Monday, January 19, 2015

The Week of the Chicken

In addition to keeping chickens for eggs, my dad (affectionately dubbed “Chicken Boy” this New Year by our dear friends the Corries) periodically raises a flock of roughly 60 chickens for consumption. Using Joel Salatin’s “chicken tractor” technology, my dad dutifully ensures the mobility of his poultry so that much of our expansive property is combed—by chicken beaks—for worms, bugs and other tasty morsels. Alas, one of his first flocks sent my dad into “lite” depression: the specific breed plus too much exercise (so we joked) resulted in wonderful home-grazed flavor but small-bodied chickens that were best tenderized in the slow cooker. Luckily, my dad quickly recovered and pledged to do better the next time.

I found myself the recipient of many of these chickens: a combination of my dad’s generosity, desire to clear out the freezer, and knowledge of my proclivity for the slow cooker resulted in numerous vacuum sealed packages stowed neatly in our freezer. Before these welcomed donations, very little meat found its way into our diet. For one, I don’t love it—I crave bread, cheese, butternut squash, pumpkin tea bread…but never meat. Starch and vegetables leave me deeply satisfied (vegetarian, sure. Gluten-free and/or dairy-free?!!? Never!) and consequently, these are the dishes that I make best: pastas, meat-less Asian noodles and soups, and so on. Secondly, meat tastes best to me when I know where it came from. Meat industry standards and treatment of animals make me a bit queasy—I would still never turn down a burger at a BBQ but when personally given the choice to procure and prepare commercial meat, I opt out. The farmer’s market presents, in theory, a more humane and healthy option, but my wallet doesn’t agree and I find that funds allocated toward other goodies present a higher return. In short, I classify myself as a restaurant-and-raised-by-Paul meat eater.

So what else has Paul raised? You’ve already heard about my culinary adventures with bacon and pork shoulder from my dad’s pigs. After my dad’s minor mishap with the bodybuilder chickens, he revisited the project with a vengeance, and the result was perfection. Using a different chicken breed and promoting a marginally more sedentary lifestyle (breed and lifestyle may be related, in fact), my dad raised large chickens with unprecedented tenderness and hearty flavor. One found its way into our freezer.

After consuming vermicelli bowl that wasn’t quite up to snuff, I became motivated to try my hand at Vietnamese five spice chicken with noodles and fish sauce. And so began the weekend-long process—defrosting the chicken, marinating the chicken using this recipeshopping for vegetables to accompany the chicken, debating the intricacies of defrosting the chicken with my parents, embarking on a beautiful adventure run around Corona Heights, all the while thinking about the chicken… Just kidding on that last one—but I will say that by the time we finally sat down to eat the chicken, on Monday night at the tender hour of 10pm after a couple hours of climbing, the feast felt well-earned indeed.
Vermicelli noodles with five spice chicken

My parents brag that in their prime, they could eat a whole chicken in one sitting. Since my only recent experiences with whole chickens have been with my dad’s small triathlon varietal, I couldn’t help but scoff at this boast—I mean, I know Andrew and I both eat a ton, but we can finish a chicken off without pause, and this is something you’re bragging about? Enter monolith chicken. We (meaning, both of us) ate it for roughly six meals.

The first was my Monday night vermicelli bowl. Per my mom’s recommendation, I use Three Ladies Brand “Rice Sticks” in all my Asian cooking. After draining the steaming hot noodles, I added chicken juice and chunks of daikon that I’d slow-cooked with the chicken. Indeed, I cooked the chicken in the slow cooker for convenience and in absence of a grill—the meat was flavorful and tender, but I did miss the smoky grill essence and I plan to revisit this recipe with the proper equipment. I paired the vermicelli noodles with crisp lettuce and served fish sauce on the side—I was quite happy with this recipe but I added an unmeasured amount of sugar, less than the recipe calls for. Guests at the table included myself, Andrew, and a giant pile of chicken—indeed, the gargantuan platter was large enough to potentially require its own airport seat. The noodle bowl was delightful, distinctive five-spice in a masterful union with the sweet and salty fish sauce, the chicken juicy and a welcome rejuvenation for tired muscles.
Root vegetables, rice, and chicken stock hot pot

Three lunches (for each of us) consisted of a rendition of this dish—rice with chicken and kabocha squash, beets, turnips and of course, fish sauce and chicken juice. I bit the bullet and did some large-scale Tupperware preparation with the motive of freeing up the bones and carcass to make chicken stock. I’ve used this recipe before, and find that it creates a wonderful light broth. This time around, the lingering five-spice flavor mingled with the traditional bay leaf and parsley elements, creating a hearty yet refreshing liquid.

And finally, Thursday night’s dinner (and Friday’s lunch) consisted of a hot pot invented by yours truly: I piled kabocha squash, daikon, turnips, and romanesco stems in my usual hot pot vessel and added chicken stock and the remaining chicken pieces and juice from the initial cooking. Egg noodles were the starch of choice, and I added these and chopped parsley at the end of the hot pot’s simmer. This chicken noodle soup was piping hot, refreshing and delicious, an instant infusion of health. A shining conclusion to the Week of the Chicken.