The Hen That Laid the Golden Eggs, and more notes on ethical meat

The days are short now, cold nights make a warm stove welcome, and there are longer evenings in which to do my culinary experimenting. Sometimes I like to try unknown ingredients and cuisines that are new to me, and sometimes I like to try slight twists on familiar favorites. Right now I have an abundance of good chicken raised in my own yard, and a simple roast chicken is great when it has real chicken flavor. These birds are big (the one we ate for Thanksgiving had a dressed weight of 14 pounds) and they look quite impressive roasted, but of course a smaller chicken is fine as long as it was raised properly and tastes like a real chicken. Here I followed my usual MO for roasting a chicken (see my post on roast chicken) with a couple of changes.
Twist #1: Since these huge birds have deep breasts which can dry out near the surface by the time the center is cooked properly, I injected the breast with a half-and-half mixture of melted butter and concentrated homemade chicken broth to improve the juiciness. You can buy injectors for this purpose which have big needles that won’t clog up easily. This isn’t as necessary on a smaller chicken, but is still a very tasty touch.
Twist #2: I carved the potatoes into eggs and browned them well in a skillet with some olive oil before putting them in the oven to roast. Keep them in a separate roasting pan and put them in the oven about 50 minutes before the chicken will be done. Be sure to sprinkle them with salt. Baste them regularly with chicken pan juices (you will need to keep adding good broth to the chicken pan to have enough juices.) When you take the chicken out to rest before carving, test the potatoes for doneness and leave them in the oven if needed while the chicken rests. Then pile them around the hen and bear the laden platter to the table. I also carve some chunks of carrot into smaller, goldener eggs to roast in the chicken pan, but I’ll be the first to admit that this is unnecessary fiddling.
If your bird isn’t a hen, it can be the rooster that laid golden eggs, an even rarer phenomenon. I suppose that if you were obsessive enough, you could cut some chard leaves or kale leaves into long, trailing tail feathers to make the phoenix that laid golden eggs, but this is the sort of culinary feat that announces to your friends and loved ones that you spend way too much time thinking about matters unrelated to real life. It will get you talked about, and not in a good way. But if your tastes lean toward culinary fantasy, it’s worth trying anyway. Since you are already lost to reason, consider carving some blue potatoes and purple carrots into colored eggs to add to the general picture of barbaric opulence.

Now, about those notes on ethical meat that I promised you. None of my homesteading ventures have been treated with more dubiousness by others than my decision to raise chickens for meat and harvest them myself. But from a personal standpoint, it’s the best project that I’ve undertaken. The way that commercial chickens are raised is appalling, and fancy labeling about “free range” means very little. If you want details, read the section on chickens in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and then remind yourself that Pollan is describing a best-case scenario. Then, get real about what you eat. Sometimes I come across writing by others who have participated in the harvest of meat, and today I’d like to share a clip from Mourad Lahlou’s marvelous book New Moroccan. He describes how in his Moroccan home, it was the duty of one adult man to kill meat animals with maximum speed and minimum suffering for the animal, and that it was an activity conducted after prayer and one that the whole family gathered to witness. At thirteen he was taught to do the ritual slaughter by his grandfather. He says “No doubt your reaction to this is that it seems barbaric. But I’m telling you that it’s the opposite, not simply because the slaughter is done in a humane way, but because the act of witnessing it is a reminder that we can never take a life for granted. When you’ve seen an animal give its life for you, you don’t take it lightly. You cook it with care. You eat it with respect. And perhaps the greater barbarism is never coming face to face with that, and pretending that meat comes from a market and not an animal.” Amen to that.
Mourad’s book is one of the best new cookbooks I’ve come across for years, and I recommend it to anyone for the marvelous writing as well as for the recipes.

In the near future I’ll write about exactly how I produce the chickens.


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