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Frugal Cooking Basics: Chicken Dinner Plus Stock

Cooking is an essential life skill.  But to someone new to the kitchen, a basic recipe can seem overwhelming.  Everyone should have one meal that they can pull together without a lot of fuss, and with confidence that after all of their hard work in the kitchen, the food they put on the table will taste delicious.

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A friend of mine is learning to cook.  She sent me an email about her first week in the kitchen.

Day 1: Tossed out all expired food and spices… which left me with…salt.

Day 2: Spent 3 HOURS at the grocery store.

Day 3: Started getting out ingredients for tomato soup, but then realized it was 10:30PM!?!

Day 4: Cooked brown rice EXACTLY as instructed on package, but it was still WAY too mushy to eat.

Day 5: Severely BURNED oatmeal – stunk the place up for days and created a thick blackened layer on our stainless steel pot.

Day 6: Made chili.  It was good, but the recipe made 10 servings!  What am I supposed to do with 10 servings of chili?!

Day 7: Panda Express

Does this sound familiar to anyone?  It sounds very much like my first months in the kitchen.

So here are three recipes – enough to make a complete meal – that are pretty much foolproof.  And they’re not hard.  I promise.  I’m going to tell you how to make a whole chicken in the slow cooker, rice that’s never mushy, and steamed green beans that everyone loves (and I mean everyone, like toddlers and teenagers and people who don’t like vegetables).  Plus, I’ll even throw in made-from-scratch chicken stock.

Let’s start with the chicken.  Pound for pound, a whole chicken is one of the most economical meats you can buy.  Buy a bird that will fit in your slow cooker – probably 3-4 pounds.  My slow cooker is oval shaped, which is perfect for a chicken, but if yours is round, no worries.  It’s okay if the chicken touches the sides.

Since it’s going to be in there for a long time, it’s important to keep the meat out of the juices that will accumulate in the bottom of the slow cooker.  If you leave it in to stew, it will still taste good, but it looks a little pruny, like when you’re in the bathtub for too long. You can do this two ways.  Put other food under the chicken, like 4-5 potatoes cut into eighths.  They’re to die for!  But since we’re having rice, skip the potatoes and put some balls of aluminum foil under the chicken.  I added an onion in there for good measure.

Take the giblets out of the chicken (that’s the heart, liver, and neck), and put them in the fridge for later.  Then make a spice mix to flavor the chicken.

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This can vary according to your taste, but everyone in my family likes this one: 1 tsp paprika, 1 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 tsp pepper.  Rub the spices all over the chicken and put it in the slow cooker.

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Cook it on high for 4 hours.  Whatever you do, no matter how wonderful it smells, don’t ever, ever lift the lid.  This causes the slow cooker to lose heat and can take up to half an hour to reach its cooking temperature again.  That’s it.  Chicken’s done!

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Next, the rice.  Like my new-to-cooking friend, I have been a notoriously bad rice maker.  I used to have my husband make the rice.  He had some mystical system for adding water until it reached his knuckles.  But his knuckles are bonier than mine, and my rice was always a disaster.  Then I learned a new technique that has changed my culinary life.  No boney knuckles required.

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The instructions on the back of the rice package will tell you to add water to rice to the pot in a 2:1 ratio, bring to a boil, then simmer with the lid on.  Boil in the bag rice is not called “Success” for nothing.  Rice is harder than it looks.

So forget the package instructions and do this instead.  Keep the 2:1 water to rice ratio (for example, 2 cups of water to one cup of rice), but bring the water to a boil before you add the rice.  Once the water is at a rolling boil, pour in the rice, give it a stir, turn the heat down to low/simmer, and put the lid on.  Just like the slow cooker, don’t ever, ever take the lid off.  Cook white rice for 25 minutes (even though the package says 15), or brown rice for 45.  When the cooking time is up, take the pot off the heat and leave it alone for another 5 minutes.

Finally, the green beans.  I grew up on steamed vegetables, and I love them.  The first kitchen gadget I bought when I moved into my own apartment was a steamer insert.

It unfolds and fits into most sizes of pans.  You add a little water to the bottom of the pan (just make sure it doesn’t boil dry), put in the steamer, and place the veggies on top.  Add a lid, crank up the heat, and cook until they’re cooked like you like them.

I like my beans pretty crunchy.  I often leave the kids’ beans in for an extra 5 minutes because they like them soft.  If you don’t have a steamer, you can still use this sauce on green beans cooked another way.  It would be great on the frozen green beans that come in a microwave steamer bag, for example.  For this recipe, you can use fresh or frozen green beans.  I used frozen.

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While the beans are steaming, make the sauce.  I do it right in the serving bowl.  For 1/2 pound green beans, mix 1 Tbsp butter, 1/2 Tbsp olive oil, 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice, and 1/2 tsp dried thyme.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

After the green beans are cooked, add them to the bowl and stir it up.  The warm beans will melt the butter, and you have a wonderful, flavorful sauce that turns a ho-hum veggie into an elegant side dish.

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So those are the three recipes promised, but I have one more no-brainer bonus. 

Did you notice all that chicken juice in the bottom of the slow cooker when you took the chicken out?  That’s the perfect base for homemade chicken stock.

This one’s the easiest thing ever!  Leave in the onions that cooked with the chicken, toss in a couple of carrots and some celery, add the carcass left after you’ve devoured your yummy chicken.  Include the giblets you saved earlier.  Fill the slow cooker 2-3 inches from the top with water and set on low for 12 hours.

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I put all this together after supper and let it cook overnight.  In the morning, you’ll wake up to a big pot full of wonderful, make-from-scratch chicken stock.  I freeze mine, and haven’t bought stock from the store in years.

- post by Siobhan

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