I buy my chickens from a local farmer. She sells me eggs, too, blue, brown and white ovoids so beautiful they can’t help but taste better than commercial eggs. Each winter, my farmer sends me a note when she is ready to order her chicks, and I guess how many birds I think we plan to consume in a year. Big birds, that is – roasters, double Ds, you might say if you were inclined to categorize by cup size. I ask for larger birds because the ratio of meat to bone is higher. From one bird, I expect to feed the two of us, plus Mom, four, five or even six meals, plus whatever I make with chicken stock from the bones as a beginning point.
Each summer, I drive to the farm and collect my butchered birds, along with the livers, hearts, and gizzards. We have chopped liver spread; our dog Jake has simmered gizzards and hearts. I spend all afternoon and evening cutting up and freezing birds in bags – all thighs, all breasts, all drums, all wings – so my winter and spring cooking is decided by cut, which in turn determines cooking method. Then I brown the carcasses in the oven and make a huge potful of stock, which I also freeze, money in the bank to a cook.
The birds my farmer raises are delicious. They eat well, get plenty of air and exercise, and have a good, chicken-y life, with bugs and grasses to peck and breezes to ruffle their feathers. I’ve been eating birds raised off the grid for much of my adult life. Underlying my visits to my farmer’s yard is my memory of my Gran raising birds, and her butcher day, here on the farm where Dave and I now live. My Gran was good with her hatchet, but I will never forget seeing headless birds like avian Ichabod Cranes careening about the yard as they ran towards their deaths. The pungent smell of scalded feathers prior to plucking hung on all day, made worthwhile by the canned chicken that Gran put up, cellar shelves lined with quart sealers.
According the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, poultry is the second-most-popular meat on the planet, just behind pork. But studies of diet during the pandemic show that home cooks have turned more often to poultry than any other protein source, mostly because of its versatility. My husband Dave has lost count of the number of ways we eat chicken, but his favourite is still fried chicken, which I make once or twice a year. So first we eat, and then we debate our top bird dishes.
Brined Fried Chicken
Method matters: brining chicken, pork, and turkey is a solid-gold way to ensure a juicy, tender result; and meticulously dredging the pieces in flour, egg-wash, and crumbs protects the chicken from the oil.
½ cup kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups water
1 quart buttermilk
1 head garlic, peeled and smashed
a handful of fresh thyme
several sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 Tbsp. whole peppercorns
2 Tbsp. sweet paprika
1 roasting chicken, cut into 4-oz pieces (off the bone is best)
3 cups flour (barley, wheat, or spelt)
salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
1 tsp. dried thyme or basil
2 cups milk
4 cups panko breadcrumbs
oil for the pan
Combine the salt, sugar and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Stir until all crystals are dissolved. Cool thoroughly. Add the buttermilk, garlic, thyme, rosemary, peppercorns, and paprika. Mix well. Transfer to a large zippered plastic bag, add the chicken pieces, seal, and refrigerate for 8-12 hours.
Remove the chicken from the brine. Discard the brine. Pat dry the chicken and let stand on a baking sheet so it will not be stone cold when you cook it. Set the oven at 325 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.
Stir together the flour, salt, pepper, paprika and herbs on a baking tray with a lip. Mix together the egg and milk and put it in shallow pan. Put the breadcrumbs in a shallow tray or large plate. Arrange the three containers in a row on the counter: flour, egg-wash, crumbs. Set one empty parchment-lined tray next to the crumbs.
Dredge several pieces of chicken in the flour, coating each thoroughly, then shake off the excess. Dip each thoroughly in the egg wash, then in the crumbs. Arrange on the tray in a single layer. Repeat until all the chicken is coated. Clean your hands often as you work.
Pour 2” of oil into a large cast iron frying pan and heat the pan until the oil sizzles when water is flicked onto it, about 340 F. Use tongs to place a piece of chicken skin-side down in the oil – it should sizzle. Add as many pieces as comfortably fit in a single layer. Cook until nicely browned, 5-7 minutes, then turn to colour the second side, about 3-5 minutes. Remove the cooked chicken to the second tray. Repeat until all the chicken is cooked. Keep the tray of fried chicken in the oven while the rest is frying. Serve hot.