One of my goals for 2016 is to make being frugal fun. I want to save money, especially after the holiday spending binge, but at the same time, I hate feeling deprived. As my first challenge of 2016, I tried seeing how many meals I could make for our two-person household using just one whole chicken. The answer: Enough for five meals. Before I suck you in, let me just begin by noting these recipes aren’t quick, though they’re easy. And it helps a whole lot if you know how to break down a whole chicken, or have a butcher who’s able to do that chore. I strongly believe that meat from a whole bird just tastes better, so I encourage everyone to learn to turn whole chicken into pieces. It’s not brain surgery! Seriously, I’ve definitely improved my butchering skills by breaking down a whole chicken. Oh, and did I mention? It’s a whole lot cheaper to buy a whole chicken. These four meals, plus leftovers added up to about $30.
1) Prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast
I didn’t use a recipe for this preparation, which was inspired by the simple and truly wonderful signature dish at a restaurant in my Seattle neighborhood called Crow. (Yes, it’s kind of funny that chicken is a signature dish at Crow.) The breasts are boned out and seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground pepper before being wrapped in one slice of prosciutto. (Or more, if the slices are on the small side.) Preheat the oven to 350 and warm a heavy cast iron skillet over high heat before adding 1/4 cup olive oil. Let the oil heat up until it starts shimmering and add the chicken breast, presentation side down first. That’s the side that looks nicest. Turn the heat down to medium high and cook for 5 minutes, lifting the bird to make sure it’s not browning too quickly. Turn the breast and place in the oven for 10 minutes. Fried sage leaves make a pretty finish, but you don’t need them.
My take on chicken cacciatore is to go minimalist. No bell peppers, but instead a few crushed allspice berries add so much flavor, a tip I picked up from my aunt Josephine, who was born in Rome. The thighs and legs were separated so this dish had four pieces braised in the rich red sauce. Served with sauce smothered pasta on the side, there were leftovers for lunch the next day.
After removing the breasts, the legs and thighs, I made a chicken stock in my slow cooker. So. Darned. Easy. After cooling the stock overnight and skimming off the fat, I added a couple of cups of homemade pinto beans, a 12-ounce can of fire-roasted tomatoes and chilis, and some of the meat I’d removed from the carcass after it had simmered for an hour in the slow cooker. Just before serving, I added a cup of shredded cabbage for crunch, and topped the soup with sliced avocados and crushed tortilla chips. Lots of leftovers, this soup was even better for dinner on Day 5.
Three cups of the chicken stock were the backbone of this popular Italian rice dish that some cooks avoid because there’s the myth that you must stand over the pot, stirring endlessly. Not true. Here’s my trick, which I learned from the James Beard Foundation award-winning chef Holly Smith: Warm the stock and add just enough to cover the rice. Let it simmer, stirring just a couple of times. Add more stock as it evaporates until the rice is tender, but not mushy. Also, chef Holly uses carnaroli rice at her lovely Cafe Juanita instead of the traditionally arborio. It’s genius because it expands during cooking, which means, you guessed it. More leftovers.
My one regret in this experiment is that I had sauteed the chicken liver, intending to mash it and add bits of it to the risotto, but it was in a container that got shoved to the back of the fridge and I forgot all about it until it was too late. Not a total loss, though. I spread it on crostini and served it with a glass of red wine before dinner one night the following week.