Chickens

Hugh Fearnley -Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver’s recent campaign to highlight the fate of intensively produced chicken has helped to focus attention on the real price of cheap food in health, socio-economic and animal welfare terms. It doesn’t make easy viewing but the quality of the food we eat and feed our families is such an important issue that we simply cannot justify shrugging our shoulders and saying – we don’t care two tuppenny hoots as long as the end result is cheap food. It is difficult to justify putting animals or birds through unnecessary stress and suffering just to shave another few cents off the price. A free range organic chicken will cost you anything between 13 and 16 euros, whereas two intensively produced chickens, particularly those produced ‘off shore’ can be bought two for the for price of one for about €5.99 depending on size . By now many readers will be muttering ‘its all very fine for her’ – the perception is that I can afford it, but the reality is not about being able to afford it, its about priorities – we all make time and money for what we perceive to be important. Think about it, how much did you spend on booze or even magazines last week? How much did that mobile phone or those fancy runners cost? When we ask ourselves these questions we realize that it is all about our sense of values.

Every culture around the world has similar sayings about the importance of food to our very existence. “We are what we eat”, “Your health goes in through your mouth”, “Our food should be our medicine”….

Yet nowadays many of us do not connect the food we eat with how we feel and perform.

We shovel any kind of old rubbish into ourselves and then wonder why we aren’t feeling full of energy and vitality. We can’t do anything about our genes but we can certainly do something about the quality of the ‘fuel’ we put in the tank to keep ‘the machine’ ticking over.

An equally important question which neither Hugh nor Jamie posed, was what exactly is in the feed the birds are fed which enables them to grow at such astonishing speed?

Chicken is by far the cheapest and most popular meat, yet when I was a child, chicken, even though we reared our own, was a rare and truly delicious treat.

At that time farmers’ wives all over the country had a few laying hens and many reared birds for the table. The introduction of the deep litter and intensive production systems, in combination with stricter health and safety regulations, hastened the demise of the small flocks around the country. This time-honoured system had provided pin money and superb free range chicken and eggs for people in virtually every parish in Ireland .

I personally regret the loss of this type of production. It was, and can be again, part of our traditional food culture and our rural skill base.

Those of us who are part of the growing Farmers Market network, experience at first hand the deep craving and growing numbers of people who are seeking out this kind of food, and more importantly are prepared to pay for it.

The skill of rearing poultry is still in folk memory and I’ve been battling for some time now for a simple set of regulations that are proportionate to the risk involved and that would encourage and facilitate the re-establishment of this kind of local food production around the country.

Now that Minister Trevor Sargent is chairing the Artisan Industry Committee, I am hopeful that this vision can become a reality.

The older generation are the guardians of the traditional food production skills, lets learn from them before its too late.

If you would like to be able to rear birds in this way or have access to truly free range or free range organic birds, please log onto www.soilassociation.org

We also have a course on ‘How to keep a few chickens in the garden’ on Saturday 19th April 2008.

Pan Grilled Chicken breasts with Parsley salad and Sundried tomatoes

Separate the fillet from the underneath side of the meat, cook separately or slice thinly at an angle and quickly stir-fry. The chicken breast cooks more evenly when the fillet is removed.

Serves 8

8 Chicken breasts

olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

Basil Dressing

175ml (6fl.oz) extra-virgin olive oil

50ml (2fl.oz) white wine or rice wine vinegar

Salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar

1 garlic clove

10-15 basil leaves

1 finely chopped shallot (optional)

Parsley Salad

4 handfuls destalked Italian and curly parsley

Worcester sauce

8 chopped sundried tomatoes

slivers of Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano)

First make the dressing, whizz the basil with the oil, vinegar, shallots, garlic and seasoning in a liquidiser or food processor. Keep aside.

Just before serving cook the chicken breasts.

Heat a cast iron grill pan until quite hot. Brush each chicken breast with olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Place the chicken breasts on the hot grill for about a minute, then reverse the angle to mark attractively, cook until golden

Brown on both sides. The grill pan may be transferred to a moderate oven, 180C/350F/regulo 4. Be careful not to overcook the chicken breasts, they will take approx. 15 minutes in total.

To Serve

Put a pan-grilled chicken breast on each plate. Toss the parsley in a little of the basil dressing, sprinkle with a little Worcester sauce. Put a portion of parsley on each plate, sprinkle with a few pieces of sundried tomato and slivers of Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately with Rustic roast potatoes or Buffalo chips.

Thai Chicken, Galangal and Coriander Soup

Serves 8

A particularly delicious example of how fast and easy a Thai soup can be. Serve in Chinese porcelain bowls if available. The kaffir lime leaves and galangal are served but not eaten. The chilli may of course be nibbled. Prawns and shrimp can be substituted for chicken in this recipe with equally delicious results.

900ml (32fl oz) homemade chicken stock (see recipe)

4 fresh lime leaves

2 inch (5cm) piece of galangal, peeled and sliced or less of fresh ginger

4 tablespoons Fish sauce ( Nam pla)

6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

225g (8oz) free range organic chicken breast, very finely sliced

230ml (8fl oz) coconut milk (use CHAOKOH brand)

1-3 Thai red chillies

Fresh coriander leaves – about 5 tablespoons

Put the chicken stock, lime leaves, galangal, fish sauce and freshly squeezed lemon juice into a saucepan. Bring to the boil stirring all the time, add the finely shredded chicken and coconut milk. Continue to cook over a high heat until the chicken is just cooked 1-2 minutes approx. Crush the chillies with a knife or Chinese chopper add to the soup with some coriander leaves, cook for just a few seconds. Ladle into hot chinese bowls and serve immediately.

Note: We usually use one red Thai chilli – number depends on your taste and how hot

the chillies are.

Blanched and refreshed rice noodles are also delicious added to this soup – hey presto, you have a main course. Serve in wide pasta bowl with lots of fresh coriander scattered over the top.

Top Tip: Fresh lime leaves are not available in every village shop so buy them anytime you spot them and pop them into a bag in your freezer.

Foolproof Food

Roast Chicken Pasta with Portobello Mushrooms and Pancetta

Serves 8

Bubbly super chef Merrilees Parker did this yummy recipe when she came to teach at the school in April 2004, we have adapted it somewhat but it really was her idea. A great recipe for using up delicious morsels of roast chicken – be sure to include the crispy skin. Alternatively use pan-grilled chicken breasts.

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

225g (8oz) pancetta or smoked streaky bacon, rind removed and cut into 1cm (¼ inch) lardons

500g (16oz) spaghetti or linguine

150ml (½ ) pint double cream

225g (8oz) sliced Portobello or field mushrooms

12oz (¾lb) leftover roast chicken or pangrilled chicken breast, coarsely shredded

2 tablespoons thyme leaves (preferably lemon thyme) or annual marjoram

110g (4oz) mixed salad leaves – rocket or baby spinach leaves would be terrific, roughly chopped

110g (4ozs) freshly grated Parmesan

Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring 5.7 litres (10 pints) of water to the boil in a large saucepan, add 2 tablespoons of salt. Then curl in the pasta, stir gently. Bring back to the boil and cook for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat. Cover with a tight fighting lid and leave the pasta to cook for 5 minutes approximately until al dente.

Meanwhile heat a wok or a large heavy frying pan. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and then the bacon lardons. Cook over a high heat for 4-5minutes until really crispy. Remove to a plate. Add the remaining oil and the sliced mushrooms. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper and cook for a further 3-4 minutes over a high heat.

Drain the pasta. Tip into the wok or frying pan on top of the mushrooms. Add the crispy bacon, thyme leaves or marjoram and coarsely shredded chicken and toss really well. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Pour the cream into the pan, bring to the boil. Taste and correct the seasoning then toss thoroughly again.

Finally add the fresh leaves and half the Parmesan, mixing gently. Give the dish one last toss and serve immediately in warmed deep bowls with the remaining Parmesan sprinkled over the top.

Sticky Chicken Thighs with Soy and Ginger sauce

Serves 10

Marinade:

225ml (8fl oz) soy sauce

3 tablespoons sunflower oil

3 tablespoons honey

3 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry

1 tablespoon peeled and finely grated ginger

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1-2 chillies finely chopped

10 free range and organic chicken thighs

Accompaniment:

Cucumber wedges

Spicy green salad (see recipe)

Sweet chilli sauce

Lime wedges

Mix all the ingredients for the marinade in a bowl or pie dish. Slash the skin of the chicken thighs. Put into a pie dish, cover with the marinade and turn well to coat. Cover and keep refrigerated for at least an hour or even overnight.

To serve:

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350F/gas mark 4. Drain the chicken pieces and save the marinade for basting. Arrange skin side up in a roasting tin. Season with salt and pepper. Cook in the preheated oven for 30 minutes approximately and then baste every 10 minutes or so with some of the extra marinade.

Serve with cucumber wedges about 6cm (2 1/2 inches) long and cut at an angle, spicy green salad, lime wedges and a bowl of sweet chilli sauce for dipping.

Spicy Green Salad

Sweet and sour dressing:

2 tablespoons soft brown sugar

2 tablespoons castor sugar

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons Nam pla (fish sauce)

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 handful fresh coriander leaves

1 handful flat parsley leaves

1/2 handful mint leaves

4 spring onions, white and green part, sliced at an angle

4 finely shredded kaffir lime leaves (optional)

1-2 large red chillies thinly sliced

Put the sugar and water into a saucepan and stir to dissolve. Continue to boil for 1-2 minutes, or until it becomes liquid. Remove from the heat and add the fish sauce and freshly squeezed lime juice. Pour into a jam jar or small bowl.

Put the coriander, parsley and mint leaves into a bowl, add the sliced spring onions, shredded kaffir lime leaves and thinly sliced chilli.

Just before serving toss with enough dressing to make the leaves glisten. Serve as soon as possible.

Hot Tips

First Waterford Festival of Food

Will take place from 11-13th April in Dungarvan. Friday opening ceremony with Minister Cullen in Town Hall, followed by food trails in local restaurants, special menus featuring local producers.

Saturday will have seminars with top chefs and food writers – Richard Corrigan, Paul Flynn, Regina Sexton, Biddy White-Lennon, Eunice Power. Workshops and story telling for younger food fans. Sunday – Farmers Market Extravaganza in Grattan Square launched by Darina Allen. www.waterfordfestivaloffoodcom for further information or tel 058-21104

Wild Garlic is now in Season

Pick it in the wild or at the Farmers Market in Mahon Point on Thursday or Midleton on Saturday.

Look out for the heritage Blue Potatoes exclusive to Superquinn for a limited period

First grown in Scotland a century ago, these potatoes were re-introduced in a limited edition recently by Peter Keogh & Sons Cream of the Crop, a Dublin potato growing and packaging company. The have a dark purple skin and deep indigo-blue flesh and retain their colour when cooked. They have a nutty taste and steam and fry well.