This Man Knows Good Chicken
Television host and food writer Andrew Zimmern makes a passionate case for reigniting your relationship with the world's most humble bird.
Unless you sleep near a rooster, you might not notice that 19 billion chickens populate earth. They are white, brown, red and freckled. They live in farms, towns and jungles. They range freely, or not at all. Turnover is high. For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man (or woman) in possession of a chicken shall not be in want of a meal.
Just ask Andrew Zimmern. Every year, the Minneapolis chef treks to remote places for Bizarre Foods, the Travel Channel show and book series that made him known as that amiable guy who tries things like tarantulas in Cambodia. Despite appearances, though, food isn't a stunt for Andrew. It's a powerful lens for revealing our common humanity. We all laugh. We all cry. We all eat chicken.
But we don't all eat it the same way. Faced with a raw bird, many Americans can barely identify which way is up. We spend more to get less, forgetting that packaged breasts reduce a complex, succulent creature to its blandest, driest part. We toss bones, then buy bone broth in boxes.
The truth, Andrew argues with a zeal most people reserve for church and politics, is that we can do better. Start with a whole chicken and use every part, the way Grandma did and the way most humans still do. You'll be able to afford better-quality meat, and you'll taste the difference.
"I'm probably the most chicken-obsessed person you'll ever talk to," he reflects. Because for Andrew, there's no debating the matter: The chicken came first.
Like most Jewish kids growing up in 1960s New York, Andrew's earliest memories are glossed in schmaltz, the savory chicken fat that flavors matzo ball soup. Today, when he comes home to his wife and son, he makes his grandmother's roast chicken, a dish he returns to like a safe harbor. He stuffs the cavity with herbs, rubs the skin with butter and tucks onions underneath, where they practically melt in the drippings. It's no wonder so many Americans think chicken is boring; we trim off the good stuff. "You need fat to carry flavor," Andrew explains. "It coats your mouth and holds the flavor on your tongue."
He rattles off more formative meals the way most of us remember standout birthday presents. Mom's Polynesian-style chop suey, topped with crunchy lo mein noodles. Trips with Dad to Chinatown for meat-filled lettuce cups or spicy Chongqing-style dry-fried chicken. Summers on Long Island, thick with the smoky perfume of barbecue fundraisers in front of the Amagansett firehouse.
"By the time I started the more serious aspect of my culinary career, chicken was the thing for me, whether it was grilled on the streets in Thailand, a rooster soup in the rural South or something more elegant in France," he says, describing a passion that followed him around the globe and to Minnesota, where he moved at age 30. "The first time I ate at Mario Batali's Babbo, I had seared chicken liver that he smashed on toast with a little salt, pepper and shallot. This was his interpretation of my grandma's chicken liver that I would scrape out of the bowl still warm."
After five decades and a thousand birds prepared hundreds of ways, Andrew recognizes chicken's possibilities and its limitations. "It's one of the most versatile animals," he says. "From a technique, texture and flavor standpoint, chicken may even outweigh the pig. But chicken is subtle, so it poses a challenge." The best recipes don't pummel the meat with seasoning. Instead, they coax the very chicken-ness out of every bite.
And that's where quality comes in. Beyond the ethical arguments for giving chickens room to run, Andrew makes a culinary one. "A commodity chicken has as much in common with a real chicken as my sitting in your bedroom makes me your house slippers," he declares. "It's loaded with chemicals. The skin is wet and slimy. This is just a horrible place to begin with a food. I can boil three commodity chickens for stock and not get the flavor I get out of one free-ranging, healthy bird."
He advocates shopping at farmers markets or reading up to understand package labels like free-range, air-chilled, pasture-raised and organic. What's stopping most of us, of course, is price. Andrew's tip: Buy whole chickens. It's more economical, and when it comes to kitchen cred, you won't believe the rush you get from learning to break down a bird.
"My whole philosophy working with people on understanding food is to develop culinary literacy," he says. "To be a literate human being, you need to have had education to read, write and think critically. You should read the 100 greatest novels. You should read the newspapers. You should read the Bible. You should read Shakespeare. Knowing how to break a chicken down is necessary for anyone who wants to say they cook or enjoy food. It's the easiest animal to cut. Boning a lamb leg is complex. Butchering a chicken is not."
He waxes about dark meat. The lost art of poaching. The collagen that gives body to homemade stock. The diversity of frying across cultures and borders. The indulgent pleasure of a taco made with crispy skin. And then he stops himself for a concession: "But all of that is nuance. I would be happy if people just ate more natural chicken and did more things with it." A simple plea on behalf of a humble bird-and a delicious one, at that.
Roast Chicken with Pan Gravy What a rotisserie chicken offers in convenience, home-roasting makes up for in soul-not to mention dramatically better flavor, texture and aroma. "This is what made me fall in love with chicken," Andrews says of his grandmother's recipe. Get the recipe
Chairman Mao's Red Chicken Andrew's boyhood fascination with Chinese cuisine manifests itself in this hands-off braise that his 12-year-old, Noah, often requests for dinner. Whole spices perfume the meat (and your kitchen), but they don't dominate: The dish tastes emphatically, gloriously of chicken. For anyone raised on takeout, it's a revelation. Get the recipe
Chicken Carnitas Tacos The world doesn't need another fried chicken recipe, Andrew insists …unless it's this one, an unapologetically naughty take on chicken tacos that embraces every lard-crisped part of the bird. If you've never deep-fried, make this your maiden voyage. Top the tacos with Andrew's easy, spicy pickled red onions and a squeeze of lime, or try his tomatillo or grilled pineapple salsas. P.S.: Leftovers make epic nachos. Get the recipe
Matzo Ball Soup Rich homemade stock is the backbone of a good matzo ball soup, a staple of delis and Passover tables that's sometimes called Jewish penicillin. When you make the stock, plan to chill it and skim the solidified fat to flavor the tender dumplings. Get the recipe
AZ's Ultimate Chicken Stock Bones are the foundation of a full-bodied stock. So grab your freezer bags and get in the habit of saving the central cage left after carving a chicken or the scraps that remain after butchering a raw bird, such as the neck, back and wings. (Andrew likes a mix of raw and roasted bones, but stock is forgiving. Use what you have.) Once you've collected a good stash, pull out a stock pot and prepare to make your home smell really good. Get the recipe
Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa Avocado gives some creamy body to Andrew's version of fresh salsa verde. Though tasty with chips, it's especially good on tacos for cutting the richness of fattier meats like pork carnitas. Get the recipe
Grilled Pineapple Salsa Mint adds an unexpected herb flavor to Andrew's sweet and smoky salsa. It's ideal for summer, as a condiment to accompany grilled chicken, pork or fish. Get the recipe