May 14, 2006. 11:00 a.m.
We stalk and claim our elusive chickens. Our early morning visit to the market pays off. Laden with vegetables, meats and cheese, we return home to plan our dinner.
"They're frozen," observes the Butter Bitch. Sadly, she is right. We were so happy to get chicken that we overlooked this minor detail. The birds will not thaw in the few hours before dinner and our hard-won chicken is denied us until another night (a whole week in fact). The evening of the chicken victory, I sautee three leeks and a handful of sliced morel mushrooms in butter and serve them with fresh bread from Tall Grass Bakery. The meal is tasty and special in its own way. We will be patient while our plans unfolded.
May 21, 2006. 10:00 a.m.
I decide to wait until Sunday to allow for a leisurely meal and another visit to the farmer's market. We eat breakfast in Ballard with the Butter Bitch's mother and aunts, who were visiting from Oregon, and stroll over to our local farmer's market. (Ballard is a large Seattle neighborhood with a thriving downtown that dates to its existence a century ago as an independent city.) While the Butter Bitch and her relatives look for honey and jams to take home as gifts, I get busy with my shopping.
I want bread, cheese, asparagus and apples to go with dinner and vegetables for use later in the week. The asparagus will be grilled with olive oil dressed with apple cider and topped with cheese and a boiled Skagit River Ranch egg. (The recipe is based on the one found in Chez Panisse Cooking.) The asparagus and Braeburn apples I buy from an organic farm stand that offers CSA boxes. We already paid for a CSA box with Helsing Junction Farm, but I take a brocure for comparison and mentally add to my list of places to investigate.
The bread comes from Tall Grass Bakery, a local organic bakery that operates near our house and sells baked goods at several farmers markets. I already know that Tall Grass's oat and honey bread is delicious. At Tall Grass Bakery's stand, the man confirms that they try to use local grains, and adds that they get as much of their grain as possible from Washington and Oregon. ("As much as possible? What does that mean?") My thoughts must appear on my face, because the man sheepishly mutters, "Local is important." (Another vendor at the market commented on the effect of Michael Pollan's book on his sales of chicken and on the interest in local food, making me wonder if the "Pollan Effect" will be temporary, but no one at the market complained.)
The cheese for the asparagus is at home (we bought organic parmesan two months ago from Puget Consumer Co-Op), but I want a different cheese as an appetizer to go with the bread. My choice is our new favorite source of cheese, Estrella Family Creamery. Estrella doesn't have a website, but you can read the Seattle Post-Intelligencer write-up of Estrella. I'll write about Estrella Family Creamery later.
I stop by Skagit River Ranch's stand and open the chicken cooler with an air of non-chalance. It is full of chickens! They just processed a batch of chickens and will have a steady supply until mid-July. I rejoin my family harboring secret thoughts of hoarding chickens in our freezer through the chickenless end of summer.
May 21, 2006. 6:00 p.m. "I want to read about the chicken!"
We dodged impatient emails all week from the Dairy Queen. Read? We want to eat the chicken. Our family has left and our friend J., who was with us last week, arrives to share the meal and provide an unbiased opinion. J. and the Butter Bitch relax at the dining table. I get to work.
Thawing a whole chicken takes about two days. Roasting a chicken depends on one's recipe, but in my case it will take 70 minutes to roast the bird--20 minutes for each of the 3.5 pounds. My recipe originated with a verbal description passed to me by my friend Mariko in Portland. The recipe has been modified over a decade but the core idea remains: Put butter and spices inside the chicken, tie the legs together to seal the cavity, and roast the chicken at a certain temperature for a set number of minutes per pound.
I stuff the chicken with rosemary from our garden, dried lavender saved from last year's CSA box, one of the apples and butter from the nearest organic source, Straus Family Creamery in California. Two rosemary branches are inserted under the chicken's skin for additional flavoring, though that will turn out to be unnecessary. For the record, I used nearly the same recipe when I cooked Rosie's Organic Chickens on the previous three Sundays. Those were stuffed with a lemon, but since lemons are not local to Washington I used an apple and seasoned it with a tart hard cider.
The cheese and bread disappear too quickly for me to take a photograph in the fading evening light. I start grilling the asparagus on a cast-iron stovetop grill fifteen minutes before the chicken is done and am pleased with the results. The one egg is large enough and rich enough to be divided between the three of us, and the asparagus spears are an irregular mix of thin and thick. We have a few minutes until the chicken is ready, enough time to enjoy the asparagus spears. They taste green and earthy and the fatter spears have a satisfying crunch. I am pleased that they taste nothing like the bland organic asparagus that is flown from the southern hemisphere to my local Whole Foods. The egg is rich even though it has been boiled. (This is not surprising--we cooked eggs and bacon from Skagit River Ranch on Saturday and saw how thick and rich the eggs were then.)
The chicken comes out of the oven and is set aside while I deal with the the fatty juices that I plan to turn into gravy. The skin is crisp and golden and, yes, I am pleased with the results. I make a mistake with the gravy, adding the flour while the burner is still on high, and am rewarded with a clotted mess. I try to salvage the gravy but it is ruined, a sad waste of food. If the chicken is any indication, the gravy would have been delicious. I carve the chicken and server it with several more pieces of bread.
May 21, 2006. 7:30 p.m.
It doesn't taste like chicken. It's better.
There is a slight gaminess that reminds us of turkey, especially in the dark meat, and a grassy flavor that does not come from the apple or rosemary. The chicken does taste like chicken, but a richer more intense chicken. I ponder what the gravy would taste like, or how salt would affect the chicken. (I salted and peppered the asparagus but not the chicken.) J. agrees that this is good chicken and declares that she cannot wait to cook her own chicken. The breast meat and one of the legs disappear. Butter Bitch observes that some people would be put off by the richer flavor, especially the gaminess. People are used to foods that taste like cardboard and sugar and salt, not foods that taste like--well, food.
The carcass is stored in the freezer to be made into stock with the Rosie's carcasses. I put the leftover meat in the refrigerator for the following day and note that there is less leftover meat than from the Rosie's chickens, even though the birds were of the same size.
Is the chicken really better? We think so, but a scientist would poke holes through our testing method. Butter Bitch, a pragmatic non-scientist, pokes these holes for me. We would need to cook the chickens in the exact same way and serve them side by side in a blind taste test. Lemon has more acid than apple cider. The Rosie's flavor was enhanced by gravy but still not as good. Maybe I didn't use the same amount of butter this time. I sweep away those doubts and eat another piece of chicken. It really is better.
Next in the Chicken Man saga: After our journey to Idaho and a couple of other detours, we will visit the chicken man's chickens at the farm.