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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

C'est si Bon! Tales: When We Raised Our Chickens to Sit On the Futon

When We Raised On Our Chickens To Sit On The Futon

Are chickens chic? What's your chicken story? 

(This piece was first published in the Chapel Hill News, when I was food editor there, basically, a multitude of eons and forever ago. I don't have the exact date, but I might have a copy of the paper, if it wasn't for the chickens. At any rate it was written in the early 1990’s and I was reminded of it when my friend, Cori, asked me about raising chickens.)

       In answer to the age-old question, "which came first, the chicken or the egg?," I can only answer affirmatively for our family, in which case it was definitely the chicken. Then came the eggs, then came more chickens, and more learning, until I could collectively stash eggs no more and relented to make a huge batch of egg-rich key lime coconut bars.

But I also knew quite affirmatively the day I walked in the front door to find our two, four week old pair of innocent looking (or so I thought!) newly feathered and no longer downy and fluff-ballish cutesy pie chicks sitting lovey-dovey and chicken cheek to cheek on the futon that something had gone astray. Namely the chickens.

The Chicken Whisperer 

Therefore, even though I've heard it said that chickens are the new dog, I, for one, cannot recommend that chickens be considered suitable house pets nor be allowed indoors even if the sky begins to fall on our heads. It's far too dicey to reason with their scatter-brained attitude to use the paper for anything more than shredding and scratching into bite size little bits, presumably for our dog, Caramel, who was eyeing them with great delight. And, number two, even Caramel has learned to jump off the futon when I return, opening the door, it's tell-tale squeek and the sound of paws jumping on hard wood floor co-mingling. But the chickens? On no. They sit and cluck on the futon while you're out getting more chicken feed for them. All this in less than 30 minutes! 
Just to assure you I'm not in the habit of crying fowl, let me explain how this all began.      

The calendar had just etched beyond Easter when our friends who own Celebrity Dairy, Fleming and Brit Pfann, who are also goat and fromage-making savvy, enticed us to hen-hood with their tales of incubating and thus impending hatchlings of Rhode Island Reds. Naturally we were drawn to get cracking and like bees drawn to honey, we simply said, quietly. 

Please oh please. We must have little chickies, please! 

Alas, that is how we succumbed, scattering the many joys, and a few sorrows, like cracked corn for our dear four feathered fiends, who began our flock that continues to this day, with five hens from Fickle Creek Farm

Ben Bergman of Fickle Creek Farm with our Teen-Chefs. 

With the coming Mother's Day weekend, I hope its not gauche to suggest a menu related to our theme of chicken and eggs with a side of cucumbers.  Lest I give the impression that we ate the chickens that sat on our futon, no no and no. That is not correct. We never had in mind to raise chickens for meat. Just hens for their lovely eggs. But of course there were a few roosters involved, oh yes. 

Raising eggs isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  

Have you ever raised chickens? Won't you please share your chicken story? 

Cilantro and yogurt bathed and then crispified chicken
When the lure of fried chicken calls, it's best to answer yes, yes, yes, because nothing else does taste quite the same. Remembering past suppers at mom's or grandma's brings it all back.  Although not mine as I grew up in Pennsylvania where chicken was for pot pie or corn soup or…well, nevermind, but something other than fried chicken which I found out when I moved back east, and south. Fried is a historical entity down south. I won't even go there as I'm not southern born and bred, though I do like cornbread. The southern way. 

But way back hen - soaking your chicken in buttermilk is what I was told, but meaning no disrespect, I shrugged and leaned the Indian way. Give your grand attention to plumping the bird in a yogurt bath, seasoning the flour with deep spices, getting the right sizzle from the shortening, maybe coconut oil, or heaven's to betsy, just-like-grandma-lard-and-bacon grease. It's simple and yet, to make excruciatingly divine fried fowl, you must keep a firm grip on certain cooking principles. 

Time, temperature, and patience are all needed in the exact same amounts. 
Hence, enjoy each step along the way designed to bring out texture and flavor. So don't be chicken. Enjoy every last crunchy crumb. And if chicken isn't your thing, may I suggest the same treatment for - and this should be no surprise. Eggplant. 

Serves 4

4 split chicken breasts  
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon each cumin, cardamom, crushed fennel seed, crushed red pepper, white pepper
Zest of 1 lemon
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bacon fat and lard for frying

In a large and deep glass casserole add the chicken, the yogurt, the cilantro, and the spices. Soak for at least 2 hours, turning half-way through if necessary and continue for at least another 2 but up to 24 hours, refrigerated.

When ready to fry, mix the flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper in a large paper bag. Shake pieces of excess yogurt, and dry the chicken on paper towels. 
Discard the yogurt.

Heat the fat to 375 degrees, in a large cast iron skillet or another sturdy frying pan. Use a deep frying thermometer to check the accuracy of the temperature. Shake each piece in the paper bag with the seasoned flour mix, a few at a time, until well coated. Place the pieces in the frying vessel and fry uncovered for 20 -25 minutes, turning occasionally to insure even browning. Each side should be a golden brown.  Drain them on paper towels or on plain brown paper bags.

Chilled cucumber, green chile, and tomato raita
Since we went the yogurt route with the chicken – very much like a tandoori chicken recipe, cucumbers can’t be far behind. Here's a wonderfully cool way to offer an accompanying sauce with either the fried or if you dare, broiled version of the chicken. It's high points? Delicious with a spark, easy to make. 

It’s also useful as a first course soup – so do double the recipe and save half, thin out a bit with veg stock or chicken stock, and you’ll have made soup while the sun shines. (See, even I’ve had it with chicken puns..)

3 large cucumbers
1/2 teaspoon each crushed cumin seeds and coriander seeds
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 cups plain whole milk yogurt
3 scallions
1 teaspoon fresh chopped ginger
2 cloves fresh garlic, crushed and minced
1 each medium red and medium yellow tomato, seeded and diced
1 green chile, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro

Take your cucumber and peel, then slice peeled cucumbers in half lengthwise. My favorite way to remove the seeds is with an old fashioned blade vegetable peeler, the kind with the open handle, because first you could peel your cucumber then after slicing lengthwise, you could flip the peeler and scoop out the seeds. Finis.

Chop cucumbers fine by hand. Place in a colander to drain for 30 minutes.

Toss the cumin and coriander seeds in a small skillet over low heat to toast for about 4 minutes. Remove from heat when fragrant. Squeeze any excess moisture from cucumbers, then drain on paper towels.  In a medium size bowl, combine cucumbers, toasted spices, yogurt, scallions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, chile, and cilantro. Mix gently.  Chill or serve immediately.

Key lime coconut bars with first eggs and bear mush
These require an abundance of eggs to make and will power, not to eat. So, please bear with me.

Makes 24 bars

For the crust:
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup bear mush, arrowhead mills (hard red winter wheat) optional
1/2 pound butter, melted
2 cups confectioner's sugar

For the filling:
2 cups key lime juice, nellie and joe's brand
2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
10 small eggs, the first eggs your young hens have laid

For finishing:
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 cup toasted coconut

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Butter and flour the 9 by 14 baking sheet with sides.

In a medium bowl combine the flour, sugar, and bear mush.
Mix these well together.  Add the melted butter and stir with a fork, then crumble with your fingers, if necessary to completely mix.  Press these crumbs evenly into the baking sheet. Bake for about 25 minutes or until light brown.

While the crust is baking, prepare the filling. Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. (you can use the same bowl as the crust was mixed in) add the key lime juice, sugar and cornstarch.  Whisk well to combine all ingredients.  Pour the filling onto the hot crust and return to the oven to bake an additional 25 minutes or until the filling is set when the pan is shaken.  Remove and cool on a rack. 

Finish by sprinkling with the coconut and confectioner's sugar when cool, then cut into 24 bars.

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