So, as some of you may know I am currently in between jobs at the moment. Everyone has their own approach to dealing with this change in schedule and particularly the huge amount of free time that is suddenly available. Some go on long walks, play video games, work out or simply mope around and be depressed. I especially want to avoid that last one, so I keep busy. I cook.
Being unemployed also brings to attention the need to slash our budget wherever possible, and make do on much less (if we want to make our rent, anyway). So, this week has become a Saga of Leftovers - I take a chicken, a stale loaf of bread, and the contents of my fridge, and see how far I can take it. These two main components are not only cheap but serve as the foundation for several fine meals for two people - the trick is using every bit, maximizing flavor and adapting it to what's on hand. Our grandparents had this technique down pat, and I get the feeling that my generation is re-discovering these talents.
Just as a note, I grow herbs, zucchini and tomatoes, so for me those items are free - I would probably do something else if I didn't have them. The other stuff can be bought cheaply - a few onions, a carrot, a lemon.
These are the actual meals I've made this week - it doesn't count the mini-meals that were made of cold chicken.
Roast chicken and dripping bread.
This turns out a really gorgeous roast chicken with plenty of flavor, and a minimal amount of work - no turning, no basting is necessary. The onions become part crispy, part melty and the bread becomes pure rich and toasty goodness, too rich in fact to eat at one sitting. That's okay - the leftover bread and drippings become part of the next meal. This is best done in an oven safe skillet or other vessel that will fit in the refridgerator.
Heat your oven to 425 degrees.
Take a whole chicken (don't forget to remove the liver and giblets inside), pat dry inside and out, and rub generously with pepper and kosher salt. Prick the skin over the fat deposits with a knife. Run your finger under the skin of the chicken breast to loosen it (be sure not to tear anything), and stuff a sprig of rosemary up each side. Stuff with a lemon cut in half, some kosher salt, and some rosemary, and put in the fridge to hang out until you are ready to cook.
Slice up about half a loaf worth of stale bread into cubes - a crusty loaf like sourdough works well but any bread will work. Also, slice up half an onion. Line your roasting pan (I use an enameled cast iron skillet which works wonderfully, because it's the perfect size and because washing roasting pans is a pain in the ass) with the bread and onions.
Place the chicken on top of the bread. Slather the chicken all over with about two tablespoons worth of softened butter, and roast for about an hour fifteen, or until the temperature in the thickest part of the thigh reads 175 degrees.
Check after about half an hour in to cooking - if the pieces of bread are beginning to look pretty toasted, you can lower the temperature to 375 - be aware that the cooking time will be longer.
Serve the chicken with part of the bread and some of those crispy onions. Whatever you do, DON'T WASH THE PAN. All of those drippings and pieces of bread and onion are the foundation for the next meal - cover the pan and stash in the fridge for the next day.
After the chicken is eaten, remove the rest of the meat and store it in the fridge, as well as the chicken carcass - these will form the base for soup later on.
Dripping gravy over egg noodles
This gravy is rich, delicious, and seriously easy - almost all you need is already in the pan. the leftover dripping bread bits act as a thickener for the gravy.
get salted water boiling for the noodles.
heat up your dripping pan, scraping up all those bits from the bottom. Add a chopped up peeled tomato, some vegetables if you want - I added a sliced zucchini to it as well. The tomato should have enough juice to deglaze the pan, but if not add a tablespoon or so of the boiling water. bring the mixture to a simmer.
Once the noodles are boiling for about a minute, add about a cup and a half of the pasta water to the gravy mixture. Bring back to a simmer, still stirring and scraping the dripping pan. It should take about 7-10 minutes to thicken (it should be thick enough to cover the back of a spoon). Drain the noodles, and serve with the sauce.
Meal Three (and basis for more): Spicy chicken and vegetable soup
This meal uses stock from the carcass, and whatever leftover chicken meat you have.
One should never throw away the leftovers of a roasted bird if one can possibly help it - not when making stock is so easy and can form the basis of so many other meals. Just cover the chicken carcass with water in a stock pot, and throw in whatever else you have lying around - a carrot that's withering, a leftover bit of onion and onion top, maybe some oregano or parsley from the garden.
I made a spicy soup from part of the stock, but I have several quarts left that I will either build into other soups this week, or freeze for use later. My husband likes to just season it and drink it straight.
This is a perfect example of a fridge and pantry meal - a lot of the stuff I used can be substituted for whatever you have around. I'm the sort of person who saves her bacon grease, but butter or olive oil is also fine.
Spicy chicken soup:
take three tomatoes and two hot peppers such as serrano or jalapeno (or for me the little ones in my garden), and put them in a pan under the broiler until thier skin blisters and they are easily peeled. This takes about 5-7 minutes. Peel the tomatoes and peppers (don't forget to remove the seeds from the peppers as well).
Bloom your spices in a bit of oil in your hot stockpot. I made a spice mix of cayenne, cumin, coriander, garam masala and hot chili, but use whatever you have on hand. fry the spices for no longer than thirty seconds.
Chop a sweet onion and sautee in your stock pot in some oil, butter or bacon grease. I also added a piece of cooked bacon I had in the fridge for some extra smokeyness. add salt and pepper and cook until the onions are soft and golden. Add the tomatoes and peppers to the mix, along with a sprig of oregano if you have one, or a shake of dried. Add four cups of the stock, along with your the leftover chicken meat and whatever vegetables you like - zucchini or other squash works well. Stir in about a teaspoonful of tomato paste.
Bring the soup to a simmer and let it go for about an hour and a half or so, until the soup is slightly thickened and the flavors are melded together. You can always season it to taste, but if you must, do it at the end about ten minutes before you serve, as flavors concentrate while a soup is simmering.
It is possible to eat (VERY) well, for the better part of a week, on only a few dollars worth of ingredients. Time is the major factor, and care- and while I may not have a lot of anything else, time I have in spades at the moment. I'm making well use of it, and keeping sane.