Just before the downturn there were many column inches and much media air time devoted to the great chicken debate. Chefs, producers, organic specialists, commentators, all suddenly had an opinion. The general public was left dazed, bamboozled with information and more confused than ever. The various labels, organic, corn fed, hand reared, free range, farm produced, left the shopper with plenty of choice but little real knowledge on which to base it. Were they implying that some were more nutritious than others and therefore had greater health benefits perhaps? Were they saying that the more money you spent on a chicken the better the taste maybe? Or were we being set up for the higher spend because of the animal welfare and the sort of trauma free life the bird had led? When the questions weren’t properly asked we were then told repeatedly “buy the best chicken you can afford”. Just how condescending is that and what the hell does it actually mean? The whole thing was just a foul trick played on the consumer. (I too am groaning at such an obvious pun, but I couldn’t resist it, forgive me.) Then the downturn set in, the chicken debate wasn’t sexy anymore and suddenly we didn’t have a chicken leg to stand on when it came to making a decision.
So this is how I see it. If you choose to buy a chicken that has been imported from some far flung land and is on offer at 2 for a Euro, then this article is of no use to you whatsoever! Be it on your own head if it is tasteless and shrinks to half its size on cooking, once the injected water drains off. I’m not being xenophobic, it’s just that I do not have first hand knowledge and experience of overseas breeders and processes and sadly I’ve seen the ‘plumped’ up sort that are just a great big con. However, I can give you an opinion on Irish chicken. The chicken breeding industry in Ireland is highly regulated and has an international reputation for being of a very high standard with all registered breeders processes carefully monitored. While not all chickens from registered breeders are considered ‘free range’ because they do not have access to an outdoor run, the birds are well fed and well cared for in clean, warm sheds, which is what chickens tend to like anyway. For this reason I will happily stand over the fact that if you buy a good quality Irish chicken, it will be nutritious and tasty. Look for key factors in the product that determine taste, ie the breed, how long the chicken is grown for and perhaps the diet, after all great food in my opinion is determined by great taste.
If you are concerned with the animal husbandry of it all then by all means purchase the bottle fed, had a story read to it every night and its feathers stroked before it was tucked into a little bed kind of chicken. Yes it will cost a few quid but you are paying for the fact the chicken stayed at the Hilton with access to a pool, gym, wi fi and satellite TV, rather than a Jurys Inn on a room only rate. If you think it will taste that much better then you are just deluding yourself! So do indeed buy the “best chicken you can afford”, but buy it for the right reasons.
Chicken is perhaps one of the most versatile foods on the planet and the whole world seems to know it. Chicken is as popular in the east as it is in the west, be it found in a curry in India, covered with plum sauce in China, deep fried in breadcrumbs in America or casseroled in Europe. It is sold in as many ways as there are ways to cook it. It is very popular with those watching their weight as it is lean (I think that’s all of us in January) and those watching their pockets (again isn’t that universal at this time of year?) While portions are certainly convenient, possibly the best value is a whole chicken that you take home and conjure several different ways until you get to the end of it; roasted, cold with salad, sandwiched, souped and finally turned into stock for the freezer. Okay, the last is possibly aspirational, as few of us have the time to make our own stock these days, but do try it sometime as there is nothing quite as delicious as homemade stock for future dishes. I find the best thing to do is store it in ice cube trays in the freezer and then you can use it as you wish. The weather, however, often dictates the dish and there is something superbly warming about a hearty chicken casserole with loads of large, roughly chopped veg and creamy mash when the frost covers the ground.
Finally one can source the best product on the market but if you can’t cook properly all the good work of the producer is lost. Roast chicken is perhaps one of the most traditional favourite Sunday dinners in many Irish households and personally I love the stuffing. One of the simplest seasoning’s, I have discovered, by mixing sea salt, cracked black pepper, ground bayleaf and crushed garlic, simply rubbed all over the chicken delivers a superb taste.
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