Friday, June 13, 2008

Zen and the Art of Pastured Pountry

According to my beginner's knowledge of Buddhism, attachment is the source of all suffering. Holding that thought firmly in mind, I opened two fiercely chirping boxes this morning and introduced our 100-odd baby chicks to their new home. Some of the tiny birds are intended to supplement our still dwindling flock of layers (these I am allowed to love); the vast majority will be "broilers," destined to be my introduction to the world of animal processing. In anticipation of this moment of truth, I've been schooling myself from Joel Salatin's comprehensive Pastured Poultry Profits. Among the many illustrations within is a series that demonstrates proper chicken processing procedure and includes instructions like, "Pull open the rear enough to get your hand in," and "Pull the heads off. No bone shards that way."

I was the kid in high school who felt sorry for the dissection specimens, and while I'm certainly less squeamish and empathetic today than I was then, I know full well that chicken harvesting won't be nearly as easy as picking strawberries.

Still, these broilers are an important challenge for me. In my opinion, if I can't stomach the process that brings my food to my plate, I probably shouldn't be eating what's on it. I'm looking forward to processing chickens with the same combination of fascination and dread with which I greeted my first rollercoaster. This could get ugly. My stomach will probably be lodged somewhere in my throat. But I've got to give it a try.

Because the baby chicks are just so darn adorable, I'm trying to cultivate a healthily dark sense of humor around them to prevent myself from lapsing into babytalk. I hailed them as my dinner, jokily speculated that the garlic (which is curing in the same garage where we brood the chickens) might season the young birds through a miracle of proximity, and debated with the other interns the finer points of slaughter (Will a headless chicken really run? Does it count if it then crosses the road?) All of this is to say that I'm trying my best not to get attached to these birds because I really, really like to eat chicken, and I'd hate to become a vegetarian simply because I can't deal with the reality of death. We will give our birds a natural, albeit brief, chickenly life. They will eat well, scratch in the dirt, and flap their wings. Then, having given then a reason for existence (domesticated animals like chickens would not exist were it not for human consumption of them), I will kill them humanely and eat them reverentially. Hopefully with lots of garlic.

The chickens are presently too small to be good for much of anything, so my cooking remains very vegetably based. Luckily, summer is a time when veggies can easily hold their own. Last week's heat wave inspired me to make a chilled cucumber soup, then the end of the week harvest set me into a cooking frenzy. Two recipes here call for whey, but that's only because I made ricotta and wanted to find a use for the protein-rich byproduct. You can as easily substitute chicken or vegetable stock where I call for whey.

Cucumber Soup with Smoked Salmon

1 Tablespoon butter
100 g onion, chopped
4 cucumbers, peeled, halved, deseeded and chopped
1 potato, chopped
800 mL whey
15 g dill, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
250 mL sour cream or yogurt
150 g smoked salmon, chopped

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat and saute the onion until soft. Stir in the cucumber and potato and saute for a further minute. Add the whey, dill, and salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes, until the potato is tender. Puree the soup in a food processor or blender until smooth. Cool; chill the soup in the fridge for 3-4 hours. Stir in the sour cream or yogurt and garnish with the smoked salmon.

Roasted or Grilled Summer Squash

8-10 cups summer squash, thickly sliced
4 cloved garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons EACH of fresh basil, oregano, and thyme
2 Tablespoons balsamic venegar
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Mix all of the seasoning ingredients together in a large bowl. Toss the squash with marinade to liberally coat. If grilling, grill the squash rounds (put that George Foreman grill to work!) for about 5 minutes, until you get nice grill marks and the squash becomes tender. If roasting, roast at 425 for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stuffed Swiss Chard
Think of this as a more affordable recipe for stuffed grape leaves

2 Tbsp. golden raisins
1 c. lukewarm water
2/3 c. short grain sweet rice
4 tsp. olive oil, divided
1 onion, finely chopped
1 bunch swiss chard
1/2 c. reduced sodium vegetable broth
3 large dried figs or dates, chopped, or crasins
1 egg white
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

Preheat oven to 325. In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the lukewarm water until plumped, about 15 minutes. Drain. Meanwhile, cook the rice according the package directions--shortgrain brown rice takes a while; be forewarned. In a small nonstick skillet, heat 2 tsp. of the oil. Saute onion until it starts to turn golden, 5-7 minutes. Rinse the chard until cold running water. Being careful not to tear the leaves, cut out the thickest part of the stems. Finely chop the stems. Add the stems and broth to the onion. Cook until liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes. Stir in raisins, rice, figs, pine nuts, and egg white. Place 1 1/2 Tablespoons (or more, depending on size of leaf) of the rice mixture on each chard leaf. Gently wrap, envelope-style, and secure with a toothpick. Place the chard bundles seam-side down and close together in a 9x13 baking dish. Wish a pastry brush, coat the bundles with the remaining 2 tsp. oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add 1/4 inch of water to the baking dish. Bake until heated through, about 35 minutes.

Featured on the table: stuffed swiss chard, grilled summer squash, and a beet and new potato salad. Who needs meat?


Kate said...

What a feast! Your cheesemaking is so inspiring too - right now, I'm failing rather miserably with supposedly-foolproof kombucha, so I guess cheese will be for another day.

I hope that Joel Salatin's copious usage of dollar signs is helping ease you into the idea of processing poultry. Good luck! :S

Andrew said...

I feel the same way about meat. If I can't face the act of killing an animal, then I don't think I should have anything to do with it.

These ideas just sort of sat around my head for a while, until a few weeks ago, when I got an opportunity to test them. My friends at college had been keeping six chickens for (delicious) eggs, but they realized that there wouldn't be enough people around over the summer to take care of them. So we killed a butchered two of them at our house.

It didn't shock me as much as I thought it would. I was amazed at how quickly and cleanly two living animals turned into meat. They tasted pretty good, but a little tough. They had led active lives, and plus they were older when we killed them than most chickens are. Also, they were bred both for meat and for egg-laying, which made them tougher.

It was really interesting to have such an extended relationship with the chickens. In their meat, their fat (yellow, not white), their organs, and much, much more, we could see - and remember - how they lived.

I hope you have a good experience with the chickens you wrote about in this post. I'd love to read your reflections on their lives and their deaths when the time comes.