animal by choosing one that was raised and killed in an ethical way. I also respect the animal by learning how to cook it properly.

To this end, a few weeks ago I decided that it was time to learn how to prepare a whole chicken.

Don't Be a Chicken: The Novice's Guide to Cooking a Whole Chicken

To feed four hungry people with enough leftover for a batch of enchiladas, all you need is a 4-pound chicken. In various recipes, you might see this referred to as a "roaster." In point of fact, the categories of chickens available for purchase break down like this:

Broilers: Young chickens of either sex that weigh about 2 1/2 pounds
Fryers: Young chickens of either sex that weight about 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 pounds
Roasters: Chickens of either sex, under 8 months old, and weigh 3 1/2 to 5 pounds
Stewing Chickens: Chickens over 10 months old (their meat is tougher and more stringy, so this type of chicken is best used in dishes like stews, as the name implies, that provide a long cooking time to break down the meat.)
Capons: Castrated males that weigh 6 - 8 pounds

When picking a chicken in the grocery store, check first for the sell-by date to find the freshest (as with any meat). I recommend always buying fresh birds that are not frozen (check the label, as sometimes birds will be frozen for transportation and then thawed at the market before being placed for sale.) As well as you can determine through the plastic wrapping, make sure that the skin is intact and is yellowy-translucent. The skin should be a bit loose on the meat, and the meat below should be of uniform color. When you press on the breasts and the thighs, the meat should give slightly beneath your finger and feel more or less like, well, a breast. (C'mon, we all either have them or we've felt them, so you know what I'm talking about!)

When you're ready to prepare the chicken, remove the plastic wrapping and set the raw chicken on a clean plate in your sink. In a store-bought bird, the giblets (the heart, liver, and kidneys) will be in a small sealed bag within the cavity of the chicken. I haven't yet been able to stomach giblets, so I usually take a deep breath, pull out the bag and deposit it directly into the garbage. If you're feeling adventuresome, there are plenty of giblet recipes out there for you to explore--I'm saving that one for another day.

Wash the chicken by running it under hot water and running your hands firmly over the skin. Lift the chicken and run water in the cavity. Swish it around, rub the cavity with your hands, and run more water until the water coming out of the chicken runs clear. (Note: Chickens "should" be cleaned before packaging, but this is just an extra precautionary step. Don't use soap, though, as it will give your meat a soapy flavor.)

Still with the chicken in the sink, cut off any large lumps of fat you can see--especially around both openings of the chicken. Be careful not to tear or damage the skin. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and set it on a new clean plate on your counter. Now the bird is ready to go.

Emma's Lemon Garlic Slow-Cooker Chicken

I drew this recipe together from several different recipes I had hanging around. The chicken is poached in a small amount of liquids in the slow-cooker and the resulting meat literally falls off the bone--you don't even need a knife! The flavors of garlic, lemon, thyme, and rosemary are infused throughout the meat. It's excellent eaten by itself, as a layer in sandwiches, and in any other chicken-leftover recipe you may have. The only disadvantage to poaching the chicken like this is that the skin is discarded after cooking; my next feat is to attempt roasting a chicken and getting some crispy skin!

3-4 pound chicken

for the seasoning:
3 garlic cloves--minced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
2 sprigs of thyme--leaves stripped and minced

Mix all the seasoning ingredients together in a bowl. Using your fingers, gently separate the skin from the meat of the breast, thighs, and legs of the chicken. Rub half of the seasoning mixture between the skin and meat. I found that if you get a good dollop under the skin, you can lay the skin back down and use your fingers to massage the outside of the skin and work the seasoning across the surface of the meat. Rub the remaining mixture inside the cavity of the chicken.

Heat a large skillet (a wok works well) to medium-high heat and coat with non-stick cooking spray. Pan-sear the chicken on all sides for 6-8 minutes until the outside is browned. Transfer the chicken to your slow cooker--BREASTS SIDE UP.

for the baste:
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)--reserve the lemon rinds
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 c. chicken broth
1 whole lemon--quartered
1 head of garlic--cloves separated, but left in their individual skins
2 chicken bouillon cubes
2 sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs of rosemary

Combine lemon juice, soy sauce, and chicken broth. Put the pan used to sear the chicken back on medium-high heat, pour in HALF of the lemon juice mixture and let sit until just boiling. Use a spatula to scrape up any bits of chicken stuck to the pan. Once the pan is deglazed, pour mixture over the chicken in the slow-cooker.

Put lemon rinds (reserved from squeezing the juice), 1 whole bouillon cube, and a few of the garlic cloves inside the cavity of the chicken. Arrange lemon quarters, the remaining garlic cloves, and the sprigs of thyme around the chicken toward the edges of the cooker. Crumbled the other bouillon cube over the chicken and rub it into the skin.

Place the lid on the cooker and cook on HIGH for 4 hours. (Note: This recipe is best when done on HIGH, but can also be done in 6-8 hours on LOW.)

Twenty to thirty minutes before the time is done, pour reserved lemon juice mixture over chicken and add the rosemary sprigs. (Rosemary tends to get bitter and antiseptic tasting if cooked the entire time in the slow-cooker.)

Remove chicken from the slow-cooker and allow it to rest on the carving board (or handy cookie sheet) for about 20 minutes. The meat actually continues cooking during this resting period and the juices will redistribute through the meat. When ready to serve, tear off the skin and discard. Use your fingers to pull off the legs--the bones should come apart with a gentle tug, but if they don't use a carving knife to wedge them apart. Keep using your fingers to work over the chicken, placing the meat on a serving platter and reserving the bones for another use (like home-made chicken broth!). Serve immediately!

If you don't have a slow cooker, you have a couple other options:

1. Poaching in a dutch oven: A dutch oven can very closely duplicate the slow cooker. Prepare the chicken exactly following the instructions above, but place the chicken and all ingredients in a dutch oven instead. Cover with the lid and place it on the middle rack in a COLD (not preheated) oven. Heat the oven to 300 degrees and cook for three hours or until a thermometer in the thigh meat registers 180 degrees. You can bast the chicken every 45 minutes or so.

You can also follow this recipe on Chocolate & Zucchini HERE.

2. On the stove top: If you don't have a slow cooker or a dutch oven, you can poach chicken breasts on the stove top in a skillet. I'm sure you could figure out a way to poach an entire chicken on the stove top--perhaps in a stockpot or dutch over over low heat?--but I've never done it.

Marinate the chicken breasts for 2-24 hours in the seasoning mixture from the recipe above. When ready to cook, place the breasts in a skillet or fry pan in a SINGLE layer. Cover chicken with the basting mixture and add enough additional chicken broth so that there is about 1/2 inch of liquid in the bottom--it should almost cover chicken, but the tops should still be above the liquid.

Turn on the heat to medium-high and bring liquid to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover skillet with a fitted lid. Let it cook undisturbed for about 10 minutes, then cut into the thickest part of one of the breasts to check for doneness. If it is still raw pink, recover the pan and cook for anther 5 minutes. Repeat until all the breasts are done. (Smaller breasts may be done sooner and should be removed.)

VARIATION: For my Cross-Atlantic Portuguese-Brazilian dinner, I used the marinade from the Chez Henri recipe for Roast Chicken with Lime and Achiote HERE in place of the seasoning mixture in my recipe above. I then followed my recipe exactly, replacing the lemons in my marinade with limes. Yum!


Rebekah said...

Must. Purchase. Slow. Cooker. NOW!

I wish Derek had a similar outlook on vegetarianism vs omnivority... Hey, more chicken for moi!

Emma C said...

I'm totally in love with my slow cooker. It's so versatile--I find new recipes all the time! Unfortunately for Derek, it does meat best. Veggies tend to break down over the long cooking period and get kinda flavorless. Having said that, veggie chilis, veggie soups, curries, and the like are all good. Lemme know when/if you get a slow cooker--I've got tons of recipes I can pass on. Oh, and p.s. I recommend getting a 5-6 qt oval shaped slow cooker. I think it's the best for a wide range of recipes.

BBQ ribs are my next slow-cooker endeavor... Yum!