Don’t Throw Out That Chicken Skin (Also: A Meditation on Self-Control vs. Self-Denial)

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At the grocery store, you may have noticed, you can’t buy skinless chicken thighs that have bones. You can buy boneless, skinless chicken thighs or you can buy chicken thighs with the skin and bones still attached. If you want your chicken thighs to have bones and no skin, you’ll have to remove the skin yourself.

Which is precisely what I did, the other day, when I made that unbelievably good chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives. I just yanked that skin right off and there it sat on the cutting board, looking like flabby detritus destined for the garbage can, or Buffalo Bill’s chicken skin cloak. But then I had an idea.

I laid each piece of skin in a non-stick skillet, trying to touch as much of the chicken skin to the pan surface as possible. I drizzled on a drop of olive oil to get things started and then turned up the heat.

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Look how ugly that looks. To me that looks positively disgusting. But what happens next is really remarkable, one of the great transformations that can happen in your kitchen: that flabby patchwork begins to shrink and over time, about 20 minutes (if you monitor the heat), you’ll have a pan full of luscious chicken fat (called “schmaltz,” see Michael Ruhlman’s book!) and the most delightful chicken skin chips you could imagine. Sprinkle them with salt, blot them on paper towels and you have a little snack to eat with a glass of wine when your guests arrive.

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I never say the word “dude” but dude. These were so good. Crispy, salty, chicken-y and weirdly light. Perfectly matched with a glass of chilled white wine or fizzy wine at the start of a meal.

Though, it’s a tough sell. When my guests arrived on this particular night (they shall remain nameless although I already named them in the chicken tagine post) I think they were a little freaked out when I was like, “Here, eat this chicken skin.”

I mean if you’re not a food person and you show up at someone’s house and they say, “I cooked you chicken skin” it might freak you out too. I get that.

It got me thinking about the weird carefree way most food people approach fatty foods. Chicken liver mousse? Pile it on. Foie gras dumplings? Sign me up. At a certain point, we have to exercise a certain amount of self-control or we’ll gain thousands of pounds. But where do you draw the line between self-control and self-denial? When is saying “no” the right thing to do? Or, as an adventurous eater who craves experience, is it always wrong to say “no”?

It’s actually a rather spiritual question. When you think about people who devote their lives to serving God or serving others, they positively thrive on self-denial. Instead of feeding their bodies, they feed their spirits. To them, crispy chicken skin is pure excess, entirely unnecessary and, worse, gluttonous. (They should see the meal we ate at El Bulli.) In a way, focusing on fatty foods is as indulgent as focusing on showy jewelry or fancy cars. It’s putting an emphasis on the material world in a way that the self-deniers find unseemly. (This is dramatized perfectly in the movie Babette’s Feast.)

Where things grow complicated, though, is the way that food brings people together. A plate of crispy chicken skin eaten alone is kind of a gross indulgence; a plate of crispy chicken skin passed around a room is a cause for celebration. To deny yourself the fun of sharing a plate of bacon wrapped dates or a platter of rich, buttery cheeses with good friends is to skip one of life’s greatest delights. To me, it’s as if someone built an entire amusement park just for you and because you’re afraid you’ll have too much fun if you go inside, you stand outside and pout.

So what’s a greater sin: having too much fun at the amusement park or ignoring this extraordinary experience standing there in front of you?

You know where I stand. I say: eat the chicken skin.

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