Real Free Range Chicken: Pastured Poultry Tuesday, May 1 2012 

Last week was crazy-busy. I had family in town as well as juggling recipe development for a client, a presentation for another, a fundraiser cooking class, and a column due to Fine Cooking Magazine. I also wrote a piece about my concerns over Wicked Tuna, a TV show about bluefin tuna fishing on NatGeo for CNN.com, and other work to do in preparation for several other upcoming projects. Then, on Friday afternoon, we drove down to Bluffton, GA and spent the weekend at White Oak Pastures with the Harris family.

One of my future and really exciting projects is writing the story of this amazing family and farm. We were there to work on the proposal. It’s not a cookbook, but rather a food narrative, new for me and a writing challenge I’ve embraced whole-heartedly! My blog deadline came and went last week in all the hub-bub, so I decided it made the most sense to write about and share my weekend at White Oak Pastures.

Will Harris III is a fourth-generation cattleman and the 5th generation, his daughter Jenni, is now working with him, as well. Will’s ancestor founded White Oak Pastures in the late 1800s, after returning home from the Civil War. Will is a cowboy straight out of central casting. He’s tall and rugged with a rich, deep voice—and a legendary drawl that makes the ladies swoon. He is a Deep South cattleman from the top of his Stetson hat to the tip of his well-worn leather boots. We rode all over his 1000 plus acres in his open air Jeep, checking on the cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, the guard dog puppies, the rabbits, and his daily expanding farm buildings.

What’s different about Will and White Oak Pasture products is that the meat is environmentally sustainable, ethically produced, and humanely slaughtered. Will says, “Cows were born to roam and graze. Chickens were born to scratch and peck. These are natural instinctive animal behaviors. Commodity livestock production removes costs from meat production systems by raising animals in mono-cultural confinement systems that do not allow these instinctive behaviors.”

He explained that grain-finished cattle spend most of their lives eating grass in pastures, and then move on to a feedlot where they eat an inexpensive, high-calorie diet for three to six months. Dispensing antibiotics to healthy animals has become routine in these confinement systems that now dominate American agriculture. (Very disturbingly, just this morning I read a piece about mad cow disease and how commodity beef is essentially, still feeding cows to cows.)

Will’s grass fed beef is grass fed. Period. And, now, lucky for us, White Oak Pastures is raising chickens and applying the same principles of humane animal husbandry and land stewardship to poultry.

You say, “Oh, I already buy organic free range chicken. I don’t buy chickens with antibiotics or hormones.

That doesn’t mean as much as you think it might….

The truth is, all chicken is hormone free. USDA regulations prohibit poultry growers from giving hormones or steroids to their birds. So, this label, while truthful, is also misleading. It would be similar to putting a “cholesterol-free” label on an apple.That sounds great until you realize that all apples are inherently cholesterol free.

What about antibiotics? The use of antibiotics is necessary to control illness in massive chicken houses. Too many animals in an enclosed environment can become sick. Trouble is, some poultry that is labeled antibiotic free only means the chickens themselves haven’t been given antibiotics. It doesn’t mean the chicken feed doesn’t contain antibiotics, or that they were administered to eggs before the chicks hatched.

Sneaky business.

Ok, so what about free range? To a large extent “free range” is simply a marketing term. Producers of free-range chickens must simply be able to demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. This does not necessarily mean the chickens are pecking away in a pasture. They may simply have a very small doggie door in one of these large houses. It’s what’s called “greenwashing” which in my opinion, is a kind way to say that it’s all a big lie.

There’s no greenwashing at White Oak Pastures.

There are about 500 chickens per trailer out in the field, not 25,000 in a massive house. They are fed and watered every day. They are free to roam about the pasture, pecking and eating, but they mostly stay close to their particular house. They are guarded from toothsome predators by majestic Great Pyrenees sheep dogs. Yes, occasionally, Will says a raptor such as a hawk will kill one, but for the most part, Will explains the arrangement is very successful.

It’s real free range chicken that is actually called “pastured poultry.” Increasingly, people want this option in their grocery stores and farmer’s markets.

I’ve been to a commodity chicken house as well as a processing plant. I’ve seen the kill floor. It was one of the most vivid things I have ever witnessed. Frankly, it was gruesome. Chickens in commodity plants can be processed at 140 birds a minute. Read that again. 140 birds a minute. In plants that process 140 birds a minute, one inspector checks about 14,700 chickens daily. Frankly, I question the food safety much less the impact on the animals and workers.

I witnessed the kill floor this past weekend, too. It’s humane, not horrible. The animals aren’t panicked, bruised, and broken when they are slaughtered. The White Oak Pasture abattoir was designed by one of the world’s foremost authorities on animal livestock behavior and humane slaughter, Temple Grandin.

These birds taste different. Will says his animals are athletes. They aren’t sick birds crammed in a cage. They hunt and peck. They have muscle. They have flavor. White Oak Pastures chickens are little dinosaurs. This doesn’t come without cost. Will explains that while his beef is about 25% more expensive, the nature of the chicken production creates a situation in that the chicken is at least 100% more expensive.

Will says, “Our way is not the cheapest way to produce meat, but’s the right thing to do.”

Lucky you, once again! I arrived at White Oak Pastures to discover that Whole Foods Market will have White Oak Pastures Chicken on sale this upcoming Friday, May 4. Click here to find a store near you. (Or, you can order directly online for all their humanely raised meats.)

Lastly, I want to encourage you to do what you can when you can. So, you may not be able to eat pastured poultry or humanely raised meat or grass fed beef all the time. Think “kaizen”. Do what you can when you can – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Daily improvements are as simple as one small movement forward at a time.

Check out my recipe below for roast chicken — and tips on making multiple meals out of your premium-priced, pastured poultry. Good honest food that’s good for you, good for the land, and good for your pocketbook. Go get yourself one and taste the difference. You’ll be glad you did.

Bon Appétit, Y’all’
VA

Easy Whole Roast Chicken
Serves 4

There’s no doubt that $12 -$15 for a chicken is expensive. In this economy that’s a lot of money for one meal. Here are some tips on making the most of your pastured poultry.

  • Meal One – Roast the chicken. Serves 4.
  • Meal Two – Remove all the meat from any remaining bones. Save for soup, use in a stir fry or a casserole. Serves 4. See Garden Pasta Salad recipe below.
  • Meal Three – Save the bones for stock. (Heck, in France we saved the eaten bones off people’s plates and made stock. You don’t have to do that, but certainly save the deboned carcass.)

1 3 to 4 pound roasting chicken
4 bay leaves, preferably fresh or sprigs of thyme
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 350°. Season inside the cavity of the chicken with salt and pepper. Carefully slide your fingers between the skin and the breast meat; Place 2 bay leaves and a pat of butter between the skin and the breast meat. Place the chicken in a cast iron skillet. Season all over with salt and pepper. Place the chicken in the oven with the cavity facing the rear of the oven. Roast until the juices run clear when pierced in the thigh with a knife, about 1 hour. Let rest for 15 minutes. Carve and serve immediately.

How to Carve a Chicken

  • When carving a chicken, let the bird guide the way. This may sound funny, but the parts should separate at the joints with little or no effort. I often tell my students that if the bird is fighting you, the knife is not in the right place.
  • Set the bird breast side up on a cutting board. If the bird is hot, I use a clean kitchen towel instead of a carving fork to protect my hand, but you can use a fork. I prefer to use the towel because it doesn’t tear the skin, and I have those asbestos fingers chefs often have. Do what feels comfortable to you.
  • Pull the leg and thigh back to expose the joint that attaches it to the body. Somewhat forcefully bend a leg away from the body until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the leg from the body, cutting through the separated joint. As you separate the leg, using the tip of the knife, be sure to get the “oyster,” a yummy nugget of delicious dark meat toward the back of the chicken just above the thigh. Repeat the process with the other leg and thigh.
  • Place each leg quarter on the cutting board, skin side down. Use a chef’s knife to cut through the joint that connects the leg to the thigh. (It should be fairly easy to cut through the joint.) Look for a line of fat, and if the knife meets resistance, your knife is hitting bone and is not placed at the joint, which is easy to carve through. So, reposition the blade slightly and try again.
  • Place the bird, breast side up, on the cutting board. Feel for the breastbone, which runs along the top center of the chicken carcass. Begin separating one side of the breast from the body by cutting immediately alongside the breastbone with the tip of your knife. Work from the tail end of the bird toward the neck end.
  • When you hit the wishbone, angle the knife and cut down along the wishbone toward the wing, then make a cut between the breast and the wing. Finish separating the breast by simultaneously pulling back on the meat and using little short strokes of the knife tip to cut the meat away from the carcass. Do the same to remove the breast meat on the other side.
  • Find the joint where the wings connect to the body and bend until the joint pops apart. Use a sharp knife to sever the wing from the body, cutting through the separated joint.
  • Using a chef’s knife or your hands, remove whatever meat remains on the carcass. (Reserve the carcass for stock.) Arrange the legs, thighs, wings, and meat on a platter, pour over any accumulated juices to moisten the meat, or use in pan sauce, and serve.

GARDEN PASTA SALAD WITH CHICKEN
Serves 4 to 6

Here’s a new take on pasta salad that combines the leftover chicken, corkscrew noodles, kid-friendly veggies, such as edamame, and a light dressing flavored with a hint of Dijon mustard.

4 cups whole wheat rotini
2 cups broccoli florets
2 cups pulled chicken
1/4 cup mayonnaise, or to taste
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 cup frozen edamame, thawed
1 cup matchstick carrots
1 cup baby spinach, chopped

Cook the rotini according to the package instructions, adding the broccoli to the pot for the last 2 minutes. Drain, reserving 6 tablespoons of the water. Transfer the rotini and broccoli to a large bowl. Add the pasta water and toss to coat the ingredients. Add the pulled chicken.

In a small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise and mustard until well blended. Add the mixture, along with the remaining ingredients, to the bowl and toss well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, if desired.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

This post was not sponsored by Whole Foods Market or White Oak Pastures.

photos by Sally Ekus

Julia and Julie: Yes, the Swap is Intentional Saturday, Jul 11 2009 

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THANKS SO MUCH TO EVERYONE FOR THEIR INTEREST, SUPPORT, AND COMMENTS, BUT THIS BLOG POST IS NOW SHUT DOWN FOR ADDITIONAL COMMENTS. MANY THANKS FOR READING AND I LOVE THE DIALOGUE, BUT WE ALL NEED TO MOVE ON. ;-) BEST VA

July 15th I had the real pleasure of seeing a sneak preview of “Julie and Julia”. Tony Conway, owner of Legendary Events in Atlanta hosted an amazing Girls Night Out. Following cocktails and dinner, a group of about 400 women filed into the theatre at Phipps Plaza. The movie doesn’t actually premiere until early August! The event itself was truly spectacular and a perfect example of why Tony Conway is regarded as one of the best in his business.

The movie was so charming that I left wanting to see it again. Based on true stories, “Julie & Julia” intertwines the lives of two women in a fascinating way. I am a huge Meryl Streep fan and she was amazing. She is such a chameleon and, of course, had Julia’s voice and mannerisms nailed.

But, it triggered something that’s been nagging me ever since.

First, the movie. In short, the plot is the story of a frustrated temporary secretary, Julie Powell, embarking on a year-long culinary quest to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She chronicles her tribulations in a blog called “The Julie/Julia Project: Nobody here but us servantless American cooks”. The blog caught on and was eventually featured in a piece in the New York Times by food writer Amanda Hesser. Julie’s life was changed forever, her blog turned into a best-selling memoir, Nora Ephron wrote her screenplay, and now Amy Adams is playing her on the big screen.

The film, also covers the years Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) spent in Paris during the 1940′s and 1950′s. Their portion of the story was adapted from My Life in France, written by Julia Child with nephew Alex Prud’homme. Basically, this was the time when Julia became Julia, attended Le Cordon Bleu and met her collaborators Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. They began to teach cooking to American women in the Child’s kitchen, calling their informal school L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes. For the next decade, as the Childs moved around Europe and finally to their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the three researched, developed, and tested French recipes for the American kitchen. The result of this long collaboration was Mastering the Art of French Cooking edited by the imitable Judith Jones.

I promise this will eventually address the source of my irritation. Stick with me.

The first time I met Julia Child was at a book signing when I was in culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in DC. I stood there like a zombie in front of her, incapable of speech. A friend eventually jotted me out of my stupor and pushed me along.

After DC, I became an editorial stagiaire for Anne Willan at Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne . I was supposed to be there for 3 months,but was there on and off for almost 3 years. Julia actually encouraged Anne to open the school. My first year I was working with none other than Amanda Hesser (see above), who at the time was also working on her first book, The Cook and the Gardener. During that time Julia would come to visit, staying weeks at a time. The staff at LaVarenne was predominantly young food knowledge hungry Americans. We had grown up seeing her on TV and she was one of the reasons we were there in France. We would vacillate wildly from “OH MY G*D, IT’S JULIA CHILD” to complete nonchalance. It was normal. She was always very pleasant. I don’t remember why, but once at the dinner table, in her famous warbling voice she declared, Eisenhower nothing more than a “big powder-puff”. Sure wish I could remember the context…. One winter at the Food Writer’s Symposium at the Greenbrier we shared a suite. I treated her like my grandmother, made sure she didn’t forget her cane and carried her books. (That was a hoot! I’ll write about that some other time.)

Promise. It’s coming.

After France I moved to New York to work for Martha. I ran into Julia at food events, and that was pretty much the extent of it.

Ok, here we go.

I also read the Julie/Julia Project blog and for a time, I followed Julie Powell. I was very intrigued by her nerve actually, of cooking the book. Pretty stiff stuff for an untrained cook. Good for her, I thought. What an undertaking. But one day she made a comment implying a recipe being wrong for roast chicken. I honestly don’t remember what it was, but it struck me as being so disrespectful, completely without deference to Julia Child, that I stopped. What the hell did she know about food? Had she even heard of poulet au Bresse? Didn’t go back. No malice. Just didn’t want to follow anymore.

That brings me back to the present. Wednesday night I watched the Julie and Julia movie.

Had a lovely time, Tony, thanks so much for a lovely party.”

The next night I saw a link on Twitter from an older article from the New York Times. I clicked through and read. It was in my opinion, decent writing, good writing, but it wasn’t about food. It made me think it maybe needed to be in a blog. It was not appropriate on that stage, on that level. It was the damn New York Times!

To be clear, it was NOT written by Amanda Hesser.

And, then it all made sense. My underlying malaise.

People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts. The incredible proliferation and self-indulgent blabber of many food blogs has given people the freedom to hallucinate, “I can type and I eat, therefore I am a food journalist”!

Granted, Julie Powell did not present herself as a food expert. I am not saying she did, quite the contrary. It’s also not a case of sour grapes on my part. Bravo for her. Her food memoir was a best-seller. A rising tide floats all boats, and as a food writer, I wholeheartedly thank her.

I am not necessarily saying my writing is better. After all, who am I to question what is published in the New York Times? Of course, I recognize the irony that I am sharing this indeed in an aforementioned self-serving blog. But good grief, people who don’t know how to begin to roast a ding dang chicken without following a recipe can be our new, ahem, food experts? This makes me a bit sad and more than a bit aggravated.

The newspaper industry has starved itself to death. In the past two years 10 dailies have permanently stopped the presses. Indeed, the New York Times has been rumored to be circling the drain. The blogs and online content have taken over. The cookbook publishing industry took a hearty bite out of the poison apple, as well. The prerequisite to getting a cookbook published is brand and platform, not necessarily real food knowledge, editorial training, and a passionate commitment to test and develop recipes.

Face it; Julia Child would not be published today.

I had a meeting with a TV production company last year that possibly is interested in partnering on a TV cooking show. The producer told me the worst thing I had going for me is that I was trained and knew how to cook. Everyone who can wield a butter knife wants a TV cooking show. Seems the masses want entertainment, not education. Enough hair product and a sassy catchphrase seems to be sufficient.

Think about the food writers who spent their entire careers pursuing real food knowledge and good, sound, cooking fundamentals. Think about writers who wrote real literature that happened to be about food: Elizabeth David. MFK Fisher. Anne Willan. The real cooks and writers today, the real experts need to be heard, not just any food blogger armed with an iPhone.

On that note, I am sharing my recipe for Roast Chicken.

Bon Appétit!
VA

PS. IT WAS LATER POINTED OUT TO ME IT’S POULET DE BRESSE, NOT AU BRESSE. I LEFT IT AS IS SINCE SOME OF THE COMMENTS REFER TO IT. I STAND CORRECTED. MY FRENCH IS, WAS, AND ALWAYS WILL LIKELY BE, DISMAL.

Herb Roast Chicken with Pan Sauce
Serves 4 to 6

Meme washed her chickens inside and out before cooking them, removing every last bit of fat, overlooked feathers, and any bruises, blemishes, or blood spots. She said if you didn’t, it tasted too “chickeny.” That bird was sanitized—or so she thought. I would never argue with Meme, but according to the USDA, washing chicken is not necessary. If the bird is contaminated, dangerous bacteria are not going to be affected by cold tap water. Washing the chicken actually increases the chance of cross-contamination; water that has touched raw chicken and splashed into the sink can potentially contaminate other food.

This recipe relies on a classic French preparation: stuffing the bird with aromatics, roasting it to perfection, and using the pan juices plus added shallots, wine, and stock to make a light sauce. There’s not a lot to cloud the plate or palate or mask a mistake. I will often order chicken, seemingly the most boring dish on the menu, when trying a new restaurant. Simple roast chicken is the test of a good cook.

1 (4- to 5-pound) chicken
1 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence
3 bay leaves, preferably fresh
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large lemon, quartered
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large carrot, chopped
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
11/2 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into bits (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425°F. To prepare the chicken, trim the excess fat from inside of the chicken cavity. Season the cavity with the herbes de Provence, bay leaves, salt, and pepper. Squeeze lemon juice into the cavity and then insert the used lemon quarters. Rub butter over the skin and season with salt and pepper. Tie the ends of the drumsticks together with kitchen twine. Set the chicken in a roasting pan, on a rack if you have one.

Roast the chicken for 15 minutes, then decrease the heat to 350°F. Roast for an additional 15 minutes, then add the carrot and onion to the pan. Continue roasting, basting occasionally, until the juices run clear when the thickest part of the thigh is pierced with a knife, an additional 30 to 45 minutes. Remove the chicken to a cutting board and tent loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm. Using a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables to a warm platter and tent loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.

To make the sauce, remove all but several tablespoons of the fat from the roasting pan and place the pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and saute, stirring frequently, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and cook until it is reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and increase the heat to high, scraping the skillet with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits.

Cook until the sauce is slightly reduced, about 5 minutes more. Carve the chicken and pour any accumulated chicken juices from the cutting board into the roasting pan. Decrease the heat to medium. Whisk in the butter. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve the chicken with the sauce on the side.

From Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.

VIRGINIA WILLIS CULINARY PRODUCTIONS, LLC © 2009

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