Cheap Cooking Basics: Chicken Dinner

Super short instructions here. Long explanation below.

You’re going to chop up a bunch of veggies and put them in a pan and put a raw, seasoned chicken on top, breast-side up. That goes in the oven with a bunch of oiled potatoes on the top rack above it, and baked for 45-60 minutes depending on the size of the bird. It takes us about 5 minutes to get this meal in the oven, maybe 10 if we chop celery. The leftovers are going to get used in a variety of tasty meals.

If you don’t know how to cook, you should keep reading. This may seem overwhelming (or too basic) but this is written with an assumption that you don’t really have a lot of experience or background in the kitchen.

So, first of all, let’s talk basics.

The trick with managing home cooking is that most recipes make a lot of food, and if you’re cooking for one or two people, it becomes challenging to not waste food.  So this particular set of meals is designed around getting the most out of the food you make.

This post is specifically designed for people who do not already know a lot about cooking. If I get a lot of feedback and requests for more of these, I’ll probably make a series out of it.

So here are the things you’ll need to have in your kitchen in order to do this successfully:

Tools

  1. An oven large enough to roast a chicken. Note that if you do not have a regular oven in your house, it is possible to buy a “roaster oven” for chickens, but they can be a little spendy on the initial outlay. If you do not have an oven or the means to get one, please let me know and I’ll do some recipes that can be done on a burner.
  2. An oven pan large enough for a chicken. Look at Goodwill or other thrift stores, but make sure they’re less than $12 for a reusable one, because you can get one on Amazon for that. (note that I’m not using affiliate links. smile.amazon is a program where you can pick a charity and they’ll donate a portion of your purchase to that charity. Please feel free to shop locally, these simply show you what you’re looking for.) Here are some pans that will work:
    An enameled cheap roaster (does not have to be 18 inches. Just big enough for a single chicken.)
    A disposable aluminum pan ($1-2 each at the grocery store, also found at dollar stores. 9×13 is about right for a single bird.)
    A Pyrex glass baking dish
    Really any oven-safe pan with sides that come up a couple inches that will fit a whole chicken with a little room to spare on the sides. Cover is not necessary.
  3. A clean, cleanable work space (counter, for example.)
  4. Hot pads/oven mitts. Towels are poor substitute. The dollar store often has oven mitts in two packs. Don’t use your bare hands. You can, however, use bear hands.
  5. A meat thermometer
    Any of the following:
    Instant Read Digital
    Leave-In Digital with probe
    The leave in digital will allow you to monitor the bird’s temp without opening the oven. The instant read is for checking when you think the bird is done. I do not recommend analog thermometers for this–you can get well-rated digitals for about the same price. It takes like six pages of 5-star digital thermometers on Amazon before you get to the 3-4 star rated analogs. You can do either of the above.
    This instant read is rated for meat and candy making. If you want to make marshmallows at some point, get this one.
    It is possible to cook a chicken without a thermometer, but it’s much more stressful.

Things which are useful to have for leftover management

  1. A cutting board. This protects your knives from dulling and your counter from cuts, and makes cleanup easier. You can theoretically get these locally for cheaper if you shop carefully.
    Thin flexible plastic (makes transferring veggies to pans easy)
    Thicker plastic (Cheap, durable)
    Bamboo (environmentally friendly, probably better for you?)
  2. A sharp knife for chopping. (Note that in the long run the knife quality is probably less important than if you have a way to keep it sharp.) What you want is a “chopping” or “Chef” or “all purpose” knife. Dollar store or thrift store and use the money you save on a sharpening stone.
  3. Kitchen Shears (They don’t have to be that fancy. Can be found at a dollar store.)
  4. Tongs
  5. A paring knife
  6. Several bowls
    Pyrex is durable and oven/freezer safe, and this set comes with lids, which makes it very easy to store things
    Stainless bowls and bowl sets can usually be found pretty cheap at the grocery store or Goodwill.
  7. Leftover storage
    Ziplock bags or “take ‘n toss” style semi-reusable containers tend to be easiest. The reusables are going to be cheapest in the long run.

Food items you will need for meal one

  1. One Whole Chicken. These run from about $1.19- $2 per pound, and it’s okay to get the smallest regular chicken (NOT game hen) you can easily find. 4-5 pounds is pretty typical. This will feed you for most of a week.
  2. Potatoes, sweet potatoes or cauliflower. Potatoes are cheap. Buy a bag if they’re cheaper that way. I prefer red or yellow for this project, russets require more cleaning. Get what you can afford though. If you don’t tolerate potatoes, sweet potatoes are low-allergen and well tolerated by most people. I prefer orange yams. They tend to be pretty inexpensive this time of year and require zero work. Cauliflower is a good lower-calorie option. Cook 1-2 potatoes per person per meal. So if it’s just you? Make 3-5 potatoes.
  3. Carrots. I always buy organic on carrots, and spend $2 for a 2 pound bag of rainbow organic carrots. So regular ones are probably even cheaper. You’ll need a couple of carrots.
  4. Celery. Put celery in water on the counter like flowers and it will stay fresh a long time. You’ll need a stalk or two.
  5. Garlic? Onion? A whole head of garlic can get roasted next to a chicken, and used over time in a variety of dishes if you like roasted garlic. A whole onion can be chopped into a few chunks and roasted, if you like onions.
  6. Seasonings. I could write an entire post on spice rubs, but for this purpose, plain salt, or salt and pepper, or garlic salt, or lemon pepper/salt, or seasoned salt are fine. I often use smoked salt, but as long as there is sodium chloride on the bird it’s going to taste good.  Once you’ve made it simply, you can play around with spices later.
  7. Oil or butter for the potato skins
Food items you might want while using the leftovers
  1. Noodles (regular, ramen, gluten free, whatever)
  2. Mayo for sandwiches (and/or mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce, sriracha, whatever)
  3. Soy sauce or coconut aminos
  4. Fresh veggies like bean sprouts, lettuce, jicama, avocado or fresh salsa
  5. Fresh herbs you like, such as basil, cilantro, ginger, green onions/scallions/chives.
  6. Spicy stuff like curry paste, chili oil, chili paste (pick one if you like spice, it will go a very long way.)
  7. Dry seasonings such as bay leaves, marjoram, thyme, oregano, cumin, ground mustard, ground ginger, chili powder
  8. Coconut milk
  9. Bread
  10. Butter

Meal One Instructions

Make sure your oven rack is in the right position before you turn the oven on. For this recipe, you want one rack on the next to the top level, and one on the next to the bottom level. Most racks slide out, but you may have to angle the rack upward to get it out completely. Watch this short video. In an oven that looks like that, I would use level 2 for the bird and level 6 for the potatoes.

Preheat your oven first thing, to 450 degrees F (230 C). We do this so that the food cooks a predictable length of time. It takes less time and energy for the oven to get to temperature when it’s empty.

Set up your space so your garbage can is very near to the sink. Ideally your cooking pan will be right next to the sink.

Since we’re about to start chopping vegetables, here’s a video on basic knife skills.

Scrub your carrots, potatoes and celery first. The goal is to remove visible dirt. You don’t have to peel them.

Cut up the veggies into the sizes you’ll need. Carrots can be cut into 2 inch lengths if you want (but don’t have to be) and celery should be cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Don’t dice the onion if you’re doing onion. Cut it in half, discard the paper and the outermost layer, trim the top and bottom ends off both pieces and then cut them in half again.

Distribute your carrots and celery across the bottom of the empty pan.  Throw the onion quarters in the pan around the edges. You can throw some whole garlic cloves in the paper or even a whole head in. You’ll slip them out of the paper easily when cooked.

Get some oil or butter on your hands. Rub the clean potatoes with the butter or oil and set them aside (in a big bowl, usually). This does not add a significant amount of oil to the food, but does result in a much better tasting skin.

Wash your hands. If you are grossed out by the idea of handling raw chicken with your bare hands, use gloves.

Get your chicken ready. While the oven is heating, get out your chicken. It’s probably in a plastic bag. Work in a clean sink. Use a sharp knife or kitchen shears to cut the top of the bag open. Fluid will come out. There might be a papery/plasticky absorbant pad. This and the plastic will be discarded.

Check the inside of the chicken (both ends) for giblets. Giblets will be useful in your leftovers or if you make a gravy (we’ll talk about that another time if you want, we’re not doing it in this batch of cooking). I use giblets in soup or just eat them. If you actively loathe liver, you can throw that away, we use it.

See this video for the process of getting the chicken to this point. It’s not mine, but pretty much exactly what I do.

I go straight from the sink into the cooking pot to reduce cross contamination. Raw chicken juices are pretty gnarly, so we try to keep splatters and drops to a minimum. Put the chicken on top of the vegetables already in the pan.

Get the chicken organized the way it looks on his cutting board in that video. You want the hard back down, and the wings and legs sticking up, which puts the bird breast-side up. Don’t worry about the breast drying out.

Now, you need to salt the bird. If your seasonings are in a shaker, with a clean hand on the shaker and a gloved or bare hand on the chicken, salt the chicken’s skin pretty much everywhere. We’re going for a light sprinkle everywhere. If you’re using something that isn’t plain salt, you can put more on. Sometimes I do a mix that’s about 1/4 salt and the rest a variety of spices, and that goes on a lot heavier than plain salt.
If you have a leave-in meat thermometer, push the probe into the space between the leg and the breast, deep into the meat, now. Let the wire hang outside the pan, it will actually feed out to the thermometer outside the oven. Do not insert an instant-read at this time.

Wash your hands again.

Get stuff in the oven. The oven should be preheated by now. Slide the chicken and vegetable pan onto the bottom rack. Pull out the top rack and put the potatoes so that they will be over the chicken. Gently slide it back in. You want them over the chicken because sometimes smaller potatoes will fall through, and you want them landing on the bird, not on the bottom of the oven. Use an oven mitt to put the potatoes down. The potatoes can go directly on the rack. If you are using sweet potatoes, put them directly on the rack, they don’t even have to be washed or oiled because we won’t eat the skins. (Cauliflower would go in with the chicken.)

Close the oven, and set a timer for 45 minutes if your chicken is small (3.5-4 pounds), 50 minutes if your chicken is medium (4.5-5 pounds) and 1 hour if your chicken is larger than 5 pounds. If you’re using a leave-in thermometer, follow the instructions from the thermometer to set it to “chicken”. You want it to hit 175 between the breast and the leg. Follow that rather than the clock (set your timer for an hour just in case the thermometer doesn’t go off.)

Go do something else where you can hear the timer.

When the timer or meat thermometer goes off, use the oven mitts to bring the chicken out of the oven and set it on top of the stove. If you are using an instant read thermometer, slide it deep into the breast meat. It should read at least 161 degrees. If it does, slide it into the thigh, which should be between 175 and 180. The wing tips will be crunchy (You’ll note that I didn’t tell you to bind them. We fight over the crunchy wing tips.) and the breast should be juicy and moist.

If your chicken is up to temperature, let it sit on the stove for 10 minutes. We call that “resting the meat”.

If it is not, put it in the oven for another 10 minutes or so.

Get out a plate for the chicken to go on.

Serving

When the chicken is done cooking and has rested in the pan for 10 minutes, it’s time to cut it up. The easiest setup for cutting up a chicken is to use a pair of tongs and a set of kitchen shears. Grasp the thigh firmly with the tongs and pull it away from the body. If you bend the joint back by pushing the leg down until the joint pops, you can then cut easily through the joint without having to cut bone. A leg quarter will come away. Put that on a plate. Do the same thing for the other leg. Use the tongs to hold the wing out from the body and cut through that joint. Put the wing on the plate. Repeat.

Now, I use kitchen shears on the breast but it may be easier to do this with a knife. Cut down along the spine and out along the ribs. Grasp the breast with the tongs, lift it up a little and cut it away with the shears. It may separate from the tender along the ribs. Cook gets to nom the tender. It should be juicy but not at all pink.

Pull a potato out of the oven using a mitt or tongs, and stick a fork in it. If the fork goes in really easily, the potato is done. Pull the potatoes out and put them on a plate or in a bowl. Potatoes aren’t very fussy, and will usually be done after 45 minutes if they’re medium or smaller. Don’t worry about leaving them in for longer, they can take it.

With a spoon or serving utensil, scoop out most of the roasted veggies and put them next to your chicken pieces. Save everything in the pan while you have dinner.

Portions

For one person, pick either a breast or a chicken quarter, or if your appetite is smaller, a half breast or a drumstick and wing, or a thigh. There are basically ten “pieces” from a 4-5 pound bird. Four half breasts, two thighs, two drumsticks, two wings. I usually have one of the larger pieces and one of the smaller, so tonight I had a thigh and a wing. It’s okay to let the other pieces cool while you eat–you want to put them away in about half an hour.

Have one of your potatoes and some of the roasted veggies. If you roasted garlic, pinch the garlic at one end and squeeze the rest out onto your potato.

Enjoy your meal!

Leftovers

After you eat, when things are no longer steaming hot, you are going to save everything that is left. It can all go into the large Pyrex bowl if you want, with a lid, to save for later, or you can divide it out now. Several of your chicken pieces will be good reheated with a potato for your next dinner. Just a minute or two in the microwave to get things piping hot. Legs and thighs reheat this way better than breast meat, which can get pretty tough and dry.

The breasts I would slice for sandwiches or cut into bite-sized pieces for chicken salad. Put the breast away without cutting, it will cut more neatly cold.

The bones, extra skin, cooking juices/drippings, and carcass will become soup, along with the drippings and extra roasted veggies. Put all of that in a ziplock or a covered bowl together.

The baked potato can get some chopped chicken breast on top for a lunch, or cut it up and make roast potato chicken salad. Put the potatoes away in a plastic bag or wrapped in aluminium foil.

The roast garlic can be used on a lot of things through the week. I’d stick it in with the soup stuff or a small take n toss.

You can use chicken breast for fast soft tacos or burritos, too.

I sometimes cut it up into chunks with the leftover carrots and potatoes, heat it up in some coconut milk, add some curry paste, and serve that over rice.

Let me know which of those you want to hear about first, and I’ll make a new blog post and link to it from here!

Posted in Food, Recipes.

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