Friday, March 16, 2012

Rhode Island Red Poule au Pot

This is a proper, dirt scratching, worm eating and outdoor running chicken - lean, mean and full of flavour
Inevitably, the time has come to give one of my Rhode Island red birds their due.  I gave myself a chance to get acquainted with the bird. I gave it a good look, I poked it, and prodded it. This is no grocery store bird. It has huge, powerful legs and thighs and very small breasts - much like a Soviet gymnast. Although I put serious thought into it, I opted not to roast. My suspicion was that the bird had long, fibrous muscles -the type of muscles you'd find on a hard working cockerel. This bird is not delicate, it is tough; its skin is thick and yellow and its legs have a rusty tinge to them that suggest a lot of strutting about. A real cock-of-the-walk. I couldn't roast this fellow. He needed a slow soak in the tub. It was time to do an old school poule au pot!

In Andre Domine's hefty text on gastronomy, 'Food of France', he suggests: "compared to familiar broiled or fried chicken which has invaded our modern day lives, poule au pot is a juicy reminder of bygone, tastier days." Poule au pot literally means chicken in a pot. This dish originates from the Bordeaux region of France and is forever linked with Henry IV, who said that every one of his subjects should have a chicken for the pot on Sundays.  Well, that's enough with the history lesson. My variation of poule au pot is a lot simpler than the original which requires a very involved stuffing followed by stitching the bird up and trussing it then cooking in water, wine and vegetables. My version did not have a stuffing and instead of covering everything with liquid, I only filled it up about half of the way so I could get the top to brown a bit. I suppose you could say my poule au pot was more accurately "a pot roast chicken". Nevertheless, here's what I did:

The vegetables
First, I got together the usual cooking vegetables of cleaned halved carrots (a good bunch), three large ribs of celery (washed and halved), about half a dozen smallish red skinned potatoes (halved), some shallots (peeled and halved), button mushrooms (sliced) along with dried porchini mushrooms and garlic. First sort out the dried mushrooms by getting some boiling water in a bowl and rehydrate them. Then get all the vegetables into a large oven-proof vessel for which you can afix a lid. Next get a whole onion, stud it with a few cloves and then shove it right into the bird. Then, place the bird on top of the vegetables. Drizzle the top of the chicken with some olive oil and then generously season with salt and pepper. For the liquid component, I wanted to see the liquid mostly cover the vegetables and come about half way up the side of the bird so that there is some exposed skin for browning. For the vessel I was using, this required about two cup of water, one cup of white wine and just for fun, I glugged in a bit of port - white port would work better here because I wanted a light coloured cooking liquor, but I only had tawny port. I went for it anyway - it's the wife and kids; they don't really care about 'cooking liquor' colour.  By this time, your porcinis should be ready, so get them in the pot too with the steeping liquid (but avoid the grit). Drop in a few whole cloves of garlic, three fresh bayleaves and a bunch of fresh thyme. Put on a lid, and in to a 350 F oven it goes. Cook it this way for a good 50 minutes or so. Then take the lid off, give the vegetables a stir around, baste the bird, and put it back in. You want about a half hour of uncovered cooking, but you need to baste regularly to avoid drying out chicken.  This method will also greatly reduce the liquid in the pot, which moves out of the official 'poule au pot' range (for which you end up with a soup-like stock to drink), and into pot roast territory (you end up with a goodly amount of jus).   I took a temp reading with a probe thermometer at this point and decided it was time to pull him out. 

After the cooking liquors have reduced and the bird has browned
At this point, the bird must rest. In the meantime pull out the veg, which should be nicely cooked, and arrange them nicely on a serving tray. Further reduce the cooking liquor to make a really nice sauce. Take a few moments to saute up the button mushrooms that you sliced earlier - they will make a nice garnish to pour some jus over. Then carve up the bird. Serve it with a smattering of fresh tarragon and crusty bread with the jus available to spoon over.
How did it taste? Well, it tasted like no other chicken I've ever eaten. It was actually a tiny bit gamy (in a pleasant way). It's flavour had a slight 'turkeyness' to it, that is, leaner, yet more flavourful flesh. The skin was a bit thicker and a bit more reluctant to crisp up than a typical chicken, but very delicious. The legs were enormous, and had enough meat on one drum stick to feed both my daughters. Lessons learned: cook it longer. Although my temp-taking was accurate,  I think it still need a bit of time to gently cook to break down those tough musles. The butcher told me that these were a mix of cocks and hens, but I honestly think this was a male bird and as such, needs to be treated in much the way a coq au vin is cooked - marinated, then cooked slowly for optimum results. When it comes to straight hot oven roasting ,I would say the organic cornish-cross hens do a better job. I still have one of these Rhode Island Reds in the freezer, so I will be trying something else with that one. Perhaps something that involves lots of wine.

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