Taming raw ingredients: Roasted tomatoes and a (pastured) chicken in every pot

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A tomato ripe for roasting. Photo by the author.

(Cross-posted from my Examiner.com page on D.C. farmers markets)

Cucumbers by the quart. Fifteen-pound watermelons. Hunks of farmstead cheese. Entire organic chickens. Smiling at you from a farmer’s table, they look delicious. Plunked down on the kitchen counter, they get a little more complicated. Turning them into good-for-you meals is the next step, and that task sounds mighty intimidating.

It’s a familiar feeling, though. Life is full of major chunks you have to deal with, and trying to take shortcuts isn’t the best solution. Taking the time to break down a major challenge like moving to a new city or asking for a promotion can be invigorating and ultimately lead to better circumstances. So it is with food.

“If you live a really fast-paced life, which most of us do, you’re usually grabbing and going,” says Monica Corrado of Simply Being Well, a Takoma Park-based holistic nutrition counselor who teaches holistic cooking classes in the D.C. metro area. “With a little preparation, you can grab and go with nutrient-dense meals.”

With that advice on the table, the question remains: When even using pre-shredded cheddar and boil-in-a-bag spinach seems like a major culinary undertaking, how can you make whole ingredients work? Hint: Much like making that move to new digs, organizing your inventory ahead of time really helps.

This series (part I here) focuses on the question of how to prep your produce, using tips from experienced sources. Part I dealt with sourcing good food, and then slicing and dicing it to into the beginnings of quick meals. This one will explain the art of roasting tomatoes and making a pastured chicken into a healthy “fast food.”

Tip #1: Roast your tomatoes. Canned tomato companies use the best raw ingredients—that is, tomatoes bought in season when they are inexpensive and abundant—and then sell them year-round. I recommend taking their lead with an easy method for preserving farm-fresh tomatoes.

The mid-Atlantic region still has a few tomato-producing weeks ahead, so now is as good a time as any to get roasting. Look for discounts on large quantities of tomatoes at your nearest farmers market and purchase a gallon or two. If you don’t see a special offer, ask the vendor. He or she may work out a deal with you.

With tomatoes in hand, here’s what to do:

Cut tomatoes into uniform halves or quarters, keeping in mind that smaller pieces will roast faster. Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper (or just olive oil) and spread evenly on baking sheets. Bake at 350 F for 2 ½-3 hours or until most of the moisture is gone. Pack into freezer bags and freeze in a single, flat layer so they won’t fuse together. When the tomatoes are frozen, you can stack them in the bags. Use these tasty chunks of summer in pesto, pasta sauce, tapenade, soup, or any number of other dishes.

Note: Roasting tomatoes concentrates their tart, sweet, salty flavor and often adds a smoky nuance as well. This opens up a lot of possibilities for adventurous cooks, but may limit the possibilities a bit for picky eaters, like kids who prefer straightforward marinara.

Tip #2: Make your own “fast food” chicken. This is fast, but it’s far from KFC. This is a recipe Monica Corrado teaches in her classes. It actually keeps you away from the oven, cooking a whole chicken all the way through without a long, hot roasting process.

According to Corrado, this method yields the most succulent, juicy, and tender chicken you will ever taste.

Like the tomatoes, the resulting product lends itself to a number of uses. It saves money, too, when compared to buying prepared chicken salad or only breast meat. (More on the myriad uses of the cooked meat a little later).

Corrado recommends starting with a three-or four-pound bird. Most pastured and free-range chickens found at farmers markets are this size, and she prefers them to larger birds from supermarkets. The latter are inferior nutritionally, Corrado says, as they are not raised on pasture and do not eat the diet they are meant to (i.e. bugs), and may be fed hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified feed.

Once you have your nice bird, here’s what to do:

In a large, stainless steel stockpot, bring four quarts of filtered water to a boil (use a little more for a larger chicken). Add the bird, bring back to a rolling boil, and boil, covered, for 5-6 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the bird sit in the hot water, taking care not to lift the lid, for one hour.

Using two carving forks or large serving forks, remove from pot and place on a cutting board. Be careful—the water and chicken will both be hot! Make a cut at the thigh joint of the chicken and check for doneness. If you see any blood, return to pot and boil for a few more minutes. Let cool on the cutting board until comfortable to handle (10 to 20 minutes), and then slice or pull as desired. To pull chicken, use a fork to shred the meat off the bone.

Made at the beginning of the week, Corrado says, a farmers market-sized bird can keep a couple or small family in chicken dishes for the next seven days.

Serving ideas:

• Chicken salad: Chop chicken, then add mayonnaise and chopped vegetables.

• Barbecued chicken: Shred with a fork and add your favorite sauce.

• Other ideas: Slice and use on Caesar salads or give to kids as a finger food with a homemade dipping sauce. (Corrado says this makes a great first solid food when it is pureed with chicken stock because it is packed with protein).

Hopefully these ideas will make cooking with whole ingredients seem more manageable. Have more possibilities for roasted tomatoes or poached chicken? Got a question about preparing fresh foods? Leave a comment!

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