Overnight chicken in a pot has become the savior of our weeknight cooking
It's been a couple years now since at-home sous-vide has come into vogue. And for good reason: Who doesn't want perfectly cooked food that you needn't watch over every moment? You too can now emulate your favorite restaurant chef.
But as soon as the news of those "affordable" circulators and, more recently, sous-vide sticks hit the market -- Control with an app! You needn't even be home to get dinner on! -- the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up. Why? Because home cooks are not restaurant chefs, and were never meant to be. We have neither investors nor line cooks, dishwashers nor endless counter space. The batterie of the home cook is smaller and more flexible, and it's put into use with economy and know-how.
Still, I'm not immune to the siren song of new culinary toys, especially ones that promise low-maintenance paths to dinner. As busy parents of toddler twins, my chef husband and I have struggled to cook since our kids were born. Despite plenty of kitchen skills between us, we work opposite schedules: he mostly nights, me mostly days. We're often ships passing in the night. Trying to still a wriggling kid who's trying to reach into a pot of boiling water (while we settle for pasta, yet again) hardly fulfills my vision of work/life balance.
Last year, in the doldrums (and sticker shock) over our expanding takeout habit, I found myself begrudgingly researching sous-vide equipment, sniffing for the silver bullet solution to our woes: We still want to cook and eat well, not just quickly. I considered asking for a sous-vide stick as a gift, then immediately started backpedaling. Our kitchen drawers were already cluttered, I have a gut aversion to cooking in (and throwing away) all that plastic, and finally, money. What else could we do with those extra bucks (at home sous-vide sticks start around $45 and "water ovens" can cost upwards of $1,000): extra hours from the baby sitter, a massage, maybe even part of a vacation? I tucked the sous-vide idea away and decided to muddle through.
It was my husband, often still awake when I'm already sacked out, who struck on an idea one night. He came home from work, wiped. We had a chicken in the fridge that I'd been promising to roast, but hadn't gotten around to. The fridge was mostly empty, and we had no dinners planned for the week. With no energy to sit up while the bird roasted, he cranked the oven high, seasoned the chicken aggressively, put it in a heavy lidded pot, and stuck it in the oven for a half-hour to start it browning. When the kitchen began to fill with the scent of rendering fat, he added water to come up the bird a little more than halfway, clapped the pot's top on, turned the oven down to 200 degrees, and went to bed.
The next morning, we took off the lid the thing: The chicken was straw gold on top, with an almost creamily luscious broth surrounding it in. The meat pulled off the bone at the barest pull from a fork. We used the liquid as the base for soup, shredding half the meat to add in and saving the rest to serve cold on salads later in the week.
We tried again the next week, dropping a couple star anise, a cinnamon stick and some coriander seed into the pot with the water, then added a tangle of rice noodles when we reheated the broth, along with an oddball selection of chopped vegetables and some almost-forgotten cilantro from the crisper drawer. Delighted at having dodged the takeout bill, we dubbed it "faux pho."
My pleasure in this new turn in our kitchen took on the air of gospel, as I told similarly time-strapped friends about the overnight chicken. Chris described it as slow poached. I, the curmudgeon Luddite, called it analog sous-vide: pragmatic, foolproof and totally devoid of wires or apps. And we'd kept the gadgetry wolves at bay.
Quickly, the overnight chicken became the foundation of our workweek cooking. We've found it endlessly versatile, shredding the meat for tacos, tossing cubed chicken into pasta, serving it cold over salads, and tucking it into our kids' lunchboxes. When we don't need the broth right away, we freeze it, building an arsenal for future soups, stews and braises. Leftover meat goes into cold noodle salads for lunch or sits atop mounds of rice with a fried egg for a speedy working-at-home lunch for me. It's a terrific get-ahead trick for all sorts of chicken soups, broth and meat in one.