Buying the whole bird
By Anne Brockhoff
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Chef John McClure grew up eating fresh chicken. Really fresh chicken.
McClure's mom often helped farmers near their hometown of Tescott, Kan., butcher chickens and was paid in poultry. She'd bring whole birds home, cut them up and fill the frying pan.
"I never saw a Styrofoam package of chicken until I was grown up," McClure said. So, he naturally sought locally raised, whole chickens when he took over as chef and owner of Starker's Restaurant in Kansas City.
Campo Lindo Farms of Lathrop, Mo., delivers whole chickens each Thursday, and McClure and his staff quickly joint the birds into portions.
Why bother with whole when what you want is parts? Because a whole chicken is more than the sum of those parts.
Whole birds are versatile. They can be roasted in their entirety or cut to culinary whimsy. McClure likes the flavor and freshness of local chickens, and whole is usually the only choice when buying local. Whole is also better value.
"This is the opposite of elitism," said Samin Nosrat, a writer and self-described "teacher of grandmotherly skills" who cooks part time at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. "It's cheaper to buy the whole animal."
BEYOND THE BREAST
That epitome of easy 1990s cooking — the boneless, skinless chicken breast — costs about 60 percent more per pound than a whole chicken.
You also get more from whole chickens than just the marquee pieces. A single whole chicken yields two breast portions for pan-roasting, dark meat for pot pies, bones and other trimmings for stock and fat, skimmed from the stock and used to make gravy for the pot pies. Giblets are frozen until enough have accumulated to make liver pate or other special dishes.
"We use every bit of the chicken," said John Williams, owner of Kansas City's PotPie restaurant. "The only thing we throw away is the package it comes in."
Chefs get a lot of practice jointing chickens, but what if you're not a chef?
The first stop is a good cookbook. Most offer at least a general guide, and I especially like the step-by-step instructions and color photos in "The River Cottage Meat Book" (Hodder and Stoughton, 2004 ). You can find online video demonstrations from the likes of Gourmet Sleuth (www.gourmetsleuth.com/Articles/Cooking-Tips-Techniques-642/cut-up-a-chicken.aspx) and Chow.com (www.chow.com/stories/10080).
Still, the best way is to watch someone do it. I got that chance last October, when Nosrat was in Kansas City for a backyard chicken seminar. Nosrat placed the chicken breast side up on a cutting board, and then used the tip of her knife to cut the skin between the breast and thigh on both sides. She picked up the chicken and, with a thrust of her thumbs, popped the thighs out of their sockets to make it easier to cut through the joints.
Next, Nosrat felt for the oysters, tender nuggets of dark meat you get only if you start with a whole bird. There is one oyster on each side, a soft fleshy spot about the size of a large olive above the hip joint. I usually make a 1-inch cut between the oyster and the backbone, push my thumb under the oyster and pry it loose before cutting around the leg.
Nosrat is more practiced. She deftly slipped her knife between oyster and bone, freeing it before sliding the blade around the body and through the hip joint to remove the leg quarter.
Once Nosrat had the legs off, she turned the bird breast side up again. If there are crucial decisions to be made in cutting up a chicken, what to do with the breast is surely one of them. You can keep the meat on the bone by separating breast from back, and then splitting the breastbone.
JUST DO IT
For a boneless breast, Nosrat smoothed the skin over the meat and then made a straight cut on either side of the breastbone, keeping the knife as close as possible to the bone. Then, she placed her blade against the rib cage and followed its curve, using just a few long strokes, until she came to the wing.
At that point, you can either cut around the joint for an entirely boneless breast or through it to include the wing. Williams always leaves the first section of the wing on the breast and then slowly pan roasts it skin-side down in a cast iron skillet.
"You've got a little bit of bone, and that gives it better flavor," Williams said of the classic French presentation, sometimes called a supreme or an airline cut. "It doesn't shrink up as much, and it looks a little nicer."
Either way, you get to keep the tender, a strip of muscle on the underside of the breast that supermarkets often remove and sell separately for about $4 a pound. Any parts you don't use immediately can be frozen for the next meal. The bones, wing tips, neck and other bits can go into the stockpot.
All this is much easier when you use the right knife, Nosrat said. She prefers a six-inch boning knife, with a thin, flexible blade. Use kitchen shears for cutting through small bones and a heavy chef's knife or cleaver for splitting the breast or chopping bones.
There are other things to keep in mind, too, like honing your knife before each use and washing everything with hot, soapy water when you're done. But the main thing?
"Just do it," McClure said. "The first chicken I cut up wasn't the most beautiful chicken, but don't give up."
Once you've become adept at jointing a chicken, try boning the legs for this recipe from Samin Nosrat.
POLLO AL MATTONE CHICKEN WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH
For the squash:
• 2 pounds butternut squash
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 6 tablespoons butter
• 1 whole nutmeg, or a pinch of ground nutmeg
For the chicken:
• 4 chicken leg quarters (thigh and drumstick still attached)
• 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly brush it with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil. Place the squash cut-side down on the baking sheet and roast until tender when pierced with a paring knife, about 35 minutes.
While the squash cools, make the brown butter. Place the butter in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and heat over medium high heat until the solids begin to brown. The butter will begin to smell sweet and nutty. When it's chestnut brown (but not black!), pour the butter into a large bowl to prevent it from cooking further.
Once the squash has cooled, scoop it out of the peel with a large serving spoon. Puree the squash using a food processor or food mill and place in the bowl with the brown butter. Season with salt and a few swipes of nutmeg (or a pinch of ground nutmeg).
Bone out the chicken legs: Cut through the skin around the ankle joint to release the tendons. Next, place the leg on the board skin-side down and make an L-shaped cut along both bones of the leg. Carefully remove the meat from the bones in one piece. Try not to pierce the skin with the tip of the knife. Stay as close to the bone as you can to maximize your meat yield.
Season your boned-out chicken legs on both sides with kosher salt.
Heat a cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil and place 2 chicken legs in the pan skin-side down. Do not crowd the chicken in the pan or the skin won't get crisp.
Place a weight, such as another cast iron pan or a brick wrapped in foil, on top of the meat, and cook it slowly for about 9 minutes, until you can see that it's starting to cook through. Rotate the meat from time to time for even browning.
Once the legs are cooked about 90 percent of the way on the skin side, remove the weight, flip them over and finish cooking through on the other side. Clean out pan and repeat with remaining two legs. Gently blot the legs on a towel to remove excess oil and serve with butternut squash puree.
Makes 4 servings.
• Per serving: 809 calories (65 percent from fat), 59 g total fat (21 g saturated), 264 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbohydrates, 49 g protein, 1,092 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber.
After you've turned your whole chicken into pieces, try this recipe adapted from cookbook author and Food TV personality Nigella Lawson.
ONE-PAN CHICKEN, SAUSAGE AND SAGE BAKE
• 1 lemon, halved
• 2 small onions, peeled and quartered
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 2 teaspoons dry mustard
• 1 tablespoon dried sage
• 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces
• Kosher salt
• 12 sweet Italian sausages
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
Squeeze lemon halves into a large, resealable plastic bag. Cut each lemon half into four pieces and add to the bag, along with onions, olive oil, mustard, dried sage and Worcestershire sauce and pepper. Seal the bag and squish ingredients until well mixed. Add chicken pieces and coat thoroughly. Refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Let chicken stand at room temperature in the marinade for 30 minutes. Pour the contents of the bag into a large roasting pan. Turn the chicken pieces skin side up and season with salt. Arrange the sausages around the chicken and sprinkle all over with the fresh sage. Bake for 1 hour, until the chicken and sausage are browned; turn the sausages halfway through cooking. Transfer the chicken, sausages, onions and lemons to a platter, drizzle with some of the pan juices and serve.
Makes 6 servings.
• Per serving: 395 calories (63 percent from fat), 27 g total fat (5 g saturated), 92 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 32 g protein, 141 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber.