Chicken for the true gourmet.

I had chicken for the first time in my life this week.

I mean, I’ve had chicken before—many, many times. Chicken from plastic wrapped packages in the supermarket, chicken from farmer’s markets, chicken at fancy restaurants, chicken at fast food joints (well, that may have been “chicken.”) But this week, for the first time ever, I had chicken.

This chicken was not just chicken. This chicken made you savor the very word chicken, exaggerating it to the point of italics as you slowly chewed it’s flavorful meat.

This chicken was bought at Podere di’ Melo, a small farm run near my new apartment (I’m moving in August!) in West Amwell, New Jersey. Jim and I visited the farm, touring the idyllic landscape of stables, vegetable beds, the forest of trees for the pigs, peeking into the feed bins to assure ourselves that it was organic, almost tripping over the many happily pecking chickens that inhabited the entire area. We heard the farmers—a lovely married couple still working full-time jobs while running the farm—talk about their desires for the place, their view on the farm’s growth over the past two years, and about their love of food, cooking, and animals. Before I even bought a chicken, I already knew that it would be the chicken for me.

I’m leaving for vacation tomorrow, but I couldn’t go before letting you know about these chickens. Podere di’ Melo explains it best:

“Simpy put, these are one of the tastiest chickens you can find. Derived from the same genetic strain as the famous Label Rouge (Red Label) chickens of France, these birds are unlike anything you have tasted before. Unlike conventional (or even most organic) chicken, these are bred for flavor, not rapid weight gain (a feature that benefits the producer, not you!). They take longer to grow than commercial (and most organic) chickens and are active foragers (commercial breeds rarely move from the food tray). This results in an amazingly flavorful meat. This is the chicken for the true gourmet.

I’ve had organic chicken before. I’ve had “free-range.” But I’ve never had chicken. And once you’ve had chicken, you’re a convert for life.

Herb Roast Chicken

excerpted from The River Cottage Meat Book (copy and pasted from Married… with Dinner.)

1 small but plump roasting chicken weighing about 3 to 4 pounds
7 tablespoons soft butter
generous handfuls of fresh herbs, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/2 glass of white wine
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Take off any string or elastic trussing from the chicken, place the bird in a roasting pan, and spread out its legs from the body. Enlarge the opening of the cavity with your fingers, so hot air can circulate inside the bird. It will cook quicker like that.

Put the butter in a bowl, throw in the roughly chopped herbs and the garlic, and season well with salt and pepper. Mix together with your fingers, then spear all over the chicken, inside and out. (Note from Anita: I also gently loosen the skin and spread some butter directly onto the meat. Yum. Note from Robin: I didn’t do that, but you definitely should!)

Place in the center of a hot oven (400F) and leave for 20 minutes (phase 1). Then baste the chicken [with the drippings], turn the oven down to 350F, pour the wine into the pan (not over the bird), and roast the bird for another 30 to 40 minutes (phase 2), depending on its size. Open the oven door, turn the oven off, and leave the bird for 15 to 20 minutes (phase 3). This is usually enough time to roast a small chicken through without burning the skin (the reason I prefer small chickens for roasting.) For a bigger bird, you will have to make the necessary adjustments, adding a few minutes to each phase. You may also wish to protect the bird’s skin with buttered foil for, say, the first 20 minutes of phase 2. A good test for doneness is to pierce that part of the bird where the thigh joins the breast; the juices released should run clear.

Forget about gravy. Carve the bird in the pan, as coarsely and crudely as you like (no wafer-thin breast slices, please), letting the pieces fall into the buttery pan juices and letting the fresh juices from carving mingle with the rest. Then take the pan to the table and pass it round your family or guests in the pecking order of your choosing, so they can pull out the bits they fancy. Pass it round a second time, to help redress grievances and encourage the further and fairer distribution of juices.

Accompaniments? Roast potatoes would be de trop. A green vegetable would probably go unnoticed. Some good bread to mop up the juices will be appreciated, while a leafy salad, produced only after your guests have demolished the chicken, might assuage a few guilty consciences.

The discover of the roasting pan, a day or so later in a cool larder, is a joy you may not wish to share. Plundered the jellied juices, congealed bits of skin, and crusty meat tatters that cling to the carcass before you quietly make the rest, along with the giblets, into stock.

*I’ll be in East Hampton until next week, so I won’t be responding to your comments. I’ll try to get to all of you as soon as I return. See you then!