I used to judge diners as unadventuresome when they ordered chicken at a restaurant. It always felt like the safe option, ubiquitous even at dinner parties. But things have changed and chicken has earned itself a renewed reputation.
This respect is evident with the dishes of Jeff McInnis, the James Beard Award semifinalist executive chef of Yardbird Southern Table & Bar. McInnis takes care in selecting the very best poultry. With a few helpful tips from him, you can get your dose of home cooking and start selecting chicken with confidence.
Take one quick look at Yardbird's menu and McInnis's preference for chicken is quite obvious. He serves only free-range birds at the restaurant, and his choice is advertised all over the menu. Call it passion or pride, but he is not kidding around. So why does he opt for this type of chicken?
The USDA-regulated term free-range means that the birds have been allowed access to the outdoors, but Jeff also appreciates the taste and texture, "The meat [of free-range chicken] contains less fat and a better, deeper chickeny flavor, because the bird's muscles are worked a little more, and it's healthier and better nourished, since chickens allowed outdoors also have access to insects and grass, which they're naturally meant to eat. The dark meat tends to be buttery and the white a bit firmer."
But, since free-range chickens contain less fat, they can be a little trickier to prepare. McInnis points out, "Technique really matters with [free-range] chickens, because the flesh cooks faster than that of a standard supermarket bird." He serves the free-range chickens fried or smoked and pulled, two excellent techniques for pushing flavor and moisture into a leaner flesh.
In addition to seeking out only free-range birds, Jeff also makes selections based on breed. The "Chicken Under a Brick" dish at Yardbird is prepared with a Carolina Poulet Rouge, a special breed that originated in France. When compared to a conventional broiler chicken, the Poulet Rouge have longer breasts and legs, reddish feathers and pinker skin. But McInnis knows it's about more than just looks, "[The Carolina Poulet Rouge] is a heritage breed, which means it's slower-growing, and as a result the meat is far more flavorful. Most important, though, is that a Carolina Poulet Rouge's pink skin is notably thinner than that of other chickens -- almost translucent -- making it ideal for rendering and therefore producing that crisp, crackly skin that Chicken under a Brick is known for." The combination of a more flavorful meat, paired with a "gossamer thin, crispy skin" is what takes this dish to an entirely different level.
So, now that you know it's all about free-range, heritage-bred birds, prepare yourself to go on small scavenger hunt to find these options in Miami, because it's not that easy. I've found free-range birds, such as Bell & Evans, at Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Milam's, but if you're feeling a tad more creative on the culinary front, you're going to have to go online to buy a Poulet Rouge, through farms like Joyce's Foods.
If you don't have the time to go to these more specialized stores, then keep these pointers in mind. Labels for poultry can be a little misleading. If you are buying chicken because it says "hormone-free" and you think this brings you closer to Yardbird's free-range chicken dishes, then I've got news for you. The USDA prohibits use of hormones in chicken, in all chickens. So don't fall for that marketing ploy and look carefully so you can see, in tiny letters, where the USDA requires companies to also include the phrase "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."
If you see the term, "raised without the use of antibiotics", this means that the chickens were not administered any antibiotics that keep diseases from spreading in crowded environments (there is a withdrawal period required from the time antibiotics are given to when the bird can be slaughtered, so there are no traces of antibiotics in the meat you consume). "All natural" just means that the chicken doesn't have any artificial ingredients or added colors. It also means that the product was only minimally processed. I don't fall for this kind of labeling, especially since this term is extremely vague and can be slapped on just about any chicken.
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"Certified organic" poultry has access to the outdoors, sunlight and has only been given organic feed. It fulfills the requirement that McInnis maintains for the free-range chickens at Yardbird and also means that the chickens were not fed anything artificial and were not given antibiotics.
I've never spotted free-range or organic chicken at Publix. Greenwise, the supermarket's attempt to more natural and less processed options, offers chicken that is not as green as you would think. Although it's free of antibiotics and hormones (obviously), the chickens are still raised in flock houses and they are not free-range.
The most important thing to remember is that farms that add the labels of "organic" or "free-range" of chickens are regulated more often by the government than farms that use general terms like "all natural" or "no hormones." Keep this in mind the next time you have dinner guests over and want to serve a chicken. Maybe if you serve a free-range or organic bird, your dinner guests wont complain about eating chicken yet again. And if they do whine, hop on over to Yardbird, have a Bourbon and let McInnis show you how it's done.