Herb Roasted Pasture-Raised Chicken

 

Last Saturday morning I planned to catch an early yoga class and swing by the farmers’ market on the way to pick up some eggs (you have to get there really early before they run out of pastured eggs!).  To my surprise they not only had eggs but they were selling whole, pasture-raised chickens!  I confess I had never made one before and this intrigued me.  It also happened to be my birthday and although I had other plans for dinner, I knew it would take a day of brining to prepare the bird for roasting.  So I sprung for it, knowing that this meal would be my belated birthday treat to myself.  Problem was – I was on my way to yoga!  What am I gonna do with that bird in the meantime?  I asked the nice woman selling the chickens for several bags of ice and she was happy to oblige.  I got back to my car and packed the bird into a corner on the floor of the car, completely surrounded on each side with ice.  It was still in the 40’s and cloudy outside so I figured it would make it through the class, especially since I had so serendipitously found it in the first place.

 

There is a difference between free-range and pasture-raised.  So-called “free-range” chickens are usually still raised in large industrial farms where they are often housed in huge barns with nothing but a small door opening to a dirt-filled lot.  Because they have the option to go outside, they can legally be called “free-range.”  But very few actually do go outside, and if they do, cannot find much to eat there – they are still fed grain.  Pasture-raised chickens, on the other hand, can usually only be found on smaller family farms and are sold either directly from the farms or at farmers’ markets.  They grow up eating grass and grubs, what chickens evolved to eat, instead of chicken feed which contains anything from corn and soy to other animal byproducts (including chicken!).  Because they are grass-fed, they tend to be leaner and the meat is richer in omega-3 fats, beta carotene (the eggs in particular), and lower in cholesterol.  Not only are they healthier to eat, but they live a happier and healthier lifestyle. 

 

An hour and a half later at home, I unwrapped the bird to prepare it for brining, only to discover it still had its feet and head attached!  This really was a whole bird.  Now I feel like I must state where I am coming from and where I stand on eating meat.  I grew up on a farm and my family raised chickens which we harvested every year.  We all had to participate in one way or another, and needless to say, this was my least favorite day of the year.  Later, moving to the city, I felt quite removed from the source of the food I was eating (which was probably a much worse environment than where my family’s chickens happily grazed and matured) and like a lot of people, didn’t really want to think about it.  For a very brief period, I tried to be a vegetarian (my brother is still a vegetarian).  However, I just don’t do well physically without meat.  I have difficulty maintaining muscle tone, and I feel anemic and fatigued.  I know that there are people who have mastered the art of being a vegan but for others, like me, it just doesn’t work.  Now I do not eat a lot of meat.  I have it probably every other day for lunch and dinner, and once a week I make bacon for breakfast.  But the meat that I do eat is humanely raised and free of hormones and antibiotics and I know where it comes from.  So I feel that in reconnecting to the source of my food, I can make informed choices that make a difference in contributing to demand for meat products that are raised humanely.

 

So I took a moment of gratitude for this bird who had at least lived a happy, healthy life.  Then I pulled the cleaver (which I had never used before) out of my knife block, took a deep breath, and hacked off the feet and neck.  These I set aside for making stock later (I try to get the most use out of roasting a whole bird so nothing goes to waste).

 

Basic Brine Recipe

 

To prepare the brine, fill a large stock pot (big enough for your bird) to half-way with water.  Then add the following ingredients:

 

1/2 cup kosher sea salt

1/4 cup raw sucanat (totally unrefined form of sugar cane)–optional, though only a tiny amount will actually be absorbed by the meat and it makes it more tender

1 T whole peppercorns

I whole lemon, sliced

2-3 crushed bay leaves

Fresh herbs (I used thyme and rosemary)

 

Immerse the bird into the brine (add more water if needed) and refrigerate for 24 hours.

 

Herb Roasted Pasture-Raised Chicken

 

The basic cooking time for roasting a bird is 30 minutes per pound.  That means if you have a 4-lb. bird, like I did, your cooking time is 2 hours.  When you are ready to roast your bird, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.  Remove the bird from the brine and place it in a roasting pan.  Drizzle it with 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with fresh herbs (thyme, sage, rosemary, etc).  Place it in the preheated oven to bake, removing every 20 minutes or so to baste with the oil and its own juices which it will release as it cooks.  When you have reached the designated cooking time, test it with a meat thermometer.  It should reach at least 165 degrees at the thickest point (under the thigh or breast, near the bone).  The skin will be brown and crispy and the meat tender and juicy. 

 

When it is done, carve it up to serve, saving the juices to make gravy or stock, along with the bones.  You can either freeze the carcass and make stock later, or throw it all in the crock pot, cover with water, and slow-cook overnight.  You will have delicious stock in the morning.  Any remaining meat on the bones is perfect for soup or chicken salad.

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