I've found in this time of — ahem — concentrated home cooking that I often wander into ingredient or method obsessions and stay there, either 'til I wring them dry or they work themselves into my permanent cooking arsenal. Perhaps the most gratifying, fragrantly pleasing success story to come of this compulsive behavior was my rediscovery of simmering whole chickens.
It began some months back when I felt under the weather (remember when that phrase wasn't terrifying?), and the only dinner that remotely appealed to me was chicken soup. I took the whole chicken I'd intended to roast and plopped it into my biggest dutch oven with some peppercorns, turmeric and a veritable garden of wilting aromatics: a quartered sprouting onion, a couple of halved limp carrots and celery stalks and a big handful of sagging parsley stems. The smugness that I hadn't wasted the veg drawer's sad remains set in just as the soothing, home-cooked aroma of chicken soup filled the house. I strained the soup and finished it with cubed potatoes and eggy noodles in the spirit of Mom's version — which, by the way, comes with a guarantee that everything will be OK.
More importantly, that restorative Sunday meal became the creative springboard for weeks of simple future dinners I could vary based on what I had around or whatever flavor profiles I was obsessing over. One night, I flavored the broth with a parmesan cheese rind and finished the soup with diced root vegetables, cannellini beans and a blob of basil-parsley pesto. To make it taste like the restaurant soup I've been missing on another Sunday, I added sautéed leeks and mushrooms finished with a splash of wine and cream. With the recent arrival of spring weather, I gave it a Greek spin with tons of lemon, minced dill and orzo (recipe below). One of my favorite variations (adapted from Cynthia Chen McTernan's "A Common Table" cookbook), involves adding big hunks of ginger and rough chopped scallions to the simmering liquid, then serving the soup with homemade noodles and a dribble of soy sauce and chili crisp.
All this flavor zhushing almost always requires a second pan or pot, but don't let that deter you. Anyway, you deserve a good zhush.
Simmered chicken with homemade noodles and chili crisp. (Photo courtesy Maggie Hennessy)
You'll also find that this method is generous beyond its initial application. Not only will you have homemade broth leftover — which, from the moment you taste it, will ruin you forever for boxed chicken stock. You'll also have days' worth of leftover chicken with its infinite uses. Re-simmer it in jarred salsa and broth, and pile it on corn tortillas for taco night. Heat it in BBQ sauce thinned with water, and heap it on a toasted bun with crunchy slaw. Stir it into fried rice, or mix it with curry-tinted mayo, raisins and minced celery for that glorious throwback: chicken salad.
Simmered chicken's final, albeit inedible, gift is the comforting aromas that tend to linger in your kitchen until at least the following day, in case you still need reminding that everything will be OK.
Before you start cooking . . . a quick note on simmering, which sometimes feels like a glib directive in recipes. Simmering occurs within the 185- to 200-degree range. (Poaching falls just below this realm in the service of delicate items like eggs and fish.) "Fine Cooking" breaks simmering into three categories: a fine simmer — characterized by a scarce amount of small bubbles surfacing every two to three seconds; a simmer — identified by small, constant bubbles rising to the surface (my preferred temp here); and a vigorous simmer — just below a boil, characterized by more constant bubbles surfacing and giving off frequent wisps of steam.
A nod to the lemony Greek chicken soup Avgolemono (without the eggs), the slow-cooked flavors of the chicken and broth get a jolt of springtime brightness from lemon juice and a heap of grassy fresh dill.
Recipe: Simmered Chicken with Orzo and Lemon
- 1 whole 3- or 4-lb. chicken (humanely raised, please, and thawed 3 days in fridge if purchased frozen)
- 2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
- 2 carrots, roughly chopped
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 3 garlic cloves (still in their jackets is fine)
- 6 parsley stems with leaves
- 1 sprig thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
- 10 whole peppercorns
- 2 lemons, divided
- 1 bunch fresh dill, chopped and divided
- Cracked fresh pepper, as needed
- 1 1/2 cups dried orzo
- 1/2 lb. fresh baby spinach leaves (aka one 8-oz. bag)
- Good quality extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Place the chicken, celery, carrots, onion, garlic, parsley, thyme, salt and peppercorns in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Add enough cold water to just submerge the chicken.
Cover the pot and bring to a boil; reduce the heat to a simmer (small, constant bubbles) and cook for about 45 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 165-degrees Farenheit when inserted into the thickest parts of the thigh and breast. Remove the chicken, and set on a large cutting board to cool slightly. Strain out the aromatics and discard, reserving about 4 cups of broth. Pour remaining broth into an airtight container, and store in the fridge up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to a few months. (Note: If you plan to store the broth, you'll want to cool it to below 40 degrees before refrigerating or freezing, especially if it's a large amount. To do this, fill a large container or clean sink with ice and a small amount of water, place the pot of strained broth inside, stirring frequently to hasten cooling).
With a sharp knife, remove the white and dark chicken meat from the carcass. Chop or shred about 2 cups of meat into bite-size pieces and reserve, placing the rest in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days. Discard the carcass. (Note: If so inclined, you can also submerge the carcass in cold water and boil for 45 minutes to an hour to make a second, weak batch of stock.)
In a separate dutch oven or large saucepan, add the reserved 4 cups chicken stock, the juice of one lemon, about half the dill and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and bring to a simmer. Add the orzo, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. When just done, reduce the heat to low, and stir in the reserved chopped chicken and a handful of spinach at a time until it's just wilted. Squeeze in the juice of half the second lemon, most of the remaining dill (save 1 or 2 teaspoons for garnish) and a good drizzle of olive oil. Check the seasoning again, and adjust with salt, pepper and lemon, if desired. Cut the remaining lemon half into wedges.
Divide the soup among 3 or 4 bowls; sprinkle with the last of the dill, and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with a lemon wedge.
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