Monthly Archives: April 2010

Choosing chickens

The best chicken I’ve ever eaten was in Costa Rica. I lived in a tiny town called La Esperanza (literally translated as Hope) in the mountains of Costa Rica for a year. I taught English in the public elementary school and spent many afternoons walking the steep, dusty roads to share food with new friends. My visits to Costa Rican families centered around food. Since these families didn’t have a lot of money and primarily survived on subsistence agriculture, meat was a luxury they cooked for guests. And it was delicious!

In La Esperanza most families seemed to have a flock of chickens. I would often see a mother hen clucking protectively, gathering her flock of multi-colored chicks. These chickens were good mothers and perpetuated the flock, in spite of the iguanas and other predators that snatched some of the chicks. Though people would feed these chickens handfuls of corn thrown in the dirt, much of what the chickens ate was foraged.

When my host mother wanted to cook chicken for dinner, she would send my host brother or sister outside to catch one of the hens or roosters that wandered around outside the house. Lili or Pelon would chase the flock until they caught one, then carry it by its feet into the kitchen, where Heidi had a pot of hot water on the stove. Heidi would hold the chicken close to her body, head down, and pull on the chicken’s head until she broke its neck. She then dipped the chicken in the boiling water and sent it back outside with Lili or Pelon to pluck the feathers. Then Heidi would cook the chicken and serve it for dinner. It was the ultimate in fresh, free range meat, and had so much more flavor than anything I’ve bought in a store or restaurant in this country.

Costa Rica cemented my transition from vegetarian to omnivore. Andy, too, eats meat now after many years as a vegetarian. We like to eat meat, though we do try to eat mostly meat from animals that were raised in a humane and sustainable way. We like animals, and we want them to be happy before we eat them. We also believe happy animals with a varied diet produce tastier and healthier meat. We like free range meat, and we want it to be a part of the wedding dinner. So we decided to raise our own chickens.

Cornish Cross chickens are the most commonly used meat hybrid. I’ve eaten these birds, and they taste good. We’ve seen these fat white birds grow quickly to slaughter size. There is an obvious advantage to a bird you only have to feed for six or eight weeks instead of 10 to 12. But we’re turned off by these chickens for several reasons. They seem over-bred to us, to the point of sacrificing some beneficial traits. They don’t seem to forage well, and some crosses have trouble even standing and walking because they grow too fast for their legs to keep up. We wonder if flavor could be better in a bird that eats a more varied diet and wasn’t bred primarily to grow fast. This isn’t to say that raising Cornish Cross birds is a bad choice, but we decided to look for an alternative.

In doing some research on Cornish Cross birds, I found the following excerpt from an article published in “Grit!,” the newsletter of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) and included in APPPA’S compilation: “Raising Poultry on Pasture: Ten Years of Success.” The article was written by Harvey and Ellen Ussery and can be found at http://www.TheModernHomestead.US.

“The Cornish Cross’s greatest virtue is also its greatest vice: its phenomenal rate of growth. That growth is constantly outstripping all its bodily systems—its internal organs and nervous system as well as its skeletal structure. The inevitable results include not only the well-known leg problems and tendency to heart failure—the digestive system clearly lags behind as well…The Cornish Cross—like the huge supermarket strawberry whose growth has been forced by over-fertilization and irrigation—is lower in flavor than a bird that has had a more natural growth curve…I would be happy to put one of my ‘barnyard chickens’ (slaughtered at about 12 weeks) up against any pastured Cornish broiler in the land in a taste test: they unquestionably have more flavor. And, if flavor is a measure of nutritional value—as I believe in natural, unprocessed food it is—then again we should be asking, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’”

Looking for an alternative, we found positive reviews of Freedom Ranger chickens as meat birds. Another few clicks with the mouse and we had ordered 50 from J.M. Hatchery in Pennsylvania. They’ll be shipped as day old chicks on June 30, and we should receive them two days later. We’ll keep them in the garage for a few weeks under a heat lamp, and then we’ll put them in a moveable chicken tractor so we can rotate them around the field near our garden. This way they’ll always have fresh grass and bugs to feed on.

Freedom Ranger meat bird

We’ve made an appointment to have them slaughtered September 18 at West Gardiner Beef. Then we’ll keep them on ice until we roast at least 25 of them for the wedding. The rest we’ll probably stick in our freezer and/or sell to friends.

We look forward to watching these birds grow outdoors with plenty of food, water, shade and sun. We also look forward to eating the juicy, tender, flavorful meat. Let’s just hope our structure is sturdy enough to keep out the predators!

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Planning the menu

We can’t wait to put plants and seeds in the ground, and we have started a few seedlings in Beth’s greenhouse at Dandelion Spring Farm, where we worked last summer. In the meantime, we’ve been planning the menu and trying to figure out how many pounds of each ingredient we will need. My brother gave me the “Moosewood Cooks for a Crowd” cookbook for my birthday 11 years ago, and I’ve been carting it around with me as I move, hoping to use it someday. Finally, I’m cooking for more than 25 people! I’ve always liked Moosewood recipes, as they tend to be both simple and tasty. Our favorite cookbook, however, is “The New Best Recipe.” It was put out by the people at America’s Test Kitchen, who try out many permutations of each dish to find the best recipe.

Our tentative menu (we’ll test and refine all these recipes this summer):

Appetizers:

  • Veggie sticks (carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, green peppers, etc.)
  • Hummus (we make a killer hummus)
  • Fruit (cantaloupe, watermelon, apples, etc.)
  • Bread (from a local bakery)
  • Cheese
  • Pesto (homemade)

Dinner:

  • Roast chicken (raised ourselves, more on that later)
  • Autumn gold squash soup (Moosewood Cooks for a Crowd)
  • Oven fries (The New Best Recipe)
  • Cubed hubbard squash with kale (this is a dish we made up and came to love last fall)
  • Green salad
  • Caprese salad (tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and olive oil – yum!)
  • Asian cabbage slaw (Moosewood Cooks for a Crowd)
  • Pickles (we’ll follow my great-grandmother’s recipe for amazing half sour kosher dill pickles)
  • Bread (from a local bakery)

Dessert:

  • Pie (we’re calling it “battle of the moms,” since we each brag about our mom’s pies)
  • Ice cream (from John’s ice cream in Liberty, Maine – best ice cream in the state)

Taking into account that the wedding will be in the end of September, our menu centers around seasonally available ingredients. We’re hoping that this year’s frost will come late so we can have freshly picked tomatoes and basil from our own garden.

We estimated amounts of each ingredient needed for 100 guests to help us map out our garden. With 100 guests, we figure we’ll need 27 pounds of butternut squash, 40 pounds of potatoes, 12 pounds of cabbage, 15 pounds of carrots and various smaller amounts of other ingredients. Given the yields from the seed catalogs, we’ve taken an additional step to estimate how many row feet of each crop we’ll need. Farming is unpredictable, so we’ll plant way more than we think we’ll need to make sure we have enough.

A local food wedding

We love to eat. We especially love to eat fresh, healthy, whole, real food. Naturally, when we started planning our wedding last fall, we agreed immediately that we wanted to celebrate by sharing a delicious meal of fresh, locally-grown ingredients with our friends and family. The catch is, we don’t have a lot of money and we have other priorities where we want to spend our money (we are currently looking for land to start our own farm). Largely due to farm subsidies to big business for growing large amounts of commodity crops like corn, healthy food is often more expensive than highly processed junk. Trying to pull off a September wedding for 100 guests on under $5,000, we couldn’t afford the kind of caterer we wanted.

We also like to do things ourselves. We love to provide for our own needs, and we like to be independent and make decisions. These desires are one of the driving forces behind our decision to go into farming together. We get a lot of joy from providing basic necessities for ourselves and others.

So we decided to grow and raise our own wedding dinner. We rented out a summer camp for the whole wedding weekend, and we’ve enlisted our wonderful friends and family to help us cook. We are lucky to have space for a garden where we live this summer (7,500 square feet to be exact) and additional fields to graze our chickens in a moveable chicken tractor.

You can follow the progress of our garden and meat chickens from ordering chicks and testing recipes to planting and harvesting ingredients to cooking and eating with friends and family. We’re so excited to embark on this process, we can’t wait until it’s time to sink our hands in the dirt. This blog will follow the whole process.