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Monthly Archives: September 2012

CHICKEN ANATOMY 101, OR HOW TO CUT UP A WHOLE CHICKEN (GRAPHIC PHOTOS AHEAD!)

There was a time, little children, when chickens were only available in their entirety – heads, feathers, feet, and all. They were never sold in a red-and-white striped box already cooked; you had to dispatch the bird (or have the butcher do that for you), take off its little chicken’s suit and cook it yourself.  Then grocers started being competitive with each other and somebody started offering de-feathered birds, and then someone else started removing the feet, and pretty soon you could buy a whole chicken without any of  that stuff. But that was as far as it went for many years.

When I was a wee tot – and dear knows that was back in the Dark Ages – chickens were only available as whole-body. Parts were not for sale separately unless they were special-ordered way ahead of time. And that was when chicken was expensive. This might come as a shock, but veal was cheaper than chicken. S’truth. There was a popular recipe called Veal Birds – veal disguised to make it look like the more expensive and therefore desirable chicken. Now we have recipes for Chicken Piccata – chicken prepared in a recipe traditionally made with veal.

And then growing methods changed. By the 1950s, it was possible to raise a chicken to market weight in 1/3 the time it had fifty years before. Unless you buy free-range chicken, that fryer in the plastic wrap was raised in a highly efficient “intensive” factory setting with genetic selection and nutritional modifications for rapid development. The discussion of ethics and morality of that are for another time and place, but the result for consumers was that supermarket chicken plummeted in price and skyrocketed in availability.

Coincidentally, American interest in cooking began to grow at the same time that chicken prices fell and availability rose. It became very profitable for growers to offer chicken parts, such as a tray of legs or wings, and mark those up considerably per pound from a whole-body chicken. The wings in particular are a moneymaker, especially in the winter when they’re often consumed on Sunday afternoons in front of a TV turned to sports. When you think about how little meat is on a chicken wing, you realize that chicken growers are laughing all the way to the bank.

Which is why it’s a good thing to know how to cut up a chicken. Back in the 1930s my father worked at a chicken processing plant. As a result, he could cut up a whole chicken in – I am not exaggerating – twenty seconds. I asked him once to show me how. He whipped out a knife and went whappity whappity chop chop chop and suddenly the whole chicken had been reduced to a neat pile of parts. Obviously I didn’t learn much from that. I tried going by the drawings in cookbooks, which bore about as much resemblance to an actual chicken as a Barbie doll does to actual female anatomy. It was many years before I taught myself how, leaving a lot of badly mangled chicken parts in my wake.

I’m not going to claim that this is the approved technique used by fine chefs and cooking authorities the world over. This method ignores completely, for instance, the “Airline cut,” an oddity I first encountered in England – a boneless chicken breast with the first joint of the wing attached. It looks like something went terribly wrong in surgery.  And I have no interest in making boneless, skinless chicken breasts – to me, it’s the blandest part of the chicken and I don’t see any point in glamorizing it.

But I am going to claim that big money can be saved by buying whole chickens and cutting them up yourself. Looking at a Safeway advertisement online today,  whole chickens cost 99 cents a pound, while drumsticks/breasts/thigh packs are $1.99/pound. Getting even more ridiculous, boneless skinless chicken breasts range from $4.49 to $5.49 per pound. That’s just insane. The more work that’s done for you, the more you pay. Sometimes it’s worth it to have someone do work for you, but I say not in this instance.

You won’t do this perfectly the first time, so practice on a chicken that you’re going to make into soup or chicken salad, something where looks won’t matter.

Beware: full frontal nudity and violence ahead.

You are going to need a decent knife for this. I don’t mean a steak knife or paring knife. You need a chef’s knife (at least 9″) or better yet, a cleaver. You can get a decent cleaver for around $20. Chinese gift shops, hardware stores, and cooking stores have them, though you’ll pay more at cooking stores. This is not a toy: you can do some serious damage with this baby, so don’t just hack down without making sure your fingers are out of the way. That said, don’t be afraid, either. Keep your hands and the handle clean and as dry and grease-free as possible.

Below is a whole chicken, breast side up. I say this because some people don’t know which side is which. The breast is the soft, fleshy, breast-y side. The back is the bony side. She’s rather flagrantly flaunting herself here, the saucy minx.

The first thing you do is remove the giblets from the cavity. If the chicken is still icy inside, you may have to run water into the cavity to loosen them.

Not all chickens will have all the parts listed. Once in a while you get a chicken with nothing inside,or you might get one with two livers. Sometimes they’re packaged in a little bag, sometimes not.  Depends on what happened when the chicken went through the assembly line (those organs are not the ones belonging to the chicken herself but to her chicken buddies who also met their fate that day).

The neck is the bony part. The heart is small, firm, oval, and looks not unlike a human heart (sorry if that freaks you out). The liver is soft and floppy and will be the largest part. Sometimes it has a lot of green color, in which case, throw it away. That means the bile duct ruptured and bile spilled into it. Bile is about the bitterest taste you can imagine and will ruin anything it touches. If the chicken liver is yellowish, that’s OK; it will be extra-rich. The gizzard is a double-lobed butterfly-shaped organ that is very tough. Set all of these aside.

[Side story: in 1980 my mother was working on Thanksgiving Day, and my brother and I were in charge of making dinner.  We found the neck in the body cavity, but the giblets were missing, so we went ahead and roasted the turkey. When my mother got home, we told her that turkey didn’t have any giblets. She gave us a withering look and said, “You dumb kids,” reached into the neck cavity, and pulled out a small bag of now-roasted giblets.]

First remove the wings:

Flip the chicken over so it’s breast-side-down. Pull the wing away from the body so that you can probe into the joint with the tip of the cleaver, slicing the skin so you can see what you’re doing.

Repeat on the other side of the chicken. Set wings aside.

Now remove the legs and thighs:

Turn the chicken on its back so the breast is up. Pull the leg away from the body and again use the cleaver to slice through the skin so you can see what you’re doing.

As you pull the leg and slice the skin, the thigh will be exposed.

When the thigh starts to come away from the body, pull it to the side away from the chicken body  (not up, and not toward you) and continue to probe with the cleaver. The thigh socket will be exposed. You want to cut into the far side of the socket joint (that is, the side closest to the chicken) because that is a LOT easier than cutting through the thigh bone.

You now have a thigh-leg piece. If you wish, you can leave it as is and cook it that way, but if you want to separate them:

Now you have the thigh and the leg pieces.  Repeat on the other side of the chicken. Set those parts aside with the wings.

If your cutting surface is getting greasy, you might want to mop up some of the grease and wash your hands and the cleaver handle too. Once everything you’re working with gets greasy, it’s easy to slip and cut wrong, or worse, cut yourself.

The results:

Now you’re going to split the breast:

This looks scarier than it is. What’s the worst that could happen? It takes a little muscle to push the cleaver into the breast, but have faith and keep a steady hand. You’ll hear some cracking as the bones split.

Pull the split breast apart to reveal the interior cavity.

Flip the chicken over. This is what you have:

Now cut and separate the breasts from the back. This is pretty easy cutting.

Now you have two half-breasts, the back, and the pope’s nose.

You can leave the breasts as is, or cut them in half again.

So now you have something that looks like this:

You have now cut up a whole chicken.

Some people cook the back and pope’s nose along with the other meatier parts, but I put them ( along with the neck & organs)  in a bag in the freezer. When I collect about 5-6 pounds worth, I simmer them with an onion, a couple of carrots & celery stalks, peppercorns, white wine, and water to cover to make chicken stock. If you like chicken livers or making pâté, collect those in a small freezer container until you have enough for your purpose.

And sometimes I just simmer the heart, gizzard, and liver until they’re tender and cooked all the way through, cut them into small pieces, and give them to the cats.

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WINE JELLY

Wine jelly used to be a common dessert in the England of Olden Days. I once had a particularly delicious version at J. Sheekey in London, made from Elysium black muscat dessert wine and served in a puddle of cream.

This wine jelly could be served as dessert, but it also is nice on toast, as a glaze for chicken, lamb, or pork, or served on the side as a sort of cranberry-sauce-like condiment. It goes well with cheese and crackers. You could infuse the wine with herbs like rosemary or thyme (strain them out before making the jelly). Any kind of wine can be used, including sherries and fortified wines like Madeira, Marsala, and port; late-harvest wines are delicious as well. Eiswein would be stellar if you have money to burn. Those low-alcohol wines with fruit juice mixed in make good jelly too, which is a good thing as God knows they aren’t fit to drink.

True story: About 18 years ago I made this recipe with white zinfandel – not my favorite wine by any means – and entered it in the local fair, where it won Best of Show.

This is another Sunset Magazine recipe.

WINE JELLY

  • 1 3/4 cups wine
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 3-ounce pouch liquid pectin

Mix wine and sugar in the top of a double boiler. Place over boiling water (do not let the water touch the bottom of the top pan) and stir until sugar is completely dissolved, about five minutes.

Remove the entire double boiler from the heat (leave top pan over the hot water) and stir in the entire pouch of pectin all at once.

Pour into four 8-ounce sterilized canning jars.

Skim off any foam with a metal spoon. Wipe rims of jars with damp paper towel. Seal with lids and ring bands; cool on a towel.

SPICY TOMATO RELISH

If you have a surplus of tomatoes, this is a good thing to do with them. I adapted this from a recipe in the old Sunset Canning & Preserving cookbook.

SPICY TOMATO RELISH

  • 4-5 pounds tomatoes
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1-1/4 cups cider vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes or crushed red dried pepper
  • 2 teaspoons each mustard seeds and salt
  • 1 teaspoon each ground ginger, curry powder, and nutmeg

Chop the tomatoes. You should have 8 cups. If you don’t have enough, don’t be ashamed to add some canned tomatoes to make up the difference.

Clockwise from top: freshly grated nutmeg, ground ginger, sea salt, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes. In center: curry powder.

In a heavy 5-quart pot, combine tomatoes, onions, sugar, vinegar, and spices.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, for two hours. A splatter screen might be useful here to keep it from popping tomato explosions all over.

Sterilize canning jars, lids, and ring bands. Ladle tomato relish into jars and seal with lids and bands.

Process in hot-water bath 15 minutes for pints, 10 minutes for half-pints.

Let jars cool completely on towel.

Let this age a couple of weeks before using.

I have made this relish several times before by the recipe in the cookbook and never thought it was anywhere near “Hot & Spicy” as the title promised, so this time I doubled the amounts of spices – except for the curry powder, which I quadrupled. The amounts of sugar and vinegar should not be adjusted; that’s what preserves the relish and keeps it from developing Very Bad Bacteria.

BASIL JELLY

My previous post discussed making mint jelly at home, a recipe taken from Better Than Store-Bought. This is another recipe from that book. Basil jelly is just as easy to make as mint jelly and can be used in the same ways.

BASIL JELLY

  • 1 1/2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3-ounce tube liquid pectin

Put the basil in a saucepan and crush it, using a jar, can, or potato masher.

Add the water and bring to a boil. Boil for 30 seconds, remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 15 minutes.

Tip o’ The Day:

If you’re going to be using liquid pectin, cut the end off the tube and set it in a coffee cup so it will be ready when you are.

Strain the infusion through a wire mesh strainer. Measure 1 1/2 cups liquid into a saucepan; discard excess liquid and leaves. Add the vinegar, salt, and sugar, and bring to a hard boil, stirring constantly. When the boil cannot be stirred down, add the pectin.

Cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Do not allow to boil over.

Remove pan from heat. If desired, you can stir in 1-2 drops green food coloring.

Pour into four sterilized 8-ounce canning jars. Using a metal spoon, skim off any foam.

Seal with lids and ring bands, or with paraffin (discussed in the Mint Jelly entry). Set on a towel to cool completely.

I used half sweet basil and half Thai basil. Thai basil has some green leaves and some purple leaves, so here we have a sort of amber-colored basil jelly. Lesson learned: a couple of drops of green food coloring would probably have made this prettier.

MINT JELLY

Most everyone has heard of mint jelly. It’s that dark-emerald-green stuff often served with leg of lamb. I never  heard of anyone who ate it on toast – just with lamb. It doesn’t seem to be a big seller in the jelly business.

Homemade herb jellies have an entirely different taste than commercially-made ones. They aren’t hard to make if you do your prep work ahead, and have much more complex flavors than the unrelenting sweetness of Smucker’s or Mary Ellen. Whether you buy fresh herbs at the farmer’s market or grocery store, or have some planted in a pot or garden, this is an unusual way to enjoy them. You can eat this with lamb, or spread it on toast, or use it as a glaze.

This is from Better Than Store-Bought by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie, a cookbook that tells you how to make foods at home that are usually mass-produced. Worth buying a copy if you’d like to learn how to make cheese, breads, pickles, vinegars, liqueurs, and a lot more.

MINT JELLY

  • 1 1/2 – 2 cups packed fresh mint leaves
  • 2 1/4 cups water
  • 1/4 cup strained fresh lemon juice
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3-ounce tube liquid pectin
  • 1-2 drops green food coloring

Put the mint in a saucepan. Crush the mint leaves with a jar, can, or potato masher. Add water and bring to a boil. Boil for 30 seconds, remove from heat, cover, and let steep 15 minutes.

Strain the infusion through a fine wire-mesh strainer. Measure 1 1/2 cups of liquid into a saucepan; discard the leaves and excess liquid. Add the salt, sugar, and lemon juice.

Stirring constantly, bring to a hard boil that cannot be stirred down. At this point, add the pectin and return to a boil for one minute.

Remove from heat. Add food coloring. Pour jelly into four 8-ounce sterilized canning jars. Using a metal spoon, skim off any foam. Seal with sterilized lids and ring bands. Place on a towel to cool completely.

You can also use paraffin to seal the jars. This is no longer a recommended method of sealing jellies, but some people continue to use it, probably because their grandmothers did it. I have used paraffin and it does work well, but only for about a year or two. After that the paraffin tends to shrink and become misshapen and no longer provides a good seal. I quit doing it because working with paraffin can be dangerous – you have to melt it and paraffin is highly flammable – and because it’s just a whole lot easier to use lids and ring bands.

PICKLED ASIAN PEARS

Sometimes Asian pears are available in grocery stores. Usually they’re wrapped in little sweaters to keep them from bruising, and usually they’re expensive (the other day I saw them for $1.67 each, not including the sweater).  I like them but not enough to spend that kind of money on them. But we have friends with some Asian pear trees, and last night they brought us a boxful.  They’re too watery to make pie or jam from, so I decided to pickle them.

This is not a comprehensive manifesto of every single thing about canning.  There are many good reference books out there on the subject – I use the Sunset Canning & Preserving Book –  as well as websites like  National Center for Home Food Preserving or Fresh Preserving.

Peel the pears, cut into quarters, and cut out any bad spots. These had been hit by rain in the spring and pockmarked, so some of them had worms.

As you peel and trim them, drop into a gallon of acidulated water (1 gallon cold water + 2 tablespoons salt + 2 tablespoons vinegar).

Once all the pears are sitting in the water, combine 1 quart white vinegar, 1 quart water, and three pounds sugar in a large pot. Add 2 tablespoons mixed pickling spices, 4 cinnamon sticks (broken up into small pieces), 3 star anise (broken up) and 1 tablespoon whole cloves. Bring this to a boil.

As this is heating, put canning jars in a canning kettle filled with water, along with lids and ring bands. Heat until they are simmering.

When the sugar-vinegar syrup is boiling, drain the pears and add them. Bring the pears to a boil.

Assemble these items:

A jar lifter, tongs, wide-mouth funnel, and ladle.

Take a jar from the simmering water and drain the water back into the kettle.

Note: this may look like an ordinary jar, but  it is a Mason jar that a commercial brand of spaghetti sauce was packed in.  NEVER use old mayonnaise jars or the like when canning at home unless they specifically say Mason or Kerr or Ball on the side.

Using the ladle to scoop the pears out of the syrup, fill the jars. If you’re not using a wide-mouth jar, you’ll need the funnel to ensure everything goes into the jar and not onto the stovetop. Once the jar is filled with fruit, add syrup to within 1/4″ of the top. I also added three or four whole cloves to each jar.

Then carefully wipe the rim of the jar with a wet paper towel. If any tiny seed or bit of fruit sticks to the rim, it could interfere with sealing.

Using the tongs, remove a lid and ring band from the water. Put those on the jar and tighten as comfortably as you can by hand.

As each jar is filled, use the jar lifter to return it to the hot water in the kettle.

The hot water should cover all jars by at least 1/2″. When all jars are filled, increase heat so that water is at a slow boil (a hard boil may loosen lids or even crack the jars). Process jars 10 minutes for pints, 15 minutes for quarts.

Remove jars to a towel and let cool completely. Test by pressing down on the lid. It should stay down. If lid pops back up when jar is completely cool, you can either reprocess it (reheating fruit and syrup to a boil and refilling the sterilized jar, then processing again in hot-water bath) or store the jar in the refrigerator and use within 2 months. If there are any extra pears that didn’t fit in the jars, cover with syrup and store in a bowl in the refrigerator.

These pickles are good to eat right away, or let age for a couple of weeks. These make a great relish to go with meats or as part of a relish/antipasto plate. You can use peaches, apples, pears, apricots, plums, and so on to make other fruit pickles the same way.

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