CHAPTER 1: A BIT OF CHICKEN
Chicken is a dinnertime staple, prized for its versatility and ability to complement other ingredients.
The average American eats 80 pounds of chicken a year. That’s substantially more than the roughly 65 pounds of beef and 60 pounds of pork we also consume. For decades, people ate around the same of amount of beef and chicken, but during the past 25 years, as the media began to report extensively on the obesity epidemic and other health risks associated with the consumption of red meat and saturated fats, shoppers became more and more inclined to choose boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
But the way we eat chicken isn’t always healthful. Fried chicken, the most commonly enjoyed kind in the United States, certainly doesn’t help reduce cholesterol. Replacing beef with chicken works only if you eschew the fried stuff and choose the leanest (and least flavorful) chicken options. And those lean and mean recipes, based on poached boneless, skinless chicken breasts, offer little culinary excitement. Blah meals don’t benefit your health if you don’t eat them.
There’s another way to think about and cook with chicken. Instead of focusing on the fat grams in every portion, cut back significantly on the total amount of chicken you eat. We strongly recommend against ordering chicken at a restaurant, where it is almost surely from a factory-farmed bird. It’s easy to enjoy homemade, high-quality chicken dishes with these recipes.
Chicken marries wonderfully with a wide variety of flavorful vegetables and grains. Meals that offer different flavors and textures can be extremely healthful and much more enjoyable than a slab of bland white meat. Starting with a whole chicken is a secret weapon in the battle for big flavor. Chicken bones, rich in gelatin, add depth and body to dishes. Skin creates fond (the foundation of a great soup, stew, or sauce), lends a satisfying layer of flavor, and protects delicate white meat from the direct heat of cooking. It’s also easy to discard before the dish is served.
Finally, we want to encourage you to seek out the best chicken you can find. In Philadelphia, where we live, we have terrific farmers’ markets, where you can get truly free-range, organic birds directly from the farmer who raises them. Wherever you shop, don’t be afraid to grill management on the provenance of the chickens. Today’s commercial poultry industry, exempted from the USDA’s humane slaughter act because chickens are not legally considered livestock, raises birds in generally abhorrent conditions. Taglines like Òall naturalÓ and Òfree rangeÓ have become all but meaningless in the market. The designation Òfree rangeÓ now simply means that chickens have some limited and often unused access to the outdoors. You can look for the Òcertified humaneÓ label that goes on some products that conform to the Certified Humane Raised & Handled program’s standards.
The reality is that these better chickens are much more expensive–sometimes more than twice as expensive–than their factory-farmed counterparts. But the cost reflects the farmers’ own expenses. They forgo the cheap corn-based, chemical-laced feed that fattens the birds in a matter of weeks in favor of more natural methods. Savvy shoppers pay premium prices for farm-raised, organic birds, but they get chicken chock-full of robust flavor. You can maximize your investment by learning how to get more flavor from less chicken, how to cut a whole chicken into parts, how to freeze poultry for later use, and how to use the bones to make flavorful stock (page 131).
Asian Lettuce Wraps
These wraps are the perfect appetizer for a small, casual dinner party or an exotic entrŽe for two or four. Dark meat chicken thighs won’t dry out in the high heat of the wok, and they take on the intense flavors of this recipe’s homemade marinade and stir-fry sauce. What’s more, the recipe can just as easily become a salad. By tearing up the lettuce leaves and tossing them with the slaw, you’ll make a crunchy, cool bed of greens for the chicken and peanut toppings.
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoonsvegetable oil
1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1/4 teaspoon dried chile flakes
1 scallion, green and white parts, sliced
8 to 12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 4 thighs, or 2 thighs and 2 legs), cut into small cubes or stripsSlaw
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons orange juice
1/4 teaspoon dark (Asian) sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 thick carrot (about 4 ounces), cut into 1/8-inch strips
1 cucumber, cut into 1/8-inch strips
2 stalks celery, sliced 1/4 inch thick diagonally
2 to 3 scallions, white and green parts, sliced on the diagonal
16 lettuce leaves (romaine, Boston, Bibb, or green or red leaf)
2 tablespoons roasted salted peanuts, coarsely choppedto marinate the chicken
, make a marinade by combining the fish sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, orange juice, the 2 tablespoons oil, the ginger, garlic, chile flakes, and scallion in a medium bowl. Add the chicken and stir to coat the meat. Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator, letting the chicken marinate for at least 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, to prepare the slaw
, whisk together the vinegar, orange juice, sesame oil, salt, and ginger in a large bowl. Toss the vinaigrette together with the carrot, cucumber, celery, and scallions. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.to prepare the lettuce
, rinse and pat the leaves dry. Transfer to the refrigerator until ready to use. (If you choose romaine, use the leafy top part of the lettuce for the wrappers. You can tear off the stiffer bottom stem half, chop it up, and add it to the slaw for extra crunch if you like.)to cook the chicken
, heat the 2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the marinated chicken and marinade and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring often, until firm to the touch and beginning to brown. Stir in the peanuts.to assemble and serve
, set out the slaw and chicken in bowls along with a platter of the lettuce. Wrap a scoop of slaw and chicken in each lettuce leaf. Have a napkin handy!
Excerpted from Almost Meatless by Joy Manning. Copyright © 2009 by Joy Manning. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.