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Roast Chicken for Today and Tomorrow

Fine Cooking Issue 83
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Until relatively recently, I thought of roast chicken as nothing more than one great dinner. Any leftovers that resulted from the bird were just, well, leftovers—something I would try, often unsuccessfully, to use up in subsequent meals. I would like to be able to say that all this changed because something dramatic happened— like the birth of a child or a breakthrough in chicken technology. But the truth is that an editor called me up and asked me to write a book on how to roast chicken and cook with the leftovers. Now, a couple of years and many, many roast birds later, I’ve become a preacher of the leftover chicken gospel. All that roasting has convinced me that chicken on the second go-round is a very convenient and versatile addition to all sorts of weeknight dinners, from Caesar salad and tacos to quick stir-fries and pastas. With a roast chicken in the fridge, you have a head start on getting a delicious meal on the table fast.

Here’s how it works

Roast two chickens when you have a little time. Serve one of them that night for dinner, and use the second one (plus any remaining meat from the first one) in lively dishes in the following few days. Just remember to plan your leftover meals ahead so that when you’re at the market, you can pick up the ingredients you’ll need.

Tips for roasting a bird with moist meat & crisp skin

A few techniques distinguish my roast chicken method from others you may have tried.

  • Salt the chicken ahead. Salting seasons the bird, of course, but if you can do it a day, or even a few hours, ahead, you’ll get more flavorful meat and crisper skin. You can also flavor the salt with herbs and zest.
  • Use a rack. A V-shaped roasting rack cradles the chicken and allows its juices to drip away, leaving even the bottom skin crisp.
  • Start breast side up and flip halfway through. Starting with the breast up ensures brown, crispy skin. Turning the bird over keeps the breast moist while the slower-cooking legs finish roasting.

Leftover basics— getting the most from chicken #2

Handling tips:

After serving the first chicken for dinner, wrap the leftovers in plastic wrap. Let the second chicken cool to room temperature and wrap in plastic as well. I’ve found that if it’s well wrapped and refrigerated, the chicken will stay relatively moist and tender for up to 4 days. Here are a few more pointers for making the most of your leftover chicken.

  • Don’t carve until you have to. Sliced, diced, and otherwise cut-up chicken dries out and spoils faster than a whole one, so keep the chicken whole or in big pieces.
  • Discard the skin. The crisp skin of a warm roast chicken is wonderful, but once it’s cold, the skin tends to become unpleasantly rubbery. For this reason, I don’t use it in my leftover dishes.
  • Match the meat to the preparation. Dark-meat leftovers tend to have a richer flavor and retain their moisture, so they’re perfect for cooked dishes. White-meat leftovers are more apt to dry out when reheated, so their delicate flavor and texture do better in sandwiches and salads.
  • Keep the cooking to a minimum. As leftover chicken is already cooked (and as chicken is lean to start with, particularly the breast), it’s best to avoid further cooking. Whenever possible, I try to fold the chicken in at the end just to warm it up.

Rotisserie chicken works well, too. If you’d like to make some of these chicken dishes but don’t have the time to roast the bird yourself, store-bought rotisserie chickens are a good option. In addition to their convenience, these prepared birds are flavorful and affordable.

How much meat from a 4-lb. bird?

You can expect one roast chicken to serve four people nicely for dinner. A whole second bird should yield about 5 cups of meat, enough to make two of the three leftovers recipes listed at right and at the bottom of the page.

 Leftover Amount  Yield 
 1 whole chicken  5 cups
 1/2 chicken  2-1/2 cups
 1 breast  1 cup
 1 leg (thigh and drumstick)  1 cup

How to carve:

Because leftover chicken is generally cold when you work with it, it’s a lot easier to carve. I like to use a paring knife and my fingers to feel for the breastbone and pry off the breast meat, making sure to pick off any meat that remains behind on the bones. I then slice to the bone on the drumsticks and thighs, peel off the meat, and sort through and discard any fatty patches or gnarly tendons.

As good as the wings are when they’re hot, they’re not well suited to picking for leftovers—there’s little yield for all that work. So if they haven’t been eaten on the first go-round, I usually just sprinkle them with some salt and eat them cold while I work on my leftover dish.

And for next time, try one of these ideas

Leftover roast chicken is good in countless dishes. Here are a few more suggestions.

Pasta: Sauté canned artichokes with garlic, lemon, and black olives. Fold in shredded chicken and toss with fettuccine. For a home- style lo mein, stir-fry chicken with fresh Chinese noodles, bean sprouts, cabbage, and minced garlic and ginger.

Soups & stews: Create a flavorful soup by jazzing up chicken broth with some vegetables, spices, and herbs. Add the leftover shredded chicken towards the end of cooking. For a stew, use heartier ingredients, like sausage, potatoes, bacon, and tomatoes.

Casseroles: Toss diced chicken with a béchamel sauce and asparagus or broccoli, sprinkle with Parmigiano, and bake until golden brown. Or toss sliced chicken with feta, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes, top with a layer of phyllo or puff pastry, and then bake until crisp and golden brown.

Salads: Punch up a creamy chicken salad with sliced apple, toasted walnuts, and cilantro, and add some curry powder to the mayo. Or try substituting chicken for the tuna in a niçoise salad and toss with blanched green beans, black olives, halved cherry tomatoes, and a mustardy vinaigrette.

Sandwiches: Of all the things I make with roast chicken, I turn to sandwiches most often.

  • Grilled cheese with chicken & fresh herbs: Stack chicken, a couple of slices of cheddar and tomato, and fresh herbs on some good multigrain bread and grill until the cheese melts.
  • Chicken Reuben: Layer thinly sliced chicken, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing on rye bread and grill until browned and melted.
  • Sesame chicken with cucumbers & scallions: Toss sliced chicken with soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, and toasted sesame seeds. Pair with sliced cucumber and scallions and wrap with lavash.
  •  Southwestern chicken sandwich with avocado & tomato: Purée a canned chipotle chile with a little balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and Dijon mustard and toss with left­over chicken. Layer with mashed avocado, red onion, tomato, and cilantro on toasted ciabatta.


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