Tony writes: “Peasant cuisine” connotes resourceful, old-fashioned cooking. Take a Tuscan classic like ribollita: simmer aging vegetables, stale bread, and dried beans and you get a smart stew that’s fed centuries of Italians. But that was then; what should affordable cooking look like now? For all the hand-wringing about our diets, what can you really make on a limited budget that doesn’t involve powdered cheese? Things were quiet on the question front, so I decided to take the first in a series of $10 self-challenges: a complete meal for four, 10 bucks all in; no cheating, no esoteric pantry foodstuffs, no repurposing of Hamburger Helper. Just a good, simple meal that happens to be affordable.
At the market: I went to the market thinking some sort of Cuban-style chicken and rice. I knew it could be done bare-bones; the trick would be to stay on budget while filling out this one-pot with vegetables and nutrients and balance. I opted for a whole chicken for its mix of white and dark meat and also for its bones (which would yield a quick broth). A Perdue checked in at $5.07 which would keep me on budget; but the Bell & Evans was only $3 more and, I imagined, a far happier bird. After enduring some moderate inner turmoil, I took the pricey route, reasoning that it was ok to go $1 or 2 over budget provided karma was on my side. I played it straight with everything else. A red bell pepper ($1 even) and a yellow onion ($.69) would serve as the aromatic base. For the rice itself, I went with medium grain, sturdier than long grain and traditional to this preparation (a 2-lb bag was $2.19; I would only need about 1/4 of that). A can of garbanzos ($.89) offered one layer of nutrition; fresh green beans ($.64 for 5 oz) would see those vitamins and raise them some green color (lacking in the dish). A lime ($.40), as garnish, was the final purchase. I rang out at $13.81. Amortize the surplus rice and account for the B&E splurge and I, more or less, was on budget.
Method overview: This process is pretty simple. Make your own broth: it’s not just a budget thing. It tastes better and demands little work beyond simmering the bird’s backbone and wing tips with some onion. Meanwhile, start in on the rice: brown the chicken parts to create a deep flavor base. Set the chicken aside and saute the onion and red pepper with some ground turmeric and cumin (the only additions from the pantry). Add the just-finished chicken broth and the rice (2 parts liquid to 1 part rice) and once the grains start to absorb most of the liquid, tuck the browned chicken into the mixture, cover, and cook until the rice becomes tender and the chicken cooks through, about 20 minutes. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing.
1. Cut up the chicken: Rinse a whole chicken (about 3 1/2 lb. to 4 lb.) under cold running water. Pat dry well with paper towel. Cut the chicken into 10 pieces (here’s a really great step-by-step guide for this from Fine Cooking); pat dry again. Reserve the backbone and wing tips.
2. Make a quick broth: Add 5 cups cold water to a medium saucepan along with the chicken backbone and wing tips, the skin from the onion, and any other broth-worthy scraps you might have kicking around (herb stems, carrots, celery, fennel are fair game). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes so the chicken cooks and the broth intensifies (give it a taste). Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve. You will need 4 cups for this recipe; add water to the strained liquid as needed to reach that amount.
3. Brown the chicken: Set a large heavy-based pot (like a Dutch oven) over medium-high heat. Season the chicken generously with kosher salt and pepper (about 2 tsp. and 1tsp.). Add 1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil to the pot and once it’s shimmering hot, add half of the chicken evenly spaced. Cook without touching until the chicken browns around the edges and easily releases when you lift up an edge, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until it, too, browns, 2 minutes. Transfer to a large plate, cook the remaining chicken in the same manner, and transfer to the plate as well.
4. Make the rice: Reduce the heat to medium. If the pot is dry, add a splash of olive oil. Add 1 Spanish onion (finely diced) and 1 red bell pepper (cored and finely diced), sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften and brown lightly, about 5 minutes. Add 1 Tbs. tomato paste, 1 Tbs. ground turmeric, and 2 tsp. ground cumin and cook, stirring, until the spices become fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 4 cups of the homemade chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add 2 cups medium-grain rice, a 15-oz can garbanzos (rinsed and drained), 6 oz. green beans (stemmed and cut in 1-inch pieces), and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt, and, cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice starts to absorb most of the liquid, 3 to 4 minutes. Nestle the chicken into the rice, cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, without touching, for 20 minutes so the rice becomes tender and the chicken cooks through.
5. Serve the chicken and rice with 1 lime (cut into wedges).