Photos by Cathy Arkle
My alternate title for this week’s article was “Fry Me To The Moon,” as this week my in-class recipe was fried chicken and gravy, but I didn’t want to scare anyone off, so I went with this one. (Props to The Trashmen of 1963).
Chicken is the most popular main course in the country. But there’s a lot more fowl choices out there than just the standard 3-4 pound broiler/fryer that we all know and love. There is a correlation between size, age, tenderness and flavor of all of these feathered creatures. Basically, the smaller they are, the milder the flavor and the more tender they are. May, our teacher, regaled us with the different kinds before we jumped in to cut up and cook our chickens.
The littlest of these birds are the “dwarf chickens.” Examples of these are the Poussin (pronounced Poo-sin) and the Cornish Game Hen. Poussin are about 1 ½ pounds each. French in origin, they’re single serving birds that are about a month old. Cornish Game Hens are also sometimes referred to as Poussin, but are actually a bit bigger, around 2 pounds. Cornish hens are actually a hybrid chicken. Both types are usually roasted.
Next are the standard broiler/fryers we find in most stores. We call them broiler/fryers but you can do a LOT more with them. These types of birds are best for cooking with dry heat, like roasting, grilling and frying (as you’ll soon see!).
Roasters are the larger types of standard chickens, averaging about 5-7 pounds. Guess what you do with these? Because these birds have a longer life span, they’ve developed more fat under the skin as well as more muscle. The more muscle a bird has, the more flavor, so these birds cook beautifully-the skin keeps the meat moist and makes sure the flavor really comes out.
Capons are castrated male birds. I had no idea, did you? These birds range from about 7-10 pounds. They’re very popular during the holidays and I bet this fun fact will lead to some lively conversation with your in-laws. Actually, Capon is a lovely alternative to turkey for those who want a change of pace.
The largest of the chickens is the Stewing Hen. These average 8-9 pounds and are around a year old. This makes the meat a bit tough, so stewing and braising these birds will keep the flavor, but tenderize the meat better.
Want to get fancy? Try cooking some game birds. One of my favorites is Duck. People always freak out over all the fat under the skin, but if cooked properly, it’s amazing. The fact is, duck meat is very lean, so the fat under the skin helps keep it moist. Duck is very easy to cook-most people can cook duck breast at home. Score the skin, sear the breast with the skin side down until it’s crunchy, flip it over until it starts to brown and finish it in the oven for a bit. Ta-da! Make a lovely fruit sauce on the side and you’re ready for company.
Pheasant and Guinea Hen are also lean birds with dark meat. They have a robust flavor and pair well with most kinds of fruits like cherries, figs and citrus. May roasted a pheasant for us while we were cooking so we could compare a game bird to chicken. Man, its good!
Quail and Squab are the mini game birds. Quail weighs in at about ½ pound. It’s so lean that many recipes call for it to be wrapped in bacon. Squab, those little farmed pigeons, are a tad bigger-about a pound. I’d serve 2 per person if I were you.
No matter what kind of bird you choose to prepare, you’re usually safest with one that’s organic. There are no hormones or antibiotics. If you can, buy a whole bird and cut it apart yourself. Less people will have handled it, so there’s less chance of bacteria getting on it.
Cutting up a chicken was the first stage of the ‘cooking’ section of class. Everyone was given a chicken (a broiler/fryer). We watched as May effortlessly cut off the leg and thigh section by slicing through the skin, bending the leg and thigh back to find the joint and cutting through to the other side. Then, she did the same with the wings. After we worked our magic on our own birds, she showed us how to take the backbone out and split the breasts. We finished by cutting one side of the breast meat off the bone for a boneless skinless breast. That alone saves at least $3.50 a pound!!
As I said earlier, my assignment for the evening was to make the fried chicken and gravy. Now, as health nut, you KNOW I’ll never make this again, but it’s always nice to know how. (Don’t tell anyone, but the chicken came out amazingly well! Shhh….).
The secret to frying great chicken is the temperature. If it’s too low, the flour will absorb the oil. Too high and it will burn. I had to keep the oil temperature between 350-365 degrees using this HUGE thermometer that clipped to the side of the pot. Cast iron works really well for frying, by the way. My question to you is how many average people actually have a big cast iron pot to fry in or a 2 foot long thermometer for that matter?! (OK, only its 1 foot, but still….). You’ll read in the directions to dredge it twice. This is because the first round of flour is absorbed by the buttermilk on the chicken, so dredging it the second time will ensure a very crisp coating.
Cathy got to make a nifty recipe with Poissin. Check it out, as well as HER cooking school comments at Cathy’s Blog.