Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
It all started, as these things do, with my running off at the mouth — and of course, my mouth was full. The place was Hillcrest Artisan Meats, and the subject of my ruminations was a hamburger we might have mentioned two or ten times. One of the local farmers who provides H.A.M. with some of their free-range meat happened to be in the shop that day, and while she didn't introduce herself right then, I got an e-mail later that week asking if I'd like to do a review on some of her farm's products. I agreed, with the understanding that she should be careful what she asked for, because I wouldn't pull any punches if the protein wasn't good. She told me she wouldn't expect any less from me and told me to expect some samples.
The farmer's name is Katie Short, and her farm is called Farm Girl Natural Foods. And after spending over a week cooking with various ingredients raised on her free-range family farm, I've become a convert to her way of doing things. From sausages flavored and spiced to perfection to free range chickens that roasted up perfectly, the farm girl behind Farm Girl needn't worry: there's no way this is going to be a bad review. Join me down there under the jump for a look at meat raised and processed with care, because these animals raised in a low-stress environment really do taste better.
I started my culinary journey with Farm Girl's products with a chicken breed called "naked neck," a bird that the Farm Girl website describes as being active and hearty. The birds are sold under the more euphonious name "poulet libre," but by whatever name, they're incredible. This breed has a thicker than normal skin, making it a wonderful bird for the roasting pan — as you all might have noticed by my lead-in picture. Katie describes the skin as "parchment-like," and it cooked up almost as rich and crisp as good duck. The meat of these little birds is light and clean tasting, needing very little in the way of herbs or basting to come through with a load of pure chicken flavor. As a test of the bird's resilience, I did not use a single drop of butter or oil with the bird, allowing the natural juices and fat to keep it moist and flavor the bed of vegetables I laid below. The verdict: complete success. The chicken was as juicy as any I've had, with a mellow, sweet flavor that made it something quite special.
After classic meal like roast chicken, I wanted to branch out and try something more bold. Enter a package of Farm Girl's hmong sausage, a sausage that I have to admit that I'd never even heard of, much less cooked with. I took one of the small links and pan-seared it, just to get an idea of the flavor, which turned out to be mild, succulent minced pork with a warm shot of ginger, cilantro, and chili pepper. Spicy enough to be a bold addition to any dish, the sausages weren't so over-seasoned that the flavor of the free-range pork didn't shine through. Wanting to feature the sausage as a main ingredient, I made a simple broccoli slaw stir fry, added the sausage, and then served it over a bed of warm sticky rice with a poached egg hiding right underneath. The crunch of the slaw went well with the spicy sausage, and the warm, gooey egg held everything together to make a fine finished product. These hmong sausages, like all Farm Girl's prepared sausages, contain no MSG, nitrates, nitrites, or any other chemical preservatives — but oh, man, are they packed with flavor.
For the last meal I took on with Farm Girl's products, I took another of their chicken varieties, the red ranger, and decided to pair it with a stuffing made from some of the farm's linguica, a Portuguese sausage that had a nice bold flavor. I boned out the chicken to make a galantine, then filled the boneless bird up with a mixture of the linguica, bacon, and bread crumbs. After two hours in the oven, my entire house started smelling like everything good in the world and I'm pretty sure my neighbors were getting jealous. Like the smaller poulet libre, the classic chicken cooked up to a wonderful golden brown, and since it lacked any bones, we could just slice right through it to get a plateful of chicken and sausage excellence.
So after all this, I know you're all wondering where you can get your hands on some of this meat. Well, Farm Girl products are sold at the Argenta and Bernice Garden farmers markets, and on the Arkansas Local Food Network site and the Conway Locally Grown site. The farm's meats also have made appearances on menus at such places as Ashley's, Hillcrest Artisan Meats, the Root Cafe, and the Heifer International Cafe. All the cooking I did with these products is only a fraction of what's available: I've got a rack of their ribs (with the pork belly still attached) in my freezer waiting for Memorial Day, and they have a full line of beef products, too. I love local food, especially when it's as good as this — I can't impress on you all enough that you should check this meat out any time you see it for sale or on a menu.
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