At this time of year, I develop a hankering for fried chicken that must be satisfied. Yet I can’t find a bird in my nearby grocery store that measures up to how I prepare the Southern mainstay.
Americans have gotten so used to overfed, factory-raised specimens that we have come to identify chicken by its seasonings rather than its inherent flavor. What do we really mean when we proclaim that something “tastes like chicken”?
Usually it’s not a compliment.
Thanks to producers such as Julie Stinar at Evensong Farm in Sharpsburg, Md., it doesn’t have to be that way. She pasture-raises Cornish Cross and Poulet Rouge birds that look, feel and taste superior to what you generally find in a supermarket or at many farmers markets.
When those two packaged broilers are placed side by side, you can see that the Cornish Cross is plumper and whiter, with a large, rounded breast and thick legs. The Poulet Rouge has a gamier appearance; the skin has a lilac hue, with dark dots where the feathers were. The flesh is darker, the thighs and drumsticks longer and the breast meat narrower.
More-developed muscle and less fat so enhances the flavor of pasture-raised chickens that they are worth their premium cost: close to $20 for a 3 1/2-pound bird. Bear in mind, however, that the meat is naturally firmer than what you might be used to. They therefore especially benefit from brining, marinating or poaching.
On the sunny, not-so-humid August morning I visited Evensong Farm, Stinar’s red-combed, auburn-feathered Poulet Rouge birds seemed content to bawk, walk and lounge under a patch of shade trees rising from sloping pastureland. They snacked freely on the occasional insect and from the buffet bins stocked with a 16 percent protein feed that is specially blended for them.
Stinar’s goal with all of her animals is to provide an environment that’s as stress-free as possible. For a broiler, that life begins as one of 200 day-old, mail-order chicks from a hatchery. They spend 2 1/2 to three weeks in an indoor brooder. From there, they go into portable pens on pastureland; the small Quonset-hut-like, wire-and-wooden structures have gravity-based water systems, a feeder and a plastic covering to provide shelter.
“We move them around from field to field,” say Stinar. “The amount of fertility they are able to put on the pasture is phenomenal.”
Two dogs guard against predators.
After two or three weeks, when the birds are too large to dash through a fence, they are free to roam the pasture.
It takes Stinar’s Cornish Cross broilers eight to 10 weeks to reach a carcass weight of 3½ to 4½ pounds; for Poulet Rouge, 12 to 14 weeks. Cornish Cross are therefore cheaper to produce. In the summer, though, she doesn’t raise Cornish Cross, having learned the hard way that they don’t do well in the heat.
As a self-described suburban girl from Kensington and a former visual merchandiser for Nordstrom, Stinar had no agricultural expertise to draw upon. Yet her natural love of animals and gardening led her to farming.
She and her husband, Brent, both in their early 40s, bought the 132-acre, 160-year-old property abutting Antietam National Battlefield in 2003, after leasing it for three years. They have two children: Gray, 10, and Luka, 7. Brent works full-time in communications and marketing while Stinar tends the farm with one full-time helper, Courtney Ward, 19.
“We originally just wanted 10 acres and a house to restore but wound up with this enormous farm that had been abandoned since 1982 and needed attention,” Stinar says. “There was manure everywhere and cow skeletons in the barn.”
She gave herself five years to restore the farm, using that time to research rotational grazing, participate in online poultry groups, attend conferences and join agricultural associations. She started with an herb and vegetable garden planted in 2003. Then came the animals in annual succession: 25 laying hens in 2004, cows in 2005, broiler chickens in 2006, pigs in 2007.
She sells her chickens (frozen), along with eggs, pork, beef, culinary herbs and some produce, at FreshFarm Markets on Wednesdays in Southwest Washington and on Saturdays in Silver Spring. Fresh birds are available under certain circumstances (see the accompanying sidebar).
In Maryland, small producers can process chickens on their farms, uninspected, and sell them to restaurants, grocers and farmers markets in the state. For sales out of state, the birds must be processed and packaged at a USDA-inspected facility. USDA processing, by the way, costs the farmers $5 per chicken. Stinar says that “just because a chicken was USDA-inspected doesn’t mean that it is any more or less clean than one processed on the farm.”
That is why it’s a good idea to research a farmer’s reputation, and an even better idea to visit the farm yourself. Believe me, not all small chicken producers are as meticulous as Stinar.
Even asking for a breed by name brings no guarantee of quality.
Cornish Cross is the U.S. poultry industry’s standard meat chicken, according to poultry breeder Will Morrow, owner of Whitmore Farm in Frederick. The breed is factory-raised all over the country, and it’s the one most Americans know as chicken. It was created in the 1930s as a cross between Cornish and Plymouth Rock chickens and has been manipulated ever since. A heritage bird takes 14 to 16 weeks to grow; the average commercially produced Cornish Cross hybrid is grown in six to eight weeks.
You might think heritage breeds would be preferable, but Americans find them tough, Morrow says. So breeders cross them with modern broilers, using them to introduce vigor and promote slower growth. The resulting birds are robust enough to live on pasture and grow fast enough to be cost-efficient, but not so fast that they lack rounded flavor.
Stinar’s Poulet Rouge broilers fall into that category. Actually, the more accurate appellation for her birds is Freedom Rangers, the name assigned to them by the Pennsylvania hatchery that produces those chicks. (Stinar gets Cornish Cross chicks from a different hatchery.)
Freedom Ranger Hatchery creates Poulet Rouge breeding stock from eggs sent to the United States from France. The eggs are the result of a cross of four heritage lines developed for France’s Label Rouge, a program of stringent quality-control guidelines created in 1960 to protect food products from industrialization.
Maybe it was the Francophile in me that gave the edge to Poulet Rouge chickens over Cornish Cross when I tasted them both. But one thing seems clear: A bird’s quality of life affects its flavor on the plate.
Evensong’s poultry proves the point. (And so did the underwhelming bird I tried from a different farm.) For two preparations, I used methods that highlight the meat itself: marinating and poaching.
For my grill-lacquered chicken, I rolled a Cornish Cross and a Poulet Rouge in sweet soy sauce and pepper and grill-roasted them until the skin was blackened, shiny and crisp. The meat of both birds was succulent and toothsome, easily standing up to the accompanying glaze of pan drippings, coffee and zesty Sriracha sauce.
Next, I poached whole birds and put together a summer entree of stacked tomato slices, chunky chicken salad and sliced breast meat finished with a creamy, oregano-laced feta dressing. The extra bonus: bold, intense stock that I reduced and froze for future soups.
Last but not least, the fried chicken. To call my recipe “definitive” is immodest. And truthful. It has taken me years to get it right, including how to deal with the mess it makes in the kitchen.
It begins with soaking the pieces in seasoned buttermilk, whose acid aids in tenderizing. It’s key to use a skillet large enough to fry the equivalent of a whole chicken at once, unless you’re willing to cool the fat and strain burned flour out of it before a second batch goes in. Also, set up a cooling rack instead of letting hot chicken drain on paper towels. Wear gloves for the coating process, and clean as you work. Instead of dipping the chicken pieces in seasoned flour, squeeze the pieces as they sit in the flour; that will expel a little moisture and attract more pockets of coating, which will translate into lots of nubbly bits on your fried chicken.
Stinar’s birds did my recipes proud. Another Evensong Farm fan: Ann Yonkers, co-founder of FreshFarm Markets. She says: “When you cook up [Stinar’s] Poulet Rouge, just roasting it or in a cacciatore, it has a silkiness. It has a texture I wouldn’t call chewy, just texture. The flavor and texture together make it a different kind of meat.”
Cornish Cross birds from Evensong Farm also pass muster with Yonkers; she asked Stinar to raise 100 of them for the organization’s Farmland Feast fundraising event in November.
That’s a ringing endorsement.