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Cook economically in lean times

When the wolf is at the door, learn to cook it. This sage advice comes, of course, from famed author M.F.K. Fisher in her book, "How To Cook a Wolf," written in 1942, a time when life was hard around the world. If you haven't read it, now is an ideal time to check it out of your local library.

Of course, neither Fisher nor I suggest that you should actually cook a wolf. I am an enthusiast supporter of all efforts to protect wolves. But like it or not, a wolf at the door is an analogy we all understand. Fisher was writing during World War II. And here we are again, in somewhat shaky circumstances, with the cost of gas, food and rent soaring and paychecks shrinking, if you're lucky enough to have a job.

At the same time, there's a waiting list at such destinations as Yountville's French Laundry, where a meal for two begins at $500, and Chicago's Alinea, where dinner for two can head towards a grand. I find the disparity between these two extremes distressing.

It's all got me thinking about thrift, about the things I do naturally all the time that make good economic sense and about what else I can do during these lean times.

It is, now more than ever, important to shop smart, something I've always considered but have not always practiced. Over the next several weeks, I'll visit the topic frequently in this column.

Let's start with chicken, which I consider an essential ingredient. I don't think it is a good idea always to look for the cheapest chicken. Chicken from large national producers tastes poorly and is usually pumped full of water, which you pay for. These chickens live miserable lives and are fed an unnatural diet. Over time, you don't really save money, as this chicken is not healthy for humans or the planet.

Look for chicken raised close to home. It doesn't have to be a pampered bird from a small local farm. There are plenty of other options, including Fulton Valley Farms and Petaluma Poultry, which produces Rocky and Rosie chickens. These chickens are on sale frequently at local markets.

When you buy chicken, never ever go for boneless and skinless. Any meat is best cooked on the bone and you can save the bones to make stock. I keep a bag in my freezer and add bones until I need to make stock. As far as the skin goes, why pay someone to remove it when it is so easy to do yourself? But perhaps more importantly, the skin provides flavor, lubrication and protection while the chicken is cooking. You don't need to eat it if you don't want to — personally, I love it — you should remove it after cooking, not before.

Even bone-in parts are more expensive and less useful than whole chicken. Roast whole chickens, use leftover meat for curries and others stews and salads and use the carcass for stock. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be eating deliciously and economically.

For Seasonal Pantry's recipes for roasted chicken, visit the column's companion blog, Eat This Now, at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.


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