Online Butcher Pat Whelan writes on meat and food in general and this week is in a ‘Fowl Mood’.
I think there is enough distance between us and Christmas to start talking fowl again. Normally at this time of year the festive period is a dim and distant memory, the ‘shiny new’ of the New Year is waning quickly and life is trundling on again normally. January 2011 will also stand out as particularly bleak because this month most people have suddenly seen the dramatic effect of the budget on their take home pay. For most of us it’s bloody harsh and even painful to talk about. Unlike Christmas, cries of “Jesus Christ” have little to do with remembering his birthday and more to do with the dreaded ESB and Visa bills that are landing daily. The only excitement in January is the frisson of danger that flutters in your conscience when you pay the Visa bill with the ESB money and pay the ESB bill on the credit card! It’s a hard month but we must cling onto the fact that the darkest hour is just before the dawn and spring must be around the corner.
I personally find there’s nothing like a nice meal to take your mind of the misery and if ever we needed comfort food now is probably the time. We normally associate comfort food with the winter; taking the opportunity to indulge in warming meals in the dark and dreary depths of the season. Generally when we talk comfort we picture steaming plates of stew and lashings of mashed potato, but if there is a comfort food meat I would suggest that it is Chicken. For comfort and value you really can’t beat a perfectly roasted chicken with all the trimmings. It is a meal that is fit for royalty and yet comes without the enormous price tag. I also feel there is great taste variety offered with a roast chicken. You have the sweetness of the leg and the historical value of feeling like a ancient high king as you grip the bone and tear the meat, the crispy skin can be truly sublime if prepared properly, the soft, tender white breast should melt in the mouth and an excellent sausage meat stuffing will make the bird stretch that little bit further and add a further dimension to the experience. (By the way we James Whelan Butchers is running a great on line competition at the moment and all you have to do is enter your favourite stuffing recipe.) If you’re not that enthused by roast chicken I would hazard a guess that you haven’t tasted it at its best or, if you are the cook, you haven’t learned the basics of doing it.
I am a firm believer that if you master just a few basics in cooking you will be perceived as a great cook. It’s the cheater’s way to greatness and it works. The trick is to master something really versatile like chicken. If you can do a good roast chicken then different types of stuffing will give you different results. Serve different vegetables with the different types of stuffing and again you have widened your repertoire without learning anything new. A female friend of mine suggested that chicken is like the miracle capsule wardrobe; the meat forms the basic outfit and then you just accessorise to achieve the different looks or tastes in this case. I’m still a bit hazy on this analogy but I trust she knows what she’s talking about.
Chicken comes with many advantages in that it is a universally accepted meat. Unlike some meats it doesn’t come with any religious taboos (that I’m aware of anyway) and so every country in the world likes chicken. From your basic southern fried chicken popularised in the States to the mild and creamy chicken curries of India you are truly spoiled for choice when it comes to recipes. Even after you’ve eaten a roast chicken the carcass can be made into the tastiest stock that will go on giving flavour to other dishes or perhaps lovely homemade soups.
There is a choice available to the Irish shopper of corn-fed, free-range or organic, and each is a matter of taste. Corn-fed poultry are raised conventionally with a high corn content being present in their diet. They are clearly different in colour, taking on a golden tinge resulting from the feed. Free-Range means that the chickens are given access to an outside run, allowing them to roam and forage. They are fed a natural diet similar to all other chickens. Because of the costs and time involved with the free-range regime, the end product on the shelves is considerably more expensive than conventionally reared poultry.
As a matter of interest, I have undertaken numerous taste tests with those whom I regard as having discriminating palates. Rarely can the meat be identified as clearly one or the other. A number of small producers are bringing a uniqueness to the market with specific breeds and a longer growing period, which is great. I am very happy to stand over the quality of all Irish chicken. We have marvellous controls in place and I’m very confident that our indigenous producers will continue to comply with the rigorous standards demanded. Just remember: Irish bred, Irish reared and Irish prepared – it is ultimately about nutrition at the end of the day. After that, it is a matter for your personal beliefs and your pocket: your taste buds will benefit whatever you choose.
I like to stuff the actual chicken as I feel the stuffing takes on the taste of the bird this way rather than cooking stuffing in a separate dish. What is also good practice is to place a piece of parchment paper on the base of the cavity prior to actually stuffing the chicken. I also butter the whole bird quite liberally, salt and pepper generously and then place small knobs of butter between the joints, legs and wings. I preheat the oven to 180º and placing the chicken in a large roasting dish allow 20 minutes per 450g (1lb) plus a flexible 20 minutes over at the end. I increase the oven to 200º for the last 20 minutes as I find this really crisps the skin. After the first 30 minutes of cooking (don’t even open the oven door during this initial stage) I baste the chicken with the buttery juices and then baste again every 20 minutes or so during the cooking time. I also prepare the chicken separately and let the roasting dish heat up with the oven while I am working. Ovens vary so get to know yours when it comes to chicken. Learn how to roast a chicken properly and you might never need to learn another thing about cooking. I welcome your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Food Market Monkstown and Avoca Rathcoole. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers