Two months ago I promised you a description of my first attempt at cooking a meal from Julia Child's cookbook. The evening went a little bit like this: Sadness and frustration and feelings of insecurity about what to cook. Depression about the thawed whole organic, pastured chicken that I had to eat before it went bad, but didn't know what to do with.* Forlorn glances at the clock to watch the time tick by, passing the normal time for dinner.
Then, a lightbulb! Mom just sent me this cookbook, why don't I put it to use? Flip, flip through the pages to... Poultry... hmm... I don't have a good casserole dish (or the time really) to roast, nor do I actually have a roasting chicken apparently... I have a fryer chicken...how about sautee, that sounds easy enough? There's one recipe that calls for a white wine and mushroom sauce. Ok. Then there are the eggplant and zucchini which are going to go bad if I don't cook them. I had a different recipe for ratatouille, but I bet Julia's is twenty times better... flip, flip... or twenty times longer... Well, here goes.
So the first thing I had to do was send Clint out to buy a pound of butter and a bottle of white wine. The poor guy was hungry and probably relieved to do anything that would make my mood better (or get him out of the house where I stewed). Then I got started. There was a lot of chopping. First I disjointed the chicken. There is something peculiarly empowering about taking a chicken apart. In a chapter on knives in his cookbook The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon addresses the woman who knows how to wield and sharpen her own knives saying, "you will be provided with an instant rejoinder to anyone who presumes to lecture you on housewifery as an abject capitulation to the feminine mystique. Simply let him see you presiding over your kitchen with steel in one hand and butcher knife in the other. Execute six well-drawn strokes, and his words will turn to ashes in his mouth. He was ready only for a maladjusted prisoner of the pantry; you have showed him instead one of the priestly archetypes of the race."
On top of all that priestliness, I'm also taken over by a sense of curiosity when I buy a whole food and take it apart piece by piece. A kind of "Aha!" moment washes over me when I see how the chicken breast is connected to the breast bone, when I learn the good order of how to cut the chicken apart. First, sit the chicken on its neck and saw down either side of the backbone, then set it aside. Then, carefully, so as not to lose too much meat, cut down the breast bone and separate the two halves. Find the joint where the thigh meets the body of the chicken and cut it. Then find the "knee" and separate the drumstick from the thigh. Same with the wing (though there is often little meat on it, since meat chickens aren't generally allowed space to stretch their wings). Then finally, as Julia puts it "So that the breasts will cook evenly, slip a knife under the ribs and remove them." Goodness, if only it were that easy! I kept sawing into the ribs or cutting too far into the chicken breast. This might be because I don't know how to sharpen my knives. ;)
Perhaps all that sounds tedious to you. It's just a chicken. But it fascinates me. This chicken was once a live thing, unique and hopefully happy. Now it's life is gone, but I go to all the trouble of carefully disjointing it, to give it a kind of new life as a fabulous dinner, then it will give me life via my belly. Such an interesting thought. This is why I delight in buying whole chickens.
One last note. I mentioned that you should set aside the backbone and then there are those ribs that are littered with the breast meat I accidentally severed from the rest of the breast. The other thing I love about buying the whole chicken is how nothing has to go to waste. I put these things in my crockpot and let them stew with water and vegetables (the celery tops and rubbery carrots from the bottom of the produce drawer in the fridge) and herbs overnight. Ta da! Chicken stock. I pick out the meat pieces for a chicken and rice soup or a chicken salad sandwich and only then throw away the bones when they're exhausted.
And it makes me wonder, when I buy chicken breasts at the grocery store, where do all the chicken ribs and necks go? They don't seem to be for sale. I think they remind us of death so we don't like them around. Are they just thrown away? Isn't that wasteful? Think of all the stock that could be made instead... You could feed a whole city with that stock!
Oh my. I haven't even gotten to the part where Clint comes home from the grocery store yet. I haven't told you about Julia's advice to pat the chicken dry, or how I've inaugurated a "raw meat" towel in her honor. Too many things to say...
*It was a humorous conversation with the farmer at the market where I bought the chicken. I sorted through to find the least expensive one in the freezer, then plopped it down without a word on the counter and pulled out my wallet. "Have you ever bought one of our chickens before?" The tall, gruff farmer asked. "No, but I've bought organic before," I answered. "Well, they're not like Safeway chickens," he warned me. I tried to convince him I was aware of that fact, but he insisted on taking $5 off the price, "in case you aren't satisfied."