Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I took the head off a chicken

No pictures, but this is not a post for the super-squeamish.  Just a warning.

Like everyone in the mid-90s, I was a vegetarian teenager, which meant that I ate a lot of grilled cheese and zero beans or nuts.  I didn't eat tofu and had never heard of seitan or tempeh or any other vegan protein.  I was also once so anemic that I had to routinely drink the water spinach was boiled in for the iron (not recommended).  So when vegetarianism wasn't working for me, I went back to meat.  Sort of.

I'm the kind of meat eater who isn't looking to expand my horizons.  I have a friend who loves rabbit and duck, but the cuteness factor gets to me (my mom grew up with a pet duck).  I've never been able to eat anything on a bone, and this means Sous Chef Brian has used a fork to take meat off a chicken wing for me.  

So I don't eat a ton of meat, in overall quantity or in range. 

I'm also pretty upset about factory farming, so I try to buy meat from local farmers and feel like I have a sense of where it came from.  This is easy, with beef, we have great farms we can buy it from.  With chicken, the real limit is that at the farm stands and similar locales, most of the time you're getting a whole chicken.

So in reality, while I say I "make food out of food," what I actually do is make food out of vegetables.  I don't take meat from a non-food state and bring it to the table.  The meat I'm working with has generally been all fooded up before I see it. 

I've watched in horror and fascination as Julia Collin Davidson butchered, spatchcocked, and otherwise dismembered birds dozens of times on America's Test Kitchen.  It always makes me think, "We should have PBJs for dinner."

I've roasted turkeys.  I've roasted awesome turkeys. I've reached under the skin and buttered the breast. I've loaded the cavity with apples and onions and carrots.  I can manage a once-a-year bird, but probably only because it's so far outside of my comfort zone that it's like a stunt. When you've made a turkey dinner, people appreciate all that you went through.  I can pull a roasted turkey out of the oven, say "Ta-Da!" and take a bow.  But I can't do that every week. Who would appreciate it enough to make it worthwhile?

I know that for centuries people have been taking a chicken from field to table.  I'm not those people, and I'm more like people who'd be willing to compromise their values to save them from having to see or do anything icky.  But I've been telling myself, for years really, but lately even more, that if I'm going to keep eating meat, I'm going to have to do it right.  No more of this Whole Foods chicken with shaky "animal welfare ratings."  

So I went out and bought a farm market chicken. 

I know that at this point, many of you badasses will be reading this and like, "So what?  I make a chicken every week." But based on the response this got on Facebook, I also know there are people out there like me, who ask their husbands to cut the uglier bits off the store-bought pre-packaged water-logged chicken breasts before they use tongs to move them to the pan and then scrub everything in the kitchen with boiling water.  

I'm still not into dark meat, so my plan was roast a chicken, have breasts for tacos or chicken salad or something, take the prettiest, cleanest, nicest dark meat for soup, and make stock with the rest.  

Step one - roast a chicken.

Like I said, I've done turkeys.  This couldn't be any worse than that.  

I've done supermarket turkeys, where everything I don't want to see is tucked in a neat little bag, ready to be flung into the nearest trash can.  

I preheated my oven and took my local free-range bird out of it's packaging and got ready to brush it with olive oil and pat it down with salt and pepper and toss it in the oven.  No biggie.  Then, as I picked it up, it became clear that something was terribly wrong.  Not wrong, so much, as unexpected.  The head was attached.  No beak, but still - the head.  

I'm the sort of person who will find the cat with a mouse, reprimand the cat, remove the mouse to a box and drive it a few miles away to be released in a park.  That's how Saturday's Mouse got its name. I am also the sort of person who is not able to do anything about the same mouse if the cat has already killed it.  Just making sure you understand my particular grade of wimpiness.

When Sous Chef Brian saw the head, the suggested we throw the whole chicken out.  He's a different, but similar kind of squeamish, the kind that suggests we throw out the fish if we find that it still has skin on one side.   

I asked Sous Chef Brian for a dishtowel.  

Covering the head with the dishtowel, I made one swift chop, which of course, didn't work, but I hacked a bit and took care of it.  

I cleaned the rest of the bird, rubbed it with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted it.  Then I carved it and made a stock with the carcass and wings.   

The end of that story sounds so non-storyish.  Sure, I roasted a chicken and made stock, lots of people do that.  I didn't make some revolutionary recipe for roasted chicken, or for stock (onions, carrots, bay leaves, pepper, bird).  But it was revolutionary.  

When I make bread, I feel like I've changed the world.  I've taken flour and yeast and made something we can eat.  Not just can eat, but prefer over store-bought. Same with pasta.  I can create ravioli -- fancy pants, special ravioli -- out of a few cents of flour plus whatever veg are in the fridge.  I can make crackers from nothing (apparently flour is magic.) This was like that.  

I took a chicken, and made a chicken. 

It was incredible.  

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