Sunday, July 10, 2011

The First Pastured Chicken Comes Home to Roast

I’m not sure I have ever had quite this much information about something I am about to eat. It’s a new experience and I’m taking it day by day.

We get the word one evening via email, from Tricia, the assistant grower at Restoration Farm who is heading up the Hardscrabble Chicken Project. The chickens are ready! She writes:

“I am happy to report that we have not suffered any losses thus far and the chickens are healthy and plump! By the time they are processed they will have been moved daily on pasture for over a month and the pen will be ready for the second batch of birds currently occupying the brooder. So ready your recipes (and don't forget to make use of the herb garden and vegetables)! Thank you again for your support and I look forward to seeing you soon!”

Tricia has followed the principles for raising poultry used by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm. The chickens are moved each day and dine on the fresh “salad bar” available in the pastures.

I happen to be at the farm shortly before the harvest. Usually, I approach the pen to say hello to “the girls.” From what I can see, they are looking very full-figured from their diet of foraged greens. But, this time I keep my distance. Is it guilt? Does this avoidance officially make me “chicken?” Probably. But, I’ve already decided I will leave the toughest part of the farm-to-table process to the professionals. My job is to cook and eat. (Another CSA member did make a visit to the farm on harvest day, which you can read about here.)

All of the birds are more than four pounds, and at least one tops the scales at six pounds. I’m several days behind schedule, so the remaining birds have been placed in the freezer. I’m a little disappointed that I can’t experience a fresh bird, but it’s still going to be a lot fresher than most. Here’s the scene when I visit Restoration Farm to pick up my share:

I am conflicted on how to best prepare this first taste of farm-raised chicken. At one point, I’ve got piles of cookbooks open as I pour over recipes and preparation techniques.

I become slightly alarmed when I read a passage from Julia Child advising against broiler chickens for certain recipes because they are too young. This makes them unsuitable for long cooking times because the flesh is too tender. I’ve had enough culinary failures lately. It’s been so bad I’m lucky nobody’s told me to pack up my knives and go home. I can’t afford to mess this one up. I consult some top culinary experts. They are unanimous in their opinion - roast that clucker until the skin is super-crispy.

I conclude that the best choice for the inaugural recipe is a tried-and-true basic roast bird, which will allow me to fully assess the flavor. High heat should give me crispy skin and moist, tender meat. I can play with other preparation methods throughout the summer.

The feast is scheduled for a leisurely Sunday afternoon, giving ample time for roasting and relishing of all those succulent “chickeny” aromas. With bird in hand, I stop in the herb garden at Restoration Farm to pluck handfuls of fresh thyme, lemon thyme, oregano and sage that I will use to stuff the cavity and perfume the roasting process.

My broiler chicken is #32, weighing in at 4.84 pounds.

I always get into a bit of a tangle when trussing. But I manage to stuff the cavity with a bouquet of herbs, a head of garlic and several slices of lemon, and even get those legs crossed nicely.

I’ve invited my friend Hal2011, a true epicurean, to join the feast. I tuck the bird into a hot oven and we head out to the deck for cocktails.

I’m using a recipe – or perhaps it’s the philosophy – of Alice Waters, who recommends generously seasoning the chicken with salt and pepper and then roasting 20 minutes breast side up, 20 minutes breast side down, and 20 minutes breast side up again. I add an additional five minutes to each rotation given the size of the bird.

After 25 minutes, I return to the kitchen to flip the bird. Not much action yet. By the second flip, the house is thick with the aroma of roasted chicken, and I hear a lively crackling in the oven. A shiny tint of copper is creeping across the breast. Another 25 minutes and it is time for the final check. The bird is piping hot, bronze and glossy. It is simply gorgeous.

There’s not an excess of juices or a lot of fat. It’s a big, lean bird (I stay lean when I eat salad, too). I use a little white wine to deglaze the pan juices, add some roasted potatoes and asparagus and we are set. I carve up the bird and plate the breasts. We could probably serve four with those breasts, but Hal2011 and I have worked up an appetite lifting cocktails on the deck.

And, what a feast it is – pristine white flesh, tender and buttery, with crackling good skin. It’s a young chicken. The taste is clean and subtle. It doesn’t hit you like a hurricane, but it is supremely satisfying and very, very tasty.

That is the story of my very first hometown chicken - locally grown, tended with care at Restoration Farm and ardently devoured. Simply divine from the farm to my table.

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Maris(In Good Taste) said...

Very interesting story but the reference to the chickens as 'girls' was a bit of a turn off! Beautiful finished product!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Get addicted to something that fresh, and next thing you know you'll be raising chickens in your own back yard!

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

Wow, I'm impressed with how your chicken turned out so beautifully brown. Sometimes I follow that method of turning and sometimes when I'm lazy, I don't, but shhh, don't tell on me.

I'm also very impressed with the diet of the chickens. Sadly even some people don't eat as well.

Barbara said...

Well congratulations on your first Restoration Farm chicken! It looks like a beauty too. I can just imagine the fragrance while cooking. I don't make a whole chicken very often (loved you went to the Food Network for some advice) but Alice Waters is surely the Queen of roasted chickens.
Ina Garten roasts a damn good chicken too. Recently, she made some croutons and served her chicken sliced over those. Thought that was a great idea. They sopped up all the juices.

Julia said...

Awesome! I recall my first experience with pastured chicken -- trying to separate the legs and the breasts. I was so used to the flabby "commercial" chickens with joints that cut like butter. But these chickens had real muscles and joints from being free range. Everything was tougher, but so much more tasty.

Kalyn Denny said...

Your roast chicken looks superb. Do I dare confess that I haven't roasted a chicken for several years, ever since I got hooked on the rotisserie chicken from Costco. I'm sure there is no comparison in taste though.

Deana Sidney said...

I am so jealous... that chicken looks perfect. I am going to a 400 year old farm tomorrow and hope to see some pigs and cows... no chickens though!! Here's to many more great chickens from your farm!

~~louise~~ said...

Love the title, T.W!

I just knew this was going to be one tasty post and so it is. My Amish friend Katie and I had a long discussion about cooking "farmer's chicken" (that's what she calls them) and she insists they must be brined before being cooked. I disagree. I think your adopted method was just perfect. Glistening crispy skin is simply the best...

I know this must have been quite an experience for you and I congratulate you on your adventurous spirit. Kudos to YOU!!! Any leftovers???

Thanks for sharing, T.W. and thank you for your thoughtful words:)

Gloria Baker said...

Look deliicous and perfect!! gloria

Christine (Cook the Story) said...

That chicken looks incredible. I am totally jealous. So, did it taste any different from basic grocery store chicken? Do you think you could identify a CSA farm-raised bird in a blind tasting? My parents get lovely chickens from a farm near them and sometimes they are the best I've ever had and other times they are very lean and very dry. But it always feels great to feast either way.

tasteofbeirut said...

What a feast! I applaud the whole head of garlic inside that bird; did any of you eat it?
I would love to try a chicken raised on a salad diet and able to roam around. Little, I would watch my grandmother pluck the chicken over the sink; to this day, if you buy a chicken in Lebanon, you can buy it fresh and have the pleasure of murdering it at your convenience. Even in supermarkets, the chicken comes plucked, but with its head intact. I prefer the one you got, in a frozen, innocuous state.

Mary Bergfeld said...

Your gorgeous photos set my stomach growling. That's as close to a perfectly cooked chicken as I've seen in along, long time. Kudos. Restoration farm sounds like a fascinating place. I wish we had something like it in our neck of the woods. It sounds like organic one-stop shopping. Have a great day, T.W. Blessings...Mary

veron said...

what a gorgeous bird! Love the color and all that. There some roast chicken recipes on my blog. The easiest one is Keller's roast chicken and I have trussing instructions on there too.