October 24, 2016
My brother came to town last week; he wanted me to drive him out to New Jersey to visit a chicken farm run by a friend’s son. He seemed to consider this a major treat for me.
The truth is, chickens hold very little glamour for me. Half my neighbors keep chickens (mostly for eggs), and the ones I’ve cooked have not been all that scintillating. Besides, this farm Bob wanted me to see was two hours away, in deepest New Jersey, and reached by my all time least-favorite highway. Not a pretty drive.
“But they’re raising Poulet de Bresse,” he insisted. Okay, now he had my interest; the blue footed chickens of France are pretty spectacular, and I’ve never heard of anyone in America who raised them.
Besides… it was my brother. So off we went.
Finding Voodoo Farm was not all that easy, but we lucked out; after driving around in circles, we stopped at the Blairstown feed store to ask directions. “They’re my neighbors,” said the woman who worked there, pulling up a chair to draw us a helpful little map.
Oren and Cybele Ritterband are very much back to the land people. Artists looking for something saner than city life – and a healthy way to raise their children – they’re urban people with a passion for animals. The couple do almost everything on their small farm themselves, and they’re so attached to their chickens that they applaud those who escape into the woods and hang around to enjoy a ripe old age.
Oren processes the birds himself – with a kosher blade – and then air chills them. Cybele does the butchering. They’re happy to show you where and how they do it.
The birds – both the elegant Bresses and the dowdier Rangers look plump, happy and prosperous, and the whole operation seems funky and fine. “We won’t have any Bresse til winter,” Cybele said as we were leaving, sending me off with some of her homemade pate (fantastic), jam (excellent), and an enormous frozen Freedom Ranger bird. I stuck the free range chicken in the freezer, thinking that one day I’d cook it, but not any time soon. Much as I admired what the Ritterbands were doing, I was sure the bird would be a disappointment.
Then I ran out of freezer room and put the bird in the refrigerator to thaw for a couple of days. When friends showed up unexpectedly for dinner last night, I told them, rather apologetically, that I was going to roast a chicken and not to have great expectations.
Let me cut to the chase: this was, hands down, the best bird I’ve eaten in America. And it was easy to cook. I simply removed the bird from the refrigerator, pulled off all the fat (there was a lot), and stuffed it beneath the skin on the breast, and let it come to room temperature. I put a lemon in the cavity and trussed the bird. I showered it with salt and pepper. Then I heated a cast iron skillet in a 500 degree oven for about a quarter of an hour, plunked the bird into the hot skillet and cooked it for 15 minutes before turning the heat down to 325 degrees. At that point I threw some tiny new (unpeeled) potatoes into the pan, along with some carrots, quartered onions and whole cloves of garlic.
I checked the bird’s temperature after an hour, cooked it for another half hour or so until the thigh registered 160 degrees, and let the chicken sit for half an hour.
Wow! The skin was crisp, the meat moist, extraordinarily flavorful and not the least bit gamy. If this ordinary free-range chicken was so spectacular, I can’t even imagine how that Blairstown Bresse will taste.
The beautiful bird at the top, of course, is the elegant Blairstown Bresse. The one Oren’s holding, below, is a Freedom Ranger.