As part of "The Shape We're In," the Sunday Gazette-Mail's series exploring the chronic but preventable health problems of many West Virginians, we introduce a feature on healthy cooking on a budget. Charleston cooking instructor and chef April Hamilton, a passionate advocate of healthy dining and food preparation, will present cooking techniques and recipes for wholesome dining on a budget. The series is sponsored by South Charleston Pediatrics.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- April Hamilton scoffs at the commonly held notion that eating healthily is too expensive and time consuming for busy, budget-conscious families. It does, though, require forethought and well-planned grocery trips.
When she moved to Charleston from her native Florida, Hamilton appreciated the state's rugged beauty and recreational activities. She wasn't impressed by residents' health and eating habits.
"It instantly shocked me to witness the ill condition of the local diet. The common reliance on fast food was an eye-opener," said Hamilton, who has never eaten a Big Mac, and doesn't feed her three school-age children from the fast-food lane.
Like any other mother of three, Hamilton's after-school hours are filled with trips to and from children's activities, preparation for the adult and children's cooking classes Hamilton offers, and homework help. Although their schedules are hectic, the Hamiltons usually squeeze in a dinner together at home.
"When we get home from work and school, it's chaos. Planning is a key. I make Sunday family time and we all prep together," she said. It's crucial to get children involved in healthy cooking at an early age.
One of Hamilton's go-to meal stretchers is one chicken that yields three meals in about two hours of prep time. The first night, she roasts a whole chicken and serves it with brown rice or skin-on Yukon Gold mashed potatoes or potato wedges and tossed salad.
She pulls the remaining meat off the bones to make Asian chicken lettuce cups. She stretches the 1 1/2 cups of chicken for the filling with the addition of brown rice, onions and carrots to make enough servings for her family.
The carcass goes into a large stockpot along with vegetables, water and spices and simmers to a flavorful chicken stock, to which she adds vegetables, pasta, tomatoes and chickpeas to make soup for the third night's meal. Chickpeas add inexpensive protein to the soup.
Hamilton typically makes about four quarts of stock at practically no cost from one chicken carcass, vegetable peelings and perhaps some past-their-prime celery or other vegetables that she finds in her refrigerator. Four quarts of stock purchased at the grocery store costs about $14.
Hamilton honed her strategy for the three-meal preparation into three simple steps:
A devotee of organic proponent Alice Waters and television chef Jamie Oliver and his push for healthy school lunches, Hamilton advocates for fresh and nutritious school lunches. She's taken her fight from a one-school push to a countywide effort.
She selects organic produce and humanely raised organic meats whenever possible and said those items are not necessarily more expensive. A 12-ounce bag of three organic romaine hearts costs $3, compared to a 6-ounce bag of prepped, usually preservative-laden, salad for $3.49.
"Organic gets a bad rap," she said. "It's about eating affordably, not cheaply."
A five-pound bag of organic carrots costs $4. Hamilton grates or juliennes the carrots and tosses them with a vinaigrette to make one of her family's favorite salads.
Another quick, easy side is fresh spinach sautéed with olive oil, garlic and a little lemon juice.
Hamilton insists on organic chicken, even though it's more expensive. When stretched into three meals, one organic chicken goes a long way. Even at double the price of non-organic, organic eggs are still a protein bargain. "We eat a lot of scrambled eggs."
Her enthusiastic pursuit for healthy eating extends beyond the school system. She refused to serve soft drinks when she ran the concession stand for her daughter's school track season. She recently taught a healthy cooking class at Health Right, the East End Community Resource after-school program and will take her message to the Girl Scouts March 3 and 4. (For information on the Girl Scout classes, visit bdgsc.org.)
Some of her favorite resources for reliable healthy food suggestions are: eatingwell.com, slowfoodusa.org, epicurious.com, jamieoliver.com and prevention.com.
Yield: 4 servings, plus leftovers.
1 whole chicken, 4 to 5 pounds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Olive oil for brushing (optional)
Lemon wedges (optional)
HEAT oven to 425°. Remove the chicken from its packaging, and remove/reserve the packet inside the chicken cavity. Save the packet and its contents to use in stock production.
RINSE chicken inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. Place the chicken, breast side up, in a small roasting pan, large ovenproof skillet or Pyrex baking dish. Brush with olive oil, if desired, and season the chicken with salt and pepper to taste. Squeeze the lemon wedges (2 or 3) inside the cavity and toss the rinds inside.
PLACE roasting pan on the middle rack of the oven. Roast undisturbed for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 375° and continue roasting an additional 50 minutes to 1 hour, until chicken is golden and when slightly tilted, the cavity juices run out clear. (The "safe" temperature of cooked chicken is 180°, though many restaurants remove it from the oven at 165°, anticipating an additional rise in temperature on resting. Check temperature with a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh.)
REMOVE from the oven, then let rest about 5 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter. Carve and serve.
Chicken Lettuce Cups
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
2 teaspoons canola oil
1/2 yellow onion, vertically sliced
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/2 cups diced cooked chicken