PILOT MOUNTAIN — Last week I got to taste of the way chicken used to be when it had more flavor.
The occasion was a Heritage Poultry Dinner held in Pilot Mountain as part of a conference of the Sustainable Poultry Network.
The network is an organization that promotes the raising of traditional, heirloom breeds of chicken, turkey, ducks and geese.
The conference, for poultry farmers, delved into such matters as breeding, incubation, natural and organic feed, and more.
The dinner was prepared by Todd Morse, whose farm, Our Chosen Heritage, raises heritage chickens in Pinnacle, and by Keith Gardiner, a chef instructor in the culinary program at Guilford Technical Community College.
Morse recently left a career in food service to start a sustainable farm and bed and breakfast. He explained how heritage breeds of chicken are a lot different than what shows up in grocery stores.
“Commercial breeds are raised in 37 to 40 days,” Morse said. “Ours are raised to 18 to 22 weeks.” The slower growth means more feed and investment on the farmers’ part, and that translates into higher prices, typically about $7 a pound.
Essentially, commercial breeds have been bred for efficiency. They grow quickly. They also have a mild flavor, tender texture and particularly large breasts — because the market demanded that.
But now a growing movement is craving birds with more flavor. And that means birds that are raised more slowly.
A slower-growing bird, and one that exercises in a pasture, produces a different meat.
“Because they’ve been alive that long, and they’ve been out on the free range, that muscle tissue has developed more,” Morse said.
“At 18- to 22-weeks old, they have lot more tendons and muscle tissue that needs to be broken down (during cooking).”
In short, a consumer of heritage breed gives up a little tenderness in exchange for more flavor.
Morse said that heritage chickens require longer cooking times, usually at low temperatures. They also benefit from moist-heat cooking methods, such as steaming or braising.
One of Morse’s favorite ways to cook heritage chicken is to first rub it with a mixture of fresh herbs, lemon zest, orange zest, salt and pepper and let it sit in refrigerator overnight. The next day, he roasts it briefly at 450 degrees to seal the exterior skin, then places it in a covered Dutch oven and cook it at 200 degrees for 6 to 8 hours.
Morse also said that heritage chickens do well in slow cookers with a little liquid and whatever flavorings a cook chooses.
“You can stick it in the Crock Pot and go to work, and when you get home it will be falling off the bone,” he said.
The menu for the dinner started with some chicken quesadillas.
Next came albondigas soup with chicken meatballs, and adobo chicken Caesar salad with heritage hard-boiled eggs. I particularly loved the main course, chicken and smoked tomato stew with saffron rice, which was made with chickens from Billy Place Farm in East Bend.
Dessert was an especially silky crème brulee, made with heritage eggs and topped with fresh berries.
The reason I loved the stew — despite all the seasonings — I could really taste the chicken. This was chicken flavor knocked up a couple notches.
The poultry farmers at the conference said that the heritage birds have more protein and more Omega-3 and Omega-6 healthy fats than commercial chicken.
But taste is the biggest selling point. “You can taste the difference in these birds,” Gardiner said. “There’s more dark meat. They are great for braising and stewing, and the flavor is incredible.”
Brant Bullock of King Family Farm in Piney Flats, Tenn., said he loves the rich stock made from his heritage turkeys because it has more bone marrow that makes the stock congeal more than regular stock. “I almost like the soup I make after (Thanksgiving) better than the turkey itself,” Bullock said.
Bullock also pointed out that though the network of heritage growers is increasing, they still have work to do — aside from increasing consumer interest. Hybridization over decades has gotten such breeds of poultry as Delaware, Barred Plymouth Rock and White Dorking so far away from their original genetics, that farmers still have not completely bred them back.
Those original birds weren’t just tastier and more nutritious. They also were a more sustainable form of agriculture because they could reproduce themselves, unlike commercial poultry that depends on artificial insemination.
So selective breeding is part of the Sustainable Poultry Network’s misson. “We’re trying to get it back to what it was,” Bullock said, “so we can preserve the future.”