Thoughts on chicken
Chicken has always been a primary color in my culinary paintbox, and lately I've been using it more than ever ... but paying a premium for quality.
While we're not ready to give up omnivore status in this household, wide publicity about inhumane treatment of animals (and for that matter, employees) and other problems in factory-farming operations has made us more than a little queasy about buying or eating mass-market chicken.
I've reached the conclusion that the modest premium you pay for quality naturally produced or free-range chicken is more than justified, not merely in peace of mind but because, in occasional side-by-side taste tests, I've found that premium chickens don't just look better but taste better.
Based on local availability, we usually end up with either of two brands, both packed by Pennsylvania firms.
Bell & Evans, which bills its product as "the excellent chicken," guarantees that its chickens are raised without antibiotics or hormones and are raised in a "stress free" environment, although these are not true "free range" chickens raised in old-fashioned barnyards but "free to roam" within the confines of the company's large, indoor "chicken houses." For more info, see the company Website,
Eberly Poultry, using the slogan "poultry as nature intended," advertises true free-range birds raised by independent Amish farmers, and bills them as organic and hormone-free and fed on grain (although one assumes that a true free-range chicken also has access to bugs and grubs and such). Website:
In taste tests, I give an edge to Eberly for an amazingly flavorful bird, tender as butter, with rosy-pink flesh. But Bell & Evans is good, too, significantly outperforming industrial-style chickens in texture and flavor, not to mention the relatively intangible aspects of humane production and avoidance of chemistry-set technology in your food.
All this, as noted, comes at a price: With Perdue and Tyson fryers often available at local supermarkets for under $2 a bird, Bell & Evans chickens of similar size generally run $6 or $7 at natural-foods stores, and Eberly's - available in this region only at Whole Foods Market - is usually $9 to $10. Personally, I think it's worth it - and would note that we can usually make that $10 investment into three meals for two, roasting the chicken for dinner and sharing half, then converting the second half into sandwiches or a leftover production (like the chicken pasta dish below), and simmering the carcass to make soup for a third meal.
I used Eberly's chickens for both the following recipes, one easy and the other even easier.
Inspired by the old-fashioned Italian-American chicken Tetrazzini, this simple version skips oven-baking in favor of a simple, quick cheese sauce for leftover chicken bits over pasta.INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
One-quarter to one-half of a leftover roast or grilled chicken
1. Start a large pot of salted water to the boil for the pasta. Pull the chicken meat off the bones and slice or shred it into bite-size pieces. Chop the onion coarsely; seed the green pepper and cut it into small dice, and mince the garlic fine.
2. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a skillet or saute pan and cook the chopped onion, bell pepper and garlic until the vegetables start to soften. Add the chicken pieces and 1/4 cup of the chicken broth and keep warm at a very low simmer while you prepare the rest of the dish. Season with salt and pepper to taste, but watch salt, as the broth may be salty and the cheeses will add more.
3. Grate your choice of cheeses - some quality Parmesan or Romano, certainly, and just about anything else that meets your fancy. Gruyere would be fine; I used a more obscure Northern Italian item called Spezia alla Tartufo, a mild, creamy white cheese dotted with black truffles with cinnamon dusted on the rind. These lovely aromatics yielded a spectacular dish, but it's not really necessary to seek out this rare cheese to make it.
4. Put the spaghetti in the boiling salted water and cook until al dente according to package directions, typically 8 to 10 minutes.
5. Make a simple veloute sauce: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When it's hot, put in the flour all at once, stirring quickly so it incorporates the melted butter; stir until it's spoon but watch the heat, lifting the pan off heat briefly if necessary to keep it from scorching or turning more than very light brown. Add the remaining broth, a little at a time, stirring until the sauce is smooth. Once all the liquid is mixed in, bring just to the boil, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Add the grated cheeses and stir until they melt. Then add the chicken and onion-garlic-pepper mix (after draining off or evaporating any remaining liquid). As soon as the pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the sauce. Serve immediately.
WINE MATCH: Either a fruity and acidic red or a reasonably rich white would do. I chose a light, fruity Chianti, La Lastra 2001 Chianti Colli Senesi.
I used a package of Eberly's chicken thighs for this quick recipe, but any chicken parts or combination will do. A remarkably simple yet flavorful dinner dish, it involves minimal setup and finishes in the oven while you do other things.INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
Four to six bone-in chicken thighs or your choice of chicken parts
1. About two hours before dinner, squeeze the lemon, discarding seeds, and mince the garlic fine. Put the chicken in a bowl and add the oregano, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice plus salt and pepper to your taste, mixing everything together until the chicken pieces are well coated. Leave to marinate for an hour or so.
2. Preheat your oven to 450F (230C). Put the chicken pieces with any remaining marinade (there shouldn't be much liquid) skin-side up in a lightly greased oven pan or casserole.
3. Roast for 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and the skin is golden-brown and crunchy.
WINE MATCH: An acidic Italian red, from a modest Chianti or Montepulciano d'Abruzzo to a fancy Brunello or Vino Nobile would be perfect, but it also worked very well with a somewhat upscale California red, the full, ripe, fruity and oak-tinged Cosentino 2000 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
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Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.
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