Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bigger Chickens, Better Flavor

My friend Chrissie Zaerpoor at Kookoolan Farms sends out a monthly newsletter about her farm and the practices that make it a very different place from most conventional farm operations. She recently announced that her chickens are once again available at New Seasons Markets and every Sunday through October at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market. Most important of all, she provided a recipe that will have you swearing to never go back to industrially raised chickens again.

Here’s a secret about chickens: the big ones have the best texture and flavor.

When we set out as new farmers to raise our own meats, from the beginning our goal was to produce the best food available anywhere, period. We had read about the difference in flavor and nutrition possible with pasture-raised meats and poultry in some of the books by Dr. Andrew Weill, but although he strongly recommended and endorsed the nutritional and health benefits of eating pasture-raised meats, at the time he advocated a mostly vegetarian diet as an alternative for most people, because pasture-raised meats were nearly impossible to find. We couldn’t find pasture-raised meats at the time either, so we decided to do it ourselves. That was six years ago.

We also decided to wait to slaughter our chickens until they reach age of nine weeks, compared to 45 days old for most confinement/industrially raised chickens. And we think that because they're raised outdoors, our birds have a better quality of life and that at some level they must appreciate having longer lives than they would if we kept them indoors.

More mature birds, finished at a larger size and who get more exercise, not surprisingly have better muscle development, better flavor and better texture, resulting in better tasting poultry than we’ve ever had anywhere. It also makes for more efficient weeknight cooking: roast a chicken for a luxe Sunday night dinner. Slice the leftovers for Monday night sandwiches. Dice what’s left for Tuesday curry. And then simmer the carcass for comfort food chicken soup.

Perfect Roast Chicken
Adapted from The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbookby Shannon Hayes

This simple recipe will fill your house with great smells. The pan juices are wonderful served plain or made into a gravy. Pull the leftover chicken for chicken salad or sandwiches, and make stock from the carcass.

1 Tbsp. coarse sea salt
1 Tbsp freshly-ground black pepper
1 Tbsp dried thyme
2 Tbsp dried oregano
1 clove garlic (or one Tbsp minced bottled garlic)
¼ cup olive oil

1 whole chicken

Preheat the oven to 350°. Make the herb paste in a food processor or mortar and pestle by mixing together the salt, pepper, thyme, oregano, garlic and olive oil.

Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Rub the herb paste all over the chicken, being sure to get underneath as well as on top of the skin. Allow to sit for two hours uncovered in the refrigerator, or roast immediately, roughly 90 minutes for a 4-to-5 pound chicken, or closer to 2 hours for a 6-to-7 pound chicken.* Secret farmer tip: bigger chickens really do have better texture and flavor compared to small birds!

Check for doneness any of these three ways: the legs are loose, the juices run clear (not pink) when the skin is pricked at the point where the leg attaches to the body, or when the internal temperature of the thigh reads more than 165° (some people prefer 170°; 165° is the safe minimum). Let the bird rest 10-15 minutes before carving.

* This would also be fantastic roasted over indirect heat in your charcoal grill.

Top photo from Kookoolan Farms, photo of baby chick by Fredrick Joe for The Oregonian.

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