Pecking order

Do you make the most of your bird? Mark Hix reveals how to cook four delicious meals from just one chicken
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's that belt-tightening time of year, and I'm all for economy in the kitchen. But I'm not talking about price. Economy isn't the same as cheapness, it's about making the most of the finest ingredients you can afford.

It's that belt-tightening time of year, and I'm all for economy in the kitchen. But I'm not talking about price. Economy isn't the same as cheapness, it's about making the most of the finest ingredients you can afford.

Take a proper chicken, one that's been well brought up, and see how many meals it makes. By a good upbringing, I don't mean the plump white flesh that costs next to nothing. What's called economy chicken is nothing like the real fowl and you don't want to know what it's been fed on. But producers like Reg Johnson in Goosnargh, Lancashire, the Label Anglais people in Essex, and Ellel Free Range also in Lancashire are raising great birds that taste the way chicken should. Wyndham House Poultry's two shops in London sell Label Anglais and other French and English birds.

A good chicken will set you back between £5 and £10, but it will definitely give you more than one meal if you put your mind to it. It's an old-fashioned domestic approach. In the past, thrifty cooks used to make a ham or a joint last the best part of a week, with cold slices for lunch or sandwiches the next day, ending up with a fine soup when nothing but bones remained. A chicken can be put to work in exactly the same way, and for my lesson today in home economics, I've cooked up four meals for two from one medium-sized chicken.

Instead of paying more for chicken breasts and legs, it makes much more sense to start with a whole chicken. Even if you don't follow all my suggestions to the letter, you can pan-fry the breasts, make a chicken soup or broth, then do curry, coq au vin or fricassee with the legs. Nothing wasted, everything gained.

Wyndham House Poultry, 3 Stoney Street, London SE1 (020-7403 4788); 339 Fulham Road, London SW10 (020-7352 7888)

Preparing your chicken

You may well be thinking: sod it, I'm just going to do roast chicken. But to get the most from your bird it's worth practising your knife skills. Take a medium-sized chicken that weighs about 1.5kg, preferably with its giblets. Turn the bird on its side and hold it with your left hand, up by the knuckle of the leg. With a sharp, heavy chopping knife, cut the leg at the joint near the breast. Pull the leg forward to break the joint then make a final cut to release it. Do the same with the other leg.

Chop off the knuckle joint with the thickest end of a heavy chopping knife, pull the skin away from the flesh with your hands and put to one side. Cut the leg in half at the joint so you have a thigh and a drumstick. Remove the thigh bone with the point of a knife and put the bone with the others.

Push the meat on the fattest part of the drumstick up the bone so that you reveal a couple of centimetres of bone. Chop off these 2 centimetres of bone then push down the thinner end of the drumstick to reveal the other piece of bone. You should now have a neatly trimmed drumstick and a boned thigh.

Cut the wings off by holding the bird up by the wing tip and cutting it away at the nearest joint to the breast. Chop the first joint that was nearest the breast just on the joint and chop the pointed wing tip off again just at the joint so that you have three pieces. Put these and the three from the other wing into a bowl with the knuckle joints.

Remove the breasts by cutting either side of the central breastbone with a sharp knife then carefully pulling the breast away from the bone with your left hand while you run the point of the knife along the bone to detach the flesh. Pull away the under fillets, the flesh underneath the breast, and put them with the legs. Remove the skin from the breasts by just pulling it away from the flesh.

Cut any skin from along the back bone on the carcass and put it with the rest of the skin. I don't want to see any of the chicken wasted so plan to make a salad with the skin. Store the skin in a container in the fridge or freeze it with the liver if you're not using it straightaway.

Chop the carcass into small pieces and wash it under a cold tap for a few minutes until the water runs clean. Just to recap here you should have a neat looking drumstick and a boned thigh, 2 breasts and 2 underfillets, a pile of skin and some bones that are being washed. Depending on when you are going to eat the following dishes, you can freeze the appropriate joints until you need them. OK, now we can start.

Chicken stock

Washed bones from the chicken carcass and the 6 pieces of wing
1 chicken stock cube
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 stick of celery, roughly chopped and washed
1 large clove of garlic, peeled
10 white or black peppercorns
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf

Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cover with about 3 litres of water (with a stock cube dissolved in it). Add half a teaspoon of salt, bring to the boil, skim and simmer gently for 1 hour. Remove the central section of the chicken wing with a slotted spoon, leave to cool for a few minutes. Carefully pull out the bones, leaving the wings intact and put them to one side to use in the pot au feu. Continue to simmer for another 30 minutes, topping up with water if necessary, then strain through a colander, reserving the bones to get some flakes of meat for the garnish. Keep this meat for the soup (you'll be surprised how much there is). Reserve about 400ml stock for the pot au feu and use the rest for the soup.

Creamed chicken and tarragon soup

Serves 2-4

The first meal uses the chicken stock you've made. Chicken and tarragon have a natural affinity. If you're not going to eat it within a couple of days, make the soup without cream and tarragon and freeze it to finish later.

About 11/2 litres of chicken stock, as above
60g butter
50g flour
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Leaves from a few sprigs of tarragon
60ml double cream
Flaked chicken meat from the drained carcass after stock making

In a clean pan, melt the butter and stir in the flour on a medium heat. Gradually add the strained stock, one ladle at a time, stirring well to avoid lumps forming. Bring to the boil, season and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Blend the soup with a hand blender or liquidiser to give it a nice silky finish then add the cream, tarragon and reserved chicken meat and simmer for a minute or so before serving. Check seasoning and use white pepper rather than black, if you have any. Again, if you are freezing the soup, blend when it's defrosted then add the tarragon and cream.

Escalope of chicken Cordon Bleu

Serves 2

Cordon Bleu is one of the many classical ways with a veal escalope, but it's great with chicken breast and the kids love it. Last time I did this I boiled a ham hock to use for the filling as the supermarket ham didn't look right. I made a split pea and ham soup with the ham broth, and had the ham cold with piccalilli. With some raclette from Swiss cheese specialist, The Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury (0161 434 4781/ www.thecheesehamlet.co.uk) I had a result. To go with the escalopes the girls and I love spaghetti tossed in a freshly made tomato sauce and topped with grated Parmesan.

2 skinless chicken breasts
2 slices of cheese like gruyere or Emmenthal
2 slices of ham
1tbsp flour
1 small egg, beaten
3-4tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable or corn oil for frying
A good knob of butter

Put one breast on a sheet of clingfilm that is at least double its size. Carefully with a meat or cutlet bat (a rolling pin or side of a cleaver will do), bat each breast out into a neat 1/2cm thick escalope. Lay them on a flat surface, place a piece of ham and cheese on one half of each and fold them over. Season with salt and pepper then lightly coat them in flour, patting any excess off with your hands, before passing them through the beaten egg and finally the breadcrumbs. Push the edges together a little with your thumbs to form a good seal.

Heat about 1cm of oil in a frying pan and cook the escalopes for 3-4 minutes on each side until golden then add a knob of butter at the end of cooking and turn them once more. Serve immediately as they will go a bit cardboard-like if they hang around.

Chicken salad

Serves 2

People fight over the crispy skin on a roast chicken, so even if you're not roasting, there's no reason to throw away the skin. Crisped up it resembles pork scratchings, and apart from this salad you can serve it with drinks as a snack, sprinkled with sea salt or spices.

The skin from the chicken, cut into rough 2 cm pieces
The chicken's liver plus extra if you wish
50-60g watercress, large stalks removed
2 spring onions, shredded on the angle
Oil for frying
A good knob of butter

for the dressing

1/2tbsp good-quality tarragon vinegar
1/2tsp Dijon mustard
1tbsp olive oil
1tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the chicken skin into a pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Drain and leave to cool. Heat 1cm of oil in a deep frying pan, dry the skin on kitchen paper and fry it until crisp, turning it with a spoon. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on kitchen paper and season with salt.

Meanwhile, to make the vinaigrette put all the ingredients into a bowl and give them a good whisk. Season the livers and fry them in butter for a couple of minutes, keeping them pink. Mix the watercress and onions, toss in the dressing and lightly season. Arrange on a plate and top with the livers and crispy skin.

Chicken pot au feu

Serves 2

This is where we use up the rest of the chicken. It's a take on the classic French pot au feu of boiled meats and vegetables in a broth. I couldn't think what to call it so it's a kind of pot au feu with different cuts of chicken.

2 drumsticks
2 boned thighs
2 under fillets
2 middle sections of wing
400ml reserved chicken stock
2 very thin rashers of streaky bacon or pancetta
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1/3tsp chopped thyme leaves
1tbsp chopped parsley
2tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
70-80g small carrots, trimmed and cleaned

With a heavy knife (it's not enough for a processor unless you have one of those baby ones), chop the under fillets as finely as possible to a purée. Mix with the shallot, thyme, parsley and breadcrumbs and season. Mould into 2 even-sized balls and put to one side. Put the 400ml stock into a saucepan with about 100ml water. Wrap each thigh tightly in a slice of bacon and put into the stock with the drumsticks and carrots. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for 20 minutes with a lid on. Add the chicken balls and simmer gently for another 15 minutes, add the wings and simmer for another couple of minutes. You should have a good flavoured stock left. Strain if necessary, and serve it with the chicken pieces in deep bowls with boiled potatoes and salsa verde.

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