Friday, March 4, 2011

The Whole Chicken

My grandmother enjoyed food. She lived to be almost 96 and ate with great vigour her entire life. She was a simple cook and made the same dinner every single time we ate at her house.- meatballs, boiled potatoes and peas. Every single time. The Dutch have been better known for their cleaning skills than their culinary skills. As a child, I recall being slightly afraid of sitting beside her at meal times. She would consume entire apple cores and gnaw the meat off of bones in a manner that could have been set to music.

I also came from a generation of abundance. Our eating culture in the west reminds me of the grizzly bear’s fishing habits during the salmon run. At the beginning of the season these bears voraciously consume the entire salmon and as many as they can catch. Towards the end as the number of salmon far outweigh the amount of available stomach space, you see them sleepily grabbing fish out of the water and biting off only the head, chucking the rest of the fish back into the stream.

Many decades ago it was considered decadent to eat white bread. Who needs to bother with the gritty bran and strong-flavoured germ when you can literally nip off the head of the grain and eat the more palatable parts (preferably with the crusts cut off). Further, there is no need to be concerned with cheese that might go to waste when a jar of processed cheese business will keep in the fridge for more than a year. This was considered progress to have food so easy to prepare and store and eat (and eat and eat and eat). As a kid in the 1970s, I used to love Cheez Whiz sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off, if only because we never got them at home. My mother was a whole foods cook of her era that didn’t get onto the processed food bandwagon.

On the heels of my vegetarianism (likely caused by the graphic way my grandmother ate), I made my initial foray back into chicken by doing what most thirty something bachelorettes did. I bought two neatly displayed chicken breasts, packaged without any clues as to where the clean, white meat had come from. My kind of meat. It could have been grown on a plastic scaffold a la Margaret Atwood for all I cared.

I stayed this way until last year. Seven years into living on a farm surrounded by meats of my own raising, dairy and vegetables of all kinds, I still had not overcome my fear of the whole chicken. I had never once taken apart a carcass of any bird in my life. I just couldn’t. My grandmother’s sound affects still rang in my ears.

Yet the summer she died, I made a commitment to grow some pastured meat birds. I built a mobile pen, bought some day old chicks, set myself up with the heat lamp, the watering equipment and everything else I needed to get some whole birds into my freezer. Raising the little gaffers and participating in the day of their slaughter was not half as daunting for me as carving and eating it.

If you’re like me and are unfamiliar with the parts and pieces that make up an entire chicken, here are a few tips for making the bird go a long way. Our family of 4 (2 plus 2 halves really) eats one chicken a month. We manage to eat chicken often but it takes us the month to get through the 5-6 pound bird. If you’re a real farmer’s wife type (city-dwelling kind or no), then you need not read on. You’re the one who has been laughing at me for being such a phony Farm Mama, aren’t you?

First, I thaw the bird in the fridge for a couple of days. Around two hours shy of when I want to eat I put the bird breast side up in the oven at 375F for an hour. Then I flip it over and cook it until my thermometer inserted deep into the chicken breast reads 160F (often only an additional 30-45 minutes - go to 170F if you want to be sure but it will be more dry). For dinner that night, I carve off some breast meat and we eat just plain meat with some sides. I then stick the whole pot in the fridge as I get lazy in the evenings with the plan to take off the meat and make soup stock the next day.

It takes about 15 minutes to tear the meat off the legs and wings (unless you have someone in your household who, like my grandmother, who prefers meat off of bones), clear the meat from the back, sides and breast. I put all of the meat in a container and stick it in the fridge until inspiration strikes again. Then I take the carcass, wing and leg bones and boil them for a number of hours in the roasting pan with water. Once the stock has boiled, I use a flat ladle with small holes to sift through the bits and pull out bones, skin and inedible parts. I keep the dog’s bowl handy at my feet during this process (for skin and cartilage but not bones). If you can let it cool down enough, wading through with your fingertips is the best way to break up the final bits and find sneaky little bones and cartilage. If I already have a slew of chicken soup in the freezer, I ladle the stock into jars and freeze it for other soups, to add to shepherd’s pie or make gravy. I plan to make a round of chicken enchiladas with the extra shredded chicken that will overwhelm my stock jars.

The rest of my ‘cleaned’ chicken pieces will be distributed evenly into three medium sized Ziploc bags and I'll throw it in the freezer. One bag will get chopped onto nachos with cheese, peppers, onions and olives, sour cream and guacamole on the side. Another bag will go into a chicken pot pie or Chicken a la King or stew or a stir fry (usually two dinners out of that one). And the last bag likely gets tossed together with some mayonnaise, onions, celery, peppers, cucumber and mustard to put inside a tortilla wrap with some cheese (2-3 lunches for 2 out of this bag). This works well in a pinch when an unexpected guest arrives for lunch.

I determined the cost of raising an approximately 6 pound bird on partial grain and partial forage (grass, bugs etc.) to be around $10 each (it will probably be cheaper this year as there won’t be the same set up costs). That’s a whole lot of chicken for $10. Then there is the additional gain of the unbeatable taste and nutritional benefits from this bug-eating beast and its browner, fattier pieces.

Here is some more on this from the Radical Homemaker guru herself, Shannon Hayes. Included here is great information about the definition, value and use of ‘grass-fed’ chicken.

My grandma would have surely partook and she would be so proud.

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