Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer Sunday Dinner: Fried Chicken Grown Right

Fried Chicken with Peanut Butter/Honey Dipping Sauce
Today was a very special day indeed. The chickens from our first hatch this year (back in April) finally came of age and it’s time to start butchering the males. And what precious few of them there are! We’ve had nothing but trouble this year with snakes and hawks. We had one hawk in particular that became so gluttonous it only left us TWO chickens out of a hatch of 26! In fact, out of 3 hatches of about 20-25 chicks each, we only managed to raise 10 to maturity.

Which is just ridiculous. Awhile back I was surfing about on the net trying to find out if there were any special depredation loopholes that would allow me to legally shoot hawks that cause this much trouble. (It’s against Federal law to kill ANY raptor, for any reason, even though hawks haven’t been endangered for many years.) What I found instead made me see red! A guy from Texas complained of the same problem on some wildlife forum and got all kinds of ridiculous responses from the bleeding hearts of the world:

“Poultry netting is inexpensive – are you just too cheap to pen up your chickens?!” and “Oh, let the little hawks have a couple of chickens, they don’t eat much.” and “Hawks are such majestic creatures – how could you even think of killing one?!”

I say let every one of those idiots starve! The problem with people who buy all of their food from the supermarket is that they’ve never had to fight Mother Nature for the privilege of eating meat from a styrofoam tray. Nor have they ever had to stare down one of those “majestic” hissing, snarling, snapping beastards that would happily rip them to shreds were the raptors the size of their dino ancestors. And those same people will pay extra for meat they’ve been told is “free-range”. I’m sorry, but REAL “free-range” chickens are not raised in pens or “chicken tractors,” even though they are sold to a very gullible public under that label.

You see, it’s not enough for a chicken to have a few new inches of grass and dirt to peck around in every day. A caged chicken is not a happy or healthy chicken – at any age. And when it comes to exercise, they’re like Forrest Gump – if they’re going somewhere, they’re running! Chickens are the rogues and free spirits of the homestead world. They will happily scour every particle of dirt and debris on your property every single day if they can. (Cause they mighta missed something the day before!) They eat ticks, mice, small snakes and you should just see the excitement when someone stirs up a grasshopper or grub! In fact, I recently found out that eggs from chickens that eat a lot of bugs are high in Omega-3’s, just like the eggs from chickens that are fed flaxseed and fish meal. Except that bugs are much cheaper than flaxseed and fish meal. J

Kitchen scraps are another delicacy and word spreads fast on the day I clean out the fridge. I always have the best of intentions of getting a compost pile going, but it seems to me a better use of scraps is converting them to meat and eggs. About the only thing I’ve found they won’t eat is citrus peels. (And granulated white sugar – chickens are not completely stupid, after all!)

I once heard Chef Mario Batali comment that he prefers the chickens we grow in America to the “roadrunners” that are standard fare in much of Europe. Indeed, the Cornish-cross broilers that were developed for the poultry industry grow much faster and have a lot more meat than standard breeds. But they don’t have the same flavor, they can’t breed naturally and they are absolutely incapable of foraging for their own food. They cannot be raised alongside standard breeds easily and they have too many health problems to mention. I’ve raised over a thousand of those birds in the last 10 years and I’ll never raise another one.

A few years ago, I tried the slower-growing Red and Black Broilers that are available from hatcheries. They’ll grow fastest on a high-protein feed, but they don’t require it like the Cornish Frankenbirds. They also have no health problems and can breed naturally (the females anyway, I haven’t tried breeding the males yet). The Black Broilers are truly beautiful birds, none of them solid black and having varying degrees of gold, green and purple feathers. Some have white skin and some yellow, which is a nice trait if you eat chicken prepared lots of different ways or render the fat.

I’ve been holding out some of the females from each order and crossing them to my purebred White Plymouth Rocks for meat. The resulting offspring are excellent dual-purpose chickens. The females lay well and make nice, plump stewing hens afterwards. The males are large and heavy.

But as happy as I am with those birds, they aren’t really sustainable as long as the parents are having to come from a hatchery. I’ve raised most of the “Standard Heavy Breeds” of chickens available and finally settled on White Plymouth Rocks as my dual-purpose breed of choice. The hens lay steadily through the winter and the males are about half a pound heavier at butchering time than other standard heavy breeds. (And I’ve never had a mean rooster from that breed!) Plus anytime I hatch out a pure white bird, I know it’s purebred and can be kept for breeding stock without diluting the breed. My only regret about that bird is that I can’t sell off the extra hens, as most homesteaders want more colorful layers than just plain white. Such is life.

The bird pictured on the platter above was a Standard Heavy Breed cross I butchered yesterday. His mother was probably Australorp and his father was White Rock. He was right at 5 months old and just beginning to crow and become obnoxious. He has free-ranged since he was 3 days old. The difference in the meat between them and the commercial breed is the size of the breasts and thighs. (And the flavor!) The breast is smaller than grocery store chickens, but it’s also much more juicy and succulent. The thighs are larger and firmer because the bird was actually able to run and walk without falling down or having a heart attack(!). And of course, the drumsticks are always longer than the short, stubby little legs of the Cornish Cross.

The flavor was El Primo! No grocery store bird could ever taste that good.

But Thank God for hatcheries. After the hawks and snakes thinned out our own chicks so much this year, I knew we weren’t going to have enough chicken to eat if I didn’t make other plans. “The Horrendous Hundred” arrived the first week of August. The order was for 50 straight-run “Black Broilers” and 50 “Assorted Heavy Breed” males (meaning the little guys that didn’t get sold alongside their female counterparts). Beautiful little things they are – so many different colors! I’ve never raised this many meat birds at once and I was questioning my sanity the first week into it! But baby chicks are seasonal and there won’t be any more until next spring, and no more to eat until next summer.

We’ve mostly gotten the hawk and snake situation under control and we’re guarding this batch carefully. There will be periods of time we’ll have no choice but to pen them up for a week while we transition them from one sleeping area to another, but other than that, they’ll be free-range birds all their lives. For now, they’re running loose in the front yard. Which provides for a heck of a lot of entertainment during morning coffee hour. J There will be “Cornish-Hen” -sized birds ready to eat in a few more weeks and a steady diet of chicken-on-the-hoof until February. By then, I’ll need to thin out my older hens to make way for the new layers. A homestead with no free-range chickens running amuck is no proper homestead at all. J

Fried Chicken Marinade

1 egg
1 cup cultured buttermilk or yogurt
1 teaspoon salt
1 heaping tablespoon Herb Shaker

Mix together in deep covered bowl and marinate cut-up chicken for about 24 hours in the fridge prior to dredging in flour and frying.  Enough for 1 small chicken. Also excellent for chicken fried steak and pork chops.

Herb Shaker

This recipe is from “The Whole Chili Pepper Book” by DeWitt and Gerlach. They developed it from one that was recommended as a salt substitute by the American Heart Association. It has a wonderful flavor that’s made even better if you have your own herbs and spices to put in it. Curtis uses whole herbs and spices (rather than ground) and mixes it up in the spice mill by the pint for me to use. Good stuff and it really packs a punch when he uses his own peppers!

3 teaspoons (heaping) cayenne pepper flakes
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground basil
1 teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon ground parsley flakes
1 teaspoon ground savory
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground sage
1 teaspoon marjoram
A few of "The Horrendous Hundred"

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