There are very few types of meat that get as vanilla a reputation as chicken. Like vanilla, ubiquity and mass market dilution of a once quality product are to blame. Tasting a good, pasture raised chicken was as mind blowing an experience as the first time I tasted pudding made with vanilla pods from Madagascar. I felt like Dorothy in Oz, something familiar but nothing at all like what I knew before.
The large-scale production of chicken is reliant on high volume animal production with limited or inexpensive inputs. The most expensive input for most farmers is their land and what they need to raise their crops. For animal production this has meant that more animals need to be raised on less land and as quickly as possible. CAFOs, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, were developed to standardize how animals lived and what they ate to grow them as “efficiently” as possible. This generally means moving the animals indoors, changing their diets, and packing them densely in their environments.
In the same way as synthetically reproducing vanilla flavor, this system for meat production stripped the nuanced and meaty flavor from chicken but with far more cruelty than was exacted on those orchid flowers. And that blandness was what I identified as the flavor of chicken and vanilla growing up.
Luckily for us, customers are asking for better meat. They might want it because they can’t stomach the idea of chickens stacked on top of one another all day. They might want it because they don’t support the usage of antibiotics in our animal feed. I’m asking for it for those reasons and because I want chicken that tastes better.
And, double lucky for us, there is amazing chicken being grown in Cedar by Ben Brown. Ben raises pastured poultry in an efficient way that is also rebuilding the soil (and indirectly) the buildings on Sonny’s Farm. He raises an industry stand Cornish Cross chicken, proving that regular birds brought up right will taste leaps and bounds better than a regular bird raised in confinement. He slaughters them on site, minimizing fossil fuel usage and stress on the birds during transport.
The birds in turn are adding fertility back to the sandy soil of Sonny’s Farm. And they are adding cash money back to Ben’s business allowing him, with the help of the Leelanau Conservancy, to repair and protect the yellow roadside stand and buildings that characterized his historic farm.
Food is special. In my mind its role as our lifeblood goes beyond simple nutrients, it binds us to one another. I buy Ben’s chickens because his success helps this region succeed. I feed them to my loved ones because they are super tasty. If you are interested in ordering chickens from Ben go to www.sonnyswansonfarm.com. The order forms will be up soon.
Spatchcocking chicken is my favorite way to speed up the roasting of a whole chicken without sacrificing the “ohs” and “ahs” of presentation that is lost when you serve a disembodied breast or thigh. Flattening the bird makes the whole thing cook at the same rate, unlike when it kept whole and the breast meat is done before the hip joint is even warm.
To spatchcock, simply cut the backbone out of the chicken (be sure to save it for your stock pot), flip the bird over and press down on the breastbone to flatten. I like to pretend that I’m giving the chicken CPR until it is lying quite flat. There are loads of YouTube videos too if you want more visual instruction.
This recipe is a jumping off point. Play with the alcohol and spices to suit your tastes. And this as a main course will go with any of your favorite side dishes—wild rice, pasta or boiled potatoes; green salad and roasted carrots. Really just look in your fridge and use up what’s there to serve on the side.
- 1 chicken, about 3 lbs
- 1 large onion, sliced thinly
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 T all purpose flour
- ½ C gin
- 1 C chicken stock or water
- 6 juniper berries, smashed
- 6 thyme sprigs
- 1 bay leaf
- Oven to 350F
- Season the whole bird liberally with salt and pepper
- Heat an ovenproof frying pan that will hold the whole flattened bird
- Heat a glug of neutral oil and brown the breast side of the chicken until dark and golden
- Remove the bird from the pan
- Add the juniper and herbs and allow to fry in the chicken fat for a couple of minutes or until very fragrant
- Add the onions and garlic and sweat until tender (a little browning is good but don’t burn the garlic)
- Add the flour and stir to combine
- Add the Gin and reduce by half
- Add the stock and bring to a boil
- Lay the chicken over the onion mixture and transfer to the oven
- Cook until the chicken is cooked through
- When done, remove the bird and boil the sauce until thickened and tasty, adding salt and pepper as needed