Lemon-Garlic-Herb Roast Chicken

The really nice people that sell the grass-fed organic meat we pick up for a small fortune most weeks at the farmer’s market evidently don’t have the technology to break down a chicken.

So we end up with a whole chicken a lot more often than I have menus that would, er, require a whole chicken. And while I once helped slaughter chickens on a real farm in South Dakota (which is a story for another day), I don’t myself feeling like hacking away until it ends up in pieces, most days.

So I’ve played around a little bit with James McNair’s roast chicken recipe, which is the best one I’ve found. Below is an adaptation with some variations on a theme. No matter how you cut it, lemon, garlic, butter and herbs slathered all over a hunk of chicken is really a no-miss proposition.

Ingredients:

Whole chicken (we like organic, pasture-raised; here’s why)

Fresh herbs: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, tarragon or whatever compatible mix you have, chopped finely

3 Tbls (grass-fed organic) butter

3 cloves (organic) garlic, chopped fine

1 lemon (organic is best, since you will stick the whole thing in the chicken); halved, juiced and partially zested

Salt and pepper

3 cups (organic) chicken stock or water

3 good-sized (organic) potatoes, cubed

2-3 (organic) carrots, sliced in rounds

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the garlic, zest, salt, lemon juice, pepper and herbs into the butter and put the chicken in a roasting pan.

Decide whether you will take the high road or low road — here are your choices, in that order:

1) Get all up in it by following Mr. McNair’s directions to carefully use your fingers to slip the buttery mixture between the skin and meat of the chicken. This is wonderful when you have the time and inclination to bother, as it seals in the flavors. But it is time-consuming and brings you into very close and messy contact with the bird.

2) Take the easy road by melting the butter mixture a bit in the microwave and pour over the chicken, spreading it around a bit. I’ll admit this is what I do most days and it turns out pretty tasty.

Stick the lemon and any additional fresh herbs you’d like into the cavity. Add the water or stock to the pan and throw in the carrots and potatoes. Put the chicken in the oven for 15 minutes.

Lower the heat to 350 degrees and cook for an additional hour and a half, or until done. Mr. McNair roasts it uncovered, basting every 15 minutes. As I always want to hang out with Maya instead of basting something, I cover it instead and just leave it more or less undisturbed until done. (If you do leave it uncovered, be sure the potatoes and carrots are submerged in liquid or they will dry out.)

Let it rest for ten minutes or so after removing from the oven. Enjoy with brown rice if you wish.

Moroccan-Inspired Lemon Chicken Tagine

My husband and I both like meat that is juicy and falling off the bone. But I can never seem to plan ahead by enough hours to get a slow-cooker bubbling on.

I finally figured out that a Moroccan tagine was a great solution to us: it’s hat-like shape steams chicken or lamb into juicy, falling-apart goodness in fairly short order (under an hour or so), making dinner possible in a whole new way.

I made up this recipe, but the technique is a classic way to cook meat in a tagine. Basically, you saute the base (onions, garlic, vegetables) and spices, add and brown the meat, and then pour in stock or other liquid and cover. It’s truly easy to cook this way, and the signature Moroccan mixture of sweeter and more savory spices also adds depth and interest to otherwise ordinary ingredients.

There are new enamel tagines, like ours from Emile Henry, that may be placed directly on the stove, so long as you bring the heat up slowly and don’t put it way up on high. (Older models, being ceramic, needed a heat shield for use on the stove.) Though it is kinda’ cool, the tagine is a fairly pricey investment for occasional meals. Much the same effect could likely be achieved in a heavy stock-pot or enameled Dutch oven, if that’s what you have on hand.

Ingredients:

2 Tbls oil for sauteeing

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 (organic) yellow onion, chopped

3 cups or so (organic) chicken stock

3 large red-skinned (organic) potatoes, diced

2 1/2 Tbl mixed spices — I used a terrific Moroccan spice mix, Ras el Hanout, which includes, amazingly,: turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, fennel seed, anise seed, cardamom, star anise, cayenne pepper, garlic, nigella, paprika, ajwan seeds (marjoram), kalajeera (black cumin), ginger, lavender, galangal (a close relative of ginger), oris root, rose buds, monk’s pepper, Grain of Paradise, and mace. (Whatever you have ready of those spices, in rough balance, would work well.)

1 fresh (organic) lemon, halved, zested and the zest sliced into small pieces, then juiced

Salt and pepper to taste

4 (organic, and pasture-raised if you can find it) chicken thighs (legs would work well too, if preferred)

Fresh (organic) cilantro

Fresh or frozen peas or other vegetables, such as carrots (optional)

Couscous, prepared according to instructions (optional)

Directions:

Over low heat, heat oil and stir in the spices, then the onions and garlic.

Add the lemon zest, potatoes and any vegetables you are using.

When things have sweated a bit and the onions are translucent, brown the chicken on all sides.

Add stock and cover, keeping the level below the edge of the tagine by 1/2 inch or so, to avoid boiling over.

Cook over medium heat until at a boil, then lower heat to achieve a low boil for 40-45 minutes.

Add fresh squeezed lemon juice and cilantro and enjoy! Serve over couscous if desired.

Toddler-Friendly Vegetable Chicken “Magic” Soup

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Like the wonderful children’s book, Stone Soup, this recipe — or rather, technique (such as it is) — makes do with whatever you may have on hand. I’ve probably made it at least once a month since Maya was six months old, because, like magic, veggies disappear!

It also works for babies, pureed in a blender, for a very healthy and fresh baby food.

The basic technique is incredibly simple — boil a whole chicken until done to make a simple broth, sauté vegetables and spices, chop up the chicken and combine. Cook a while, then add fresh lemon and herbs just before serving.

Sometimes when I’ve made it, it turns out better than others, based on the particular vegetables and flavor combinations. Maya doesn’t really seem to notice, either way. She likes the nourishing, mild broth and mix of vegetables softened in the soup.

But if you’re planning to serve it as a meal for everyone, certainly pay attention to the mixture of flavors, and add more salt, pepper and lemon at the table. My husband adds harissa as well, for heat.

It will make a good week of lunches. And it freezes well, so having a good-sized batch is useful. I use stainless steel ice cube trays, the old-fashioned kind.

In addition, you can save the bones and trimmings, as well as any vegetable parings, in a freezer bag for making stock. An excellent set of tips for that is here. The cost savings, in comparison to buying organic vegetable and chicken stock, are considerable.

My latest batch included a lot of fennel, as well as fennel tops at the end. I do not recommend this, as it ended up too fennel-rific. But a smaller amount (i.e., less than a whole large bulb), should be fine.

It’s delicious over brown rice or pasta. By day three, I also usually add cheese on top, to keep Maya’s interest. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

One whole young (organic, pasture-raised) chicken

(organic) Butter or oil

1 large (organic) Onion (white or yellow)

Garlic — 3-4 cloves

2 (organic) Lemons

Dried herbs: I like Rosemary, Basil, Thyme, Oregano, and Savory, 1 Tbl or so of each

Salt and Pepper (minimal if serving to children)

Fresh Herbs: Cilantro, Parsley, Carrot Greens

Vegetables can include: (organic) Peas, Carrots, Broccoli, Spinach, Chard or Kale (de-spined and chopped), Fennel, Celery, Green Beans, Summer Squash, Zucchini, Tomatoes, Parsnips, even Jerusalem Artichoke

Starch and/or Legumes can include: (Eden Organic or another BPA-free brand, if using canned, drained and rinsed) White or Red beans or Chickpeas, (organic) Potatoes, Corn (including frozen)

Directions:

Using a large pot, cover the chicken in (filtered) water and bring to a boil on the stove over medium heat. Simmer for 45 minutes to one hour.

While that is cooking, rough-chop the vegetables as needed.  Saute onions and garlic in the butter or oil in a large pot (this can be done in a series if you only have one pot large enough). Add the dried herbs, salt and pepper, and vegetables and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have started to lose moisture. Then add the beans, potatoes or corn and stir over heat for 10-15 minutes. If using potatoes, cook until done. Let rest until the chicken is ready. (If adding spinach, wait to add that with the fresh herbs, close to the end, as directed below.)

When the chicken is thoroughly cooked and almost falling off the bone, lift it out of the liquid carefully onto a plate and let it cool for a few minutes. Take the meat off the bones, using your hands as needed, and rough chop (in smaller pieces if you plan to freeze it). It may be a bit stringy, so keep an eye on making it small enough for a toddler to grapple with. Scoop any chicken residues out of the broth.

Add the vegetable mixture, chicken and broth together and heat through. Add in generous amounts of fresh lemon juice, to taste, and fresh herbs (and any spinach). Stir until wilted, and serve, with lemon wedges if desired.

Adopted with modifications from “Baby Love: Healthy, Easy, Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler,” by Norah O’Donnell and Chef Geoff Tracy.

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.

Pastoral or Pastiche? The Fictional Farm and a Philosophy of Food

“Many animals live on the farm. The cow and her calf live in the barn. The horse and the colt live in the stable. Mama hen and her chicks live in a coop.”

Maya’s books are full of lies. Chock full, you might say.

Even setting aside all the animals’ surprising gift of gab, book after dog-eared book has the pig running after the goose, consorting with the horse, and negotiating a game with the cow, all around a red-doored barn, sitting high on a grassy hill.

Contrast this heartening (if admittedly corny), picture with the chicken hellscape in Nicholas Kristof’s column about an investigation into an egg farm in today’s New York Times:

In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry’s own voluntary standards — which have been widely criticized as inadequate.

An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they’re eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they’re easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added. Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.

Several states – and all of Europe – have banned the most confining types of cages for egg-laying hens. But due to a lack of national standards in the U.S., animal welfare laws on farms are generally spotty and weak.

In other news just from today, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would begin a voluntary program to require prescriptions for antibiotic drugs for healthy farm animals. Since the drugs been used to spur growth rather than treat illness, risking super-bugs, this is a step in the right direction, albeit hampered inexplicably by its “voluntary” nature.

On the even ickier side, a small study of slaughtered chickens found (admittedly harmless) e coli fecal contamination in 48 percent of the samples tested. Mmm. Some poop with that hot wing?

Sadly, none of this is really news. If you have the stomach for it (and I don’t, most days), check out this This American Life episode for television (yes, TV), in which they visit a pig farm so removed from the barnyard that the Muppets’ segment “Pigs in Space” appears eerily prophetic.

The most heart-breaking part of the whole porcine show is when the farmer and his son visit their tiny group of rootin-in-the-dirt “outdoor” pigs and reminisce about the past in which pigs were pigs, and the push for production didn’t require farms to take on crippling debt to pay for expensive technologies that, quite literally, alienate the humans and animals involved.

As Michael Pollan observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, modern practices of mono-cultural farming takes animals off the land, thereby creating health and waste management problems for the animals (and us), and impoverishing the soil so that it requires fertilizers, which in turn pollutes the soil. Rinse, repeat.

And garbage in, garbage out. The food resulting from this system is nutritionally impoverished, because chickens are not eating the grubs and insects that add minerals to their eggs, and because the meat of grain (as opposed to grass) fed cows is lower in Omega-3s, which are critical to health, as Marion Nestle explains in her seminal guide to healthy food, What to Eat.

Cows in particular, because they are ruminants that are supposed to eat grass, become ill under feedlot conditions. The animals, to maintain a baseline in such an unnatural setting, are given drugs, including hormones, caffeine, antibiotics, and even anti-depressants, all of which ends up in our water and also likely in our food.

I am not a vegetarian. Nonetheless, it troubles me, as it obviously does Kristof, that animals do not live as animals in this industrialized conveyor belt of nutrition pellets. It seems obvious to me that animals are capable of fear, stress, and suffering, and that they deserve access to sunshine and some reasonable semblance of a life that suits their animal ways.

Humans also fare poorly in this system, whether as workers, as chronicled in the wandering but humane video novella, Fast Food Nation, or as consumers of an impoverished and polluted food supply.

It is also profoundly, even unethically, wasteful. As Pollan explained in an incredibly hopeful and worthwhile summary of his thesis on how food policy should change, from the sunnily naïve perspective of 2008:

When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. …[Instead,] crop plants and animals must once again be married on the farm — as in Wendell Berry’s elegant “solution.” Sunlight nourishes the grasses and grains, the plants nourish the animals, the animals then nourish the soil, which in turn nourishes the next season’s grasses and grains. Animals on pasture can also harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste — all without our help or fossil fuel.

The truth is, when I look at Maya’s books, I think we know all this. The books are more than nostalgic markers for a pastoral imaginary that no longer, generally speaking, exists.

Both her natural obsession with animals and their many, many weird noises, and these books’ reflexive, fantastical depictions of the animal world, speak to a deep craving in children, and in all of us, to learn our place in the order of things.

We see who we are in how we treat animals, if we’ll only look. In this, the moral argument by animal rights’ activists is essentially correct. As John Berger observed in About Looking regarding a similar nostalgic assignment of place:

Public zoos came into existence at the beginning of the period which was to see the disappearance of animals from daily life. The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe, to see them, is, in fact a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.

So we’re all up against impossibility. And nonetheless, as grandiose as it may sound, I source our meat and dairy with great care, mainly because I want to nurture sources for these with intentional respect.

I choose certified organic grass-fed meats and pastured eggs because those animals are in the right relationship with the environment, with the sun, and with the nutrients that are supposed to enrich that food. The food is better, the farming we support is better, and the concerns about toxic additions like pesticides and hormones simply go away.

It’s flippin’ expensive, and certainly a luxury in a world where people still struggle to eat at all. For our part, though, I’d rather buy less, and more of the best — meat, milk, butter, and eggs — than just read to Maya from another damn book with talking animals, playing another winsome, cutesy game of “let’s pretend.”

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What we do:

  • I like certified organic, because, as Marion Nestle puts in What to Eat (at 45): “[I]f you want fewer pesticides in your body and in the bodies of your children, buy organics. If you want fewer pesticides in soil and water, organics are also a good idea.”
  • Organic certification provides an agreed-upon set of standards, and government enforcement. Organic certification also has some shortcomings, including costs that favor larger producers, and animal welfare conditions that may not be much better than conventional farms (though with fewer antibiotics and pesticides in the feed). If farmers at the market say they are better than organic, that’s all well and good, but I have to take their word for it. I tend to go for certified (and local) if I can, even though it’s far from a perfect system. Still, local close-to-organic (to keep carbon miles down) can be fine if you feel confident in the promises made about the product. Visiting a farm is also a nice way to see for yourself how animals are treated.
  • Going beyond organic, basically, is all about grass and sunshine. So, organic, grass-fed beef is best (grass-fed and grass-finished is even better), even though, frankly, the rules defining “grass-fed” on the label leave a lot unspecified. If you can ask questions at the farmer’s market, all the better.
  • For milk, we buy whole, organic, grass-fed milk (which is quite a shift from the watery milk-like substance I grew up with). For safety reasons, I don’t believe in giving raw milk to children (if adults want to risk their health for a marginal increase in enzymes, that’s up to them).
  • For eggs, we buy pastured (sometimes labeled pasture-raised) and organic. These are often hard to find (Trader Joe’s never has them, Whole Foods rarely). Our crunchy-as-hemp-granola local natural food Coop and farmer’s markets are the best sources I’ve come across. 
  • For butter, we buy grass-fed and organic (see the pattern?). Given that chemicals like pesticides accumulate in fats, the key for butter is organic.
  • For yogurt and cheese, I look for grass-fed and organic, but will settle in a pinch for “rbST-free,” which indicates it’s free of bovine growth hormones.
  • For chicken, I look for pastured chicken, raised sustainably. At Whole Foods, this is indicated by the 4 or higher animal welfare rating, which always seems to be sold out. I’ve been buying whole young chickens at our farmer’s market and sticking the whole thing in soup, or, failing that, hacking it up myself, which is not a particularly pleasant thing to do, given that I’m hardly out of the Cordon Bleu.
  • We make do with less meat, due to the significant increase in price. I tend to make stews, soups and other dishes that stretch flavors along for half a week or so.
  • It is far more expensive to eat this way. And pickier to source, by far.
  • Buying in bulk from a farm share (or “CSA”) sometimes helps with costs, and usually is fresher and better quality. It’s always nice to know the farm and farmer, and connect the dots.
  • When traveling or eating out, basically all bets are off. I try to find organic snacks, and pack Maya’s food and milk at least. And we eat out much less than we used to. Still, the dearth of sources for the best food is a problem. When we’re out and about, given the challenges, I let it go, and figure that most of what we eat at home is better, and that has to be good enough.

More Resources:

  • Eat Wild is a great resource for locating wilder foodstuffs, local farms, and for reading about the benefits of grass-fed and pastured foods.
  • You can look up your local CSA’s at Local Harvest. Or ask around at your local farmer’s market, since you already have the pick-up location figured out.
  • If you haven’t read it already, Omnivore’s Dilemma is a moveable feast for back-to-nature foodies.
  • I also generally follow anything the eminently smart and sensible Marion Nestle writes, but much of her focus is on the (utterly inadequate) regulation of food, and (frighteningly corrupt) politics of food. People who are not nearly as nerdy as I am may have more life-affirming preoccupations.