Poultry is particularly popular over the Christmas season, but it was around for at least 3,000 years before the man whose arrival it is traditionally used to celebrate.
Poultry refers to a domesticated bird that is bred for its meat, eggs and feathers, and includes chicken, duck, guinea fowl, squab, turkey and quail.
In this category, chicken is the most popular, due to its versatility, low cost and low fat content. A chicken can live up to 11 years in its natural life, yet a battery chicken (one that is intensively bred) lives only for six weeks, while a free range or organic chicken typically lives for 14 weeks.
The various terms used to describe how a chicken is reared often makes the business of purchasing one confusing. The term ‘free range’ means the chicken is permitted to roam as freely as possible, whereas an organic chicken must be fed a diet containing grains grown without the use of artificial fertilisers or sprays.
These chickens can cost €14-€27, depending on size. Additive-free birds are reared in the same way as organic chickens. They live in the same conditions, but the grain in their feed is not organically grown and, therefore, they are cheaper. Corn-fed birds are usually raised in a barn and will be fed on 70 per cent corn maize.
Poulet de Bresse from north of Lyon – my personal favourite – are reared on vast tracts of land and they regularly come out top in taste tests. Capon is a chicken that has been castrated to create much bigger breasts.
Sometimes it is fed on a milk diet for nine months and is eaten as a speciality for Christmas. Meanwhile, boiling hens – hens that have spent a couple of years laying eggs – are great for making stock.
Most of the chicken available in the supermarket today is battery chicken. Reared using modern intensive production systems, these birds provide cheap meat for the shopper – but at a price.
Up to 40,000 birds are crammed into artificially-lit chicken houses, at a rate of two birds per square foot. Stress levels in the birds are high, and they are kept alive by continuous antibiotics.
While battery chickens can be bought for half the price of free range or organic offerings, my view is always to eat the best you can afford, even if it means eating it less often.
Whatever bird you choose, it should have a plump breast with no bruising or marks on the meat. It should be cleanly plucked with no tears on the skin, which should be moist and have a pleasant smell.
The best value bird will be about 1.7kg plus, where the ratio of meat to bone is higher. With little or no fat, chicken will dry out quickly if it is overcooked.
This is not so much a problem with duck, as it has a much higher fat content. With domestic duck such as barbary, it is easy to render down the fat while cooking, as it is not as solid as, for example, the Mallard duck (normally used for foie gras). Peking duck is good for roasting whole.
The following recipe is my favourite for Mallard duck. Other types of duck can be used, but the cooking time will be slightly different and the colour will be much lighter, as the meat of the Mallard has a dark red colour.
When looking at a recipe such as this, don’t be put off by its apparent complexity. You can treat each component of this dish separately and I would recommend that you cook the duck by itself the first time you try it. The cabbage will last for a week if put into a preserving jar, and then all you will have to do is heat it up gently.
Slow-cooked Mallard duck glazed with honey and pepper, wild cranberry sauce
1 whole Mallard duck
1 bouquet Garni
2 kg of rock sea salt
Fresh milled white pepper
1 tbsp of good quality honey
2g crushed black pepper
1. Ask your butcher to remove the meat from the bird.
2.Remove the vein on the breast, cover a tray with the sea salt and place the fat side of the duck on the salt. Cover the rest of the duck with the salt and leave for 20 minutes.
3.Remove the duck and brush off all the salt (this helps to tenderise the duck). Score the fat side of the duck by cutting into the fat diagonally 2cm apart and across, so you are left with 2cm square cuts into the fat.
4. Place the duck into the marinade and put in the refrigerator overnight.
5.Remove the duck from the marinade, season with fresh milled white pepper only and place fat-side down on a warm pan. Cook slowly to render down the fat until the skin is a golden colour. Remove the excess fat.
6.Turn the duck and cook the flesh side for a few minutes, add the honey and turn the duck again so the fat side is directly on the pan. Cook in a hot oven at 175 Celsius for four minutes.
7.Remove and sprinkle with the crushed black pepper, then rest for five minutes before cutting into thin slices.
Wild cranberry sauce
250g of wild cranberries (ordinary cranberries will do)
1 litre of duck stock
10ml of port
10ml of dry martini
5ml of olive oil
3 shallots, diced
1/2 bulb of garlic
Bunch of thyme
1 bay leaf,
50g of foie gras butter (25g fresh foie gras and 25g of unsalted butter, softened)
1.De-vein the foie gras, add it to the softened butter, place into a blender for one minute, remove and pass through a fine sieve. Roll into a sausage shape and place into the fridge until hard.
2.Add a little olive oil to a warm pot, add the diced shallots and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the cranberries and cook for a further minute. Add the port and dry martini. Cook until almost evaporated.
3.Add the stock, reduce by half, taste for seasoning and correct if necessary.
4.Cut the foie gras butter into small cubes and fold five small cubes into the sauce. Pass the sauce through a fine strainer and serve.
1 red cabbage
1 jar of redcurrant jelly
Fresh milled white pepper to taste
1. Shred the cabbage into thin strips, blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds and strain off the liquid. It will lose some of its colour, but it will turn a deep red later.
2. Place the redcurrant jelly in another pot. Wash the fruit and cut in quarters, then add to the jelly. Add the red cabbage.
3.Mixwell and cook very slowly for two hours or until cooked. Be careful not to caramelise the cabbage. To serve, place the red cabbage in the centre of the plate, arrange the duck on top, sprinkle the wild cranberries and pour a little sauce around.
Kevin Thornton is a Michelin-starred chef and owner of Thornton’s Restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin.