Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Was it curiosity? Better feeding grounds? Or maybe it was simply to distinguish itself from mass-produced, essentially flavorless protein. Is this why everything tastes like chicken? Because chicken tastes like everything, yet like nothing at all?
Like most shoppers do, I used to purchase my fowl based on price. On sale at the large supermarket chains? Sold! Fifty cents a pound cheaper in the 5-pound package? Double sold! After all, as long as I followed the basic tenets of nutrition, selecting low-fat chicken breasts, then life was good and the planets were all properly aligned, right?
But then I got a taste of a simple roasted Mary’s organic chicken, and I was sold. Roasted breast, no less, which usually has no taste, even if it has a moist consistency that resembles textured vegetable protein. But this chicken tasted like . . . yeah, chicken! So I had to research what made Mary’s chicken different.
MARY’S FREE-RANGE CHICKEN
What began as a turkey farm in the 1950s has morphed into one of the most notable chicken farms in the nation — yes, nation —and evolved with the second and third generations into one of the largest free-range, humanely raised and slaughtered, antibiotic- and hormone-free poultry farms. Because turkey farming usually peaks just around the holidays and then quickly subsides thereafter, the Pittmans knew they would have to diversify, so they chose the most popular poultry product — chicken — to sustain them during the rest of the year.
Tyson’s and Foster Farms had already established themselves as the “big boys” of the chicken world, so the Pittmans decided to create their own niche with chicken breeds that weren’t selected for quick weight gain, eschewing the use of hormones and antibiotics and allowing the birds to roam free like chickens normally do in the wild (and in your backyard). The Pittmans also chose a humane means of slaughtering their fowl. They have partnered with Global Animal Partnership’s Five-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards Program, which, ultimately, benefits farmers, retailers and consumers, alike.
But do they taste better? I think so! With mass supermarket birds, the flesh usually has almost no real flavor. Generally, only the nicely roasted skin has any chicken flavor. The meat of Mary’s chicken has the same flavor usually found only in the skin. Of course, with organic, humane animal husbandry, there is added cost, so don’t expect to pay only $2.49 per pound. You can purchase Mary’s chicken retail at Whole Foods outlets.
Just about the same time that I started seeing restaurants listing Mary’s chicken on their menus, I also began noticing a new “Japanese” chicken called Jidori chicken. It’s not really from Japan, but it is a trademarked name for free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free birds that, like Mary’s, are humanely raised and slaughtered. It’s basically the same concept as Mary’s — just created by another group with the same aim: to raise a bird as humanely and as naturally as possible with a lot more flavor. Because of the popularity of these “artisanally raised” birds, there are probably as many imposters calling themselves “Jidori chicken” as the real McCoy.
A STEP FURTHER
As you may already know, I try to focus on sustainable purchases along with being a locavore as much as possible to support our community on this tiny rock. I’ve already switched my beef purchases to locally raised beef. And for my pork, I seek out Shinsato, which will be ceasing operations by the end of the year, or Wong Farms. Locally raised poultry was my one void, however. I knew of one local poultry farm on the Big Island, although, understandably, it only sold to restaurants and patrons on Hawai‘i Island.
That is, until I discovered J. Ludovico Farms, which sells its chicken at the Saturday KCC Farmer’s Market and at the Kailua Farmer’s Market on Thursdays. Founders Julius and Jamie Ludovico, and their children — Lucy, Ellie and Jack — and weekly help from Julius’ sister Maria, started J. Ludovico Farms four years ago in Hale‘iwa. Julius was trained in methods of Korean Natural Farming and wanted to put them into practice. He originally started with pigs, but ended up with poultry. Although they have a small flock of egg-laying hens, their focus for now is on poultry for meat. The chickens are raised on grass/pasture with the protection of a movable coop. They’re moved and fed daily, replicating the methods used by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, although Ludovico’s redesigned coops are lighter and sturdier. They obtained an exemption from the U.S. Department of Agriculture over two years ago to process and sell poultry and are currently the only operation to do so on O‘ahu and one of only three in the entire state.
The Ludovicos’ farm is primarily a husband-and-wife operation, although they will sell to the public if you “reserve” your bird before their weekly slaughter on Mondays. I was so excited about finally getting my hands on locally raised chicken, so I reserved not just a bird, but livers, hearts and gizzards for the full nose-to-tail dining experience.
Once again, free-range artisanally raised animals cost more; in this case, it was $5 per pound, or a little more than double the price of Foster Farms and Tyson’s. To ensure that secret seasonings and spices didn’t sway our evaluation of the product, I sprinkled it with just salt and black pepper and placed it in that perfect roaster, the Ronco Rotisserie Oven. Laugh all you want, but this oven roasts chicken like no one’s business!
The bird from Ludovico Farms did not disappoint. The flavor usually found only in the skin had permeated throughout the flesh, including the breast! And the skin — chicken-flavored squared. No, make that chicken-flavored cubed! The Ronco Rotisserie Oven had given me skin that was nice and crispy, while still leaving the breast meat moist and tender.
There is one drawback to these birds, however. The Mrs. now wants me to make regular after-work trips to the Thursday Kailua Farmers Market for more J. Ludovico birds.
OFFAL, BUT NOT AWFUL
I usually pressure-cook my chicken gizzards in order to get maximum tenderness with the perfect ”bite.” To be honest, however, I didn’t notice much difference in the flavor compared to basic supermarket gizzards. Then again, I season my chicken gizzards with garlic, peppers and onions, along with loads of Spanish spices, which could neutralize the actual flavor of the gizzards. They looked a lot fresher than the supermarket variety and all of the pieces were intact, unlike the “pieces and parts” you find in the supermarket.
The free-range livers and hearts were another story, though. They were leagues apart in flavor, texture and appearance than those from the supermarket. The livers were intact and sported a beautiful color — I didn’t even have to soak them before making my chicken liver pate. They also had a better flavor that was less “minerally” than what you often find in the supermarket.
And the hearts? I seasoned them with shawarma (a Levantine Arab meat preparation) spices and grilled them. If you sampled them without knowing what you were eating, you would have thought that they were chicken pieces whose flavor was concentrated two to three times over. Yes, they were that good!
PRICE OR TASTE?
If you are responsible for feeding a family of eight to 10 people, I totally understand that price comes first, as a single chicken won’t be enough for one meal. But if a single bird can provide one meal or more, I encourage you to choose taste over price. Besides, sampling a bird (and other parts) from J. Ludovico Farms helps support our local economy.
You know what? I’m fine with the Mrs.’ suggestion that I visit the Kailua Farmers Market regularly for those fine birds . . . as long as I can also get more hearts, livers and gizzards . . .
J. Ludovico Farms
Julius and Jamie Ludovico
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”