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Food - Eat what you grow

From raising a chicken to cultivating his own vegetables, Home Grown chef Hudson Rouse gives us a lesson in self-reliance and cooks up a meal he grew himself.

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On Sept. 14, as Atlanta's Dirty Birds prepared to burn the Philadelphia Eagles at the Georgia Dome, Home Grown chef Hudson Rouse is at home with his own bird to fry. Fourteen weeks prior, Rouse picked up a one-day-old Cornish Cross chick from Standard Feed and Seed Co. near I-20 and Gresham Road. He brought it back to his East Atlanta home in a gray plastic pet carrier. The plan was to raise the chicken for meat, slaughter it in the backyard, and transform the animal — along with a bushel of vegetables he'd grown himself — into a fried chicken dinner for his family.

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Such a project requires a certain degree of infrastructure and know-how to be successful. A food-grower turned for-profit farmer turned cook, Rouse is one of the few chefs in town with the skills to pull off this feat of self-reliance.

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The chick lived in a brooder made out of a blue plastic tub for the first two weeks of its life. Once the bird was big enough to sprout feathers Rouse built a chicken tractor, a moveable structure he repositioned a little bit each day so the bird could have a healthy life. This technique allows the bird access to a new clean part of the yard with fresh bugs and grass to munch on daily.

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"If you were to see a picture of a healthy chicken and a chicken that was raised in a factory farming environment," Rouse says, "I guarantee you that pretty much everybody would say, 'This is the chicken I want to eat' and they would point at the healthy bird that lived outside rather than the bird that's lost its feathers and looks abnormally formed because it was engineered to have a big breast and never got out of a cage. But you don't ever see it."

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Rouse is a proponent and practitioner of homesteading — self-reliance in the modern age. Looking out over his backyard, Rouse explains how he's groomed every usable inch of land into leafy, food-producing rows, about 2,000 square feet in all. This time of year, the beds in both his front and back yards contain everything from sungold tomatoes and Russian kale to arugula, beets, radishes, and more.

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"The bushy bed right there," Rouse says, motioning toward a small plot, "those are the beans we're gonna eat tonight."

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Instead of trekking to the grocery store, Rouse comes home from work early, and within an hour and a half, has gathered all the ingredients he can from the garden. He washes it all and mows the front beds over so they can be replanted. Rouse's menu for his family dinner includes an arugula salad with homemade ranch dressing, a garlicky succotash, and green beans laced with anise-y fennel fronds. And, of course, the guest of honor: a platter of golden-brown fried chicken.

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Rouse has grown food and kept egg-laying hens at his house for the last five years. But this is his first romp with the Cornish Cross breed.

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"At the point of its maximum growth you have to slaughter. I could just see its breast getting bigger, it stood differently, and its gait was different than the other birds that I got used to having. I just kept thinking to myself, 'Oh it's time. It's not comfortable and I'm not going to be comfortable looking at it too much longer.'"

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After about 80 days, the bird's time had come.

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Before the bird is harvested, Rouse's kids — Isabella, 13, Millicent, 11, and Branch, 10 — and his wife, Kathryn, burn sage to clear the air, a ritual to honor and respect the animal's sacrifice. Then Rouse scoops up the bird, hangs it by its feet, and severs the main artery in its neck with his trusty Henckel utility knife.

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Joeff Davis

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?Eleven weeks into the project. ?

A self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, Rouse graduated from college in 1999 with an economics degree from Oglethorpe University. He sold insurance for the next seven years, but left the world of retirement funds and group health plans in 2007 to try his hand at wine importing. As advocates of the good food movement, such as Michael Pollan, brought national attention to the ills of factory farming in the United States, Rouse decided to take up backyard gardening as a hobby. He began caring deeply about where and from whom his food was coming. In 2010, he and cohort Bremen James took over the Oakleaf Mennonite Farm in East Atlanta. Eventually Rouse crossed over from food production to food preparation. In March 2014, he landed a most fitting kitchen position: chef at the beloved Reynoldstown diner Home Grown. Now he works at the restaurant and, miraculously, finds time to grow a lot of his own food at the same time.

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It's an enormous time commitment. But for Rouse, the pros outweigh the cons. Growing reduces the amount of money he has to spend on groceries. He estimates that his efforts cut his family's grocery bill by at least $100 to $150 per week.

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"On average, I might spend like 20 bucks at the farmers market, but that 20 bucks would be consumed that night when I came home," Rouse says. "We'd probably cook all of that food to feed everybody. If I went to a farmers market every day, that's 140 bucks a week I would be spending on local vegetables."

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Of course, shopping at a conventional grocery store would be more affordable. But that circles back to the reason Rouse learned to grow in the first place. If he doesn't know who grew the food he's eating or where it came from, he doesn't want to buy it.

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Rouse's garden also doubles as a personal oasis. The time he spends there is an escape from city life. He can get away without ever leaving home. Perhaps most importantly, though, Rouse is able to spend time with his family and teach his children important life skills.

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"It's funny," Rouse says. "One of my kids ended up leading a tour at Atlanta urban farm Truly Living Well that somebody else was giving. They told me, 'Oh, your daughter knew everything so we just let her tell everybody what it is.' I think they enjoy it. But I think any time that your parent makes you to do something, I don't think you like it as much as if you'd picked it up on your own."

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His children don't have many other chores at home, he says. But at the end of the day, gardening is work and kids are kids. At times, the young members of his tribe are less than enthusiastic about helping out.

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"You gotta bribe them because eventually they grow not to like it," Rouse says. "Sometimes I'll tell 'em like 'OK, we gotta do this,' and the last thing they want to do is go out and pick green beans at the end of the day — staring at their basketball court or their skateboard and me tellin' 'em come over here and help me pick green beans."

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Rouse's galley kitchen is also the main thoroughfare to the backyard — a very happening place. It is literally teeming with life and things to play with: a chicken coop, a garden, a basketball hoop, a hammock. As Rouse waits for a large pot of oil on the stove to come up to temp — 350 degrees is about right, he says — he begins chopping vegetables for the succotash. Interestingly, all the main ingredients for this dish grew out of one bed, a three sisters patch.

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"It's a Native American-style patch that is traditionally a pole bean, a corn, and a squash, and they grow together," Rouse says. "The squash spreads out over the ground and prevents weed growth. The corn shoots up relatively quickly and the pole bean grows up the corn and uses it for support. They grow really well together, they harvest at the same time."

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After blanching and shocking a few handfuls of green beans in cold water, he sautés them with butter and finishes them with some fennel fronds. He whips together a ranch-style dressing made with buttermilk, mayonnaise, fresh rosemary, German thyme, and parsley, and then he turns his attention to the chicken.

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Unlike birds raised in factory farms, pastured poultry get plenty of fresh air and exercise throughout their lives. Their meat tends to be slightly tougher than factory birds' as a result. To counteract this, Rouse brines the bird overnight in buttermilk to help soften some of the meat's tight proteins.

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"Growin' up we never ate fried chicken anywhere," Rouse says. "We loved the fried chicken that my granny made, and to us it was something special when she cooked it." He plops a gooey chicken breast into a pan of seasoned flour and continues, "I didn't eat fried chicken at restaurants until I came to Atlanta and I still don't get it very often. When I do, I get it at Zesto before I go to the drive-in movie theater."

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Rouse packs as much flour around each piece of chicken as possible, taking care to leave no glistening nook or cranny uncovered. This method, the buttermilk bath and heavy, meticulous dredging, is essential to ensure every bite of chicken has some crust, he says. For Rouse, fried chicken's success lives and dies by its crunchy exterior.

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"I hate eating fried chicken with a crust that has no flavor," he says. "Salt and pepper are key. You want to season the flour so that you're not biting through something bland to get to the meat."

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Growing food and cooking food seem to go hand in hand. But despite the obvious overlaps, there are few professionals who do both successfully. There just aren't enough hours in the day, Rouse says. One of his kids recently asked him a perplexing question: If you could be a successful farmer or a successful chef which one would you be?

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"It was a really hard question to answer, because both of them have their perks," he says. "To be really successful at one you almost have to give up the other. Being in the kitchen 10 or 12 hours a day'll beat you up just like being on the back of a tractor in the sun, they're both just as hot and you gotta be all in or it doesn't work out."

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One by one, he drops each piece into the oil. Once the chicken starts floating in the pot, he lowers the temperature to make sure the outsides don't burn before the meat has a chance to cook through. Satisfied, Rouse extracts the golden chicken parts from the oil and arranges them onto a platter. "There," he says with a laugh. "It's an eight-piece, just like at Zesto."

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Video by Eric Cash and Joeff Davis

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Photos by Joeff Davis

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The postman delivers a box of baby chickens to Standard Feed and Seed in East Atlanta. About 12 times a year the seed store receives a shipment of about 100-200 chicks from a farm in the Midwest. When delivered, the birds are less then two days old. On this day people wait in parked cars for the birds’ arrival. Chicks sell from $3 to $3.50. The meat birds are a little cheaper than the sexed birds which are used for egg laying.

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Seed and Feed employee Jeremiah puts the delivered chicks into a brooder where they will live until they are purchased.

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Chef Hudson Rouse checks out the chicks. “You want to pick out the one that’s healthy or lucky.”

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Rouse arrives at his home in East Atlanta where he will raise the chickens. “I want it to lead a happy life. I want it to have fun and I want to nourish it because it will be nourishing me."

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"I picked this one because of the black dot on top of its head. Most of them always look identical and this one’s a little different. I can give it extra special attention since I know which one it is." Rouse’s family named it White Chicken.

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At the end of the first week (left). After two and a half weeks of living in Rouse’s backyard, White Chicken has grown a lot (right).

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Rouse has moved the chickens out of the brooder they originally lived in to a chicken tractor, a light wooden structure he made for them. "I can move it around the yard so when they soil one area and the grass is no longer there and they’ve eaten all the bugs. I’ll move it every day for the rest of their lives."

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“The chickens like to have fresh grass. Having access to fresh, clean areas. A flock in the wild will move to different places every day so I’m mimicking that as much as I can."

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Rouse and White Chicken just short of seven weeks (left). “The best way to know if it’s a happy animal or not is to know something about its life. To know the farmer. To know the person who raised it." Eleven weeks into the project (right).

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White Chicken in Rouse’s backyard after living there for 11 weeks. “The chicken’s expending energy to live. I don’t want it to struggle or to feel like it’s struggling because for me that will translate into the quality of the meat,” Rouse says. “The quality of the life of the chicken is in direct correlation of the life of the bird ... When I go to the store and I see a chicken breast that weights about 3 pounds, I wonder, ‘What did this chicken look like?’ and I picture a chicken sitting on a couch eating a bag of potato chips all its life. This chicken is the opposite of that. Its life is more in tune with my life and maybe that’s why I want to eat birds like that. Hopefully we live on this earth in harmony together.”

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The day of harvest comes almost 13 weeks into the project. “The idea is to harvest at the right time when then meat is succulent.” Hudson’s girlfriend and his children perform a smudging using sage before White Chicken is harvested. “I believe that everyone should know where their food comes from and to me, especially my kids, I want them to know where it comes from. I want them to want to eat it. I want them to thank it for its life and for the entertainment and then I want them to thank me for cooking it and tell me it was good when we eat it.”

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White Chicken is tied up upside down before Rouse slits his throat with a knife.

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The moment of harvest.

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Rouse plucks the chicken near a pot of boiling water while his son Branch looks on.

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After plucking the chicken, it is washed using a hose in the yard.

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Rouse uses every part of the chicken. The raisins are what was inside White Chicken’s stomach when it died. “I’m gonna use every bit of this chicken when I cook it. I’m going to use the skin. I’m going to use the feet. I’m gonna use the feathers for the compost in my garden. I’ll use the gizzard. I’ll use the heart. I’ll use the liver. All of the edible portions will go into something for our dinner."

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The chicken goes into the fridge until brining and cooking.

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Because pastured poultry is relatively more active during its life than factory-farmed birds, the meat is slightly tougher. To counteract this, Rouse uses a buttermilk brine to tenderize the chicken.

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To ensure the crust of his fried chicken is flavorful, Rouse seasons the flour he’ll use to dredge the brined meat with salt and pepper.

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Rouse applies a liberal coating of seasoned flour to each piece of chicken.

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Rouse grew the Seminole corn, along with the rest of the vegetables for this meal, at his East Atlanta home garden.

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Rouse removes corn kernels from the cob in his home kitchen.

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By shocking the green beans in an ice bath after blanching, Rouse prevents them from overcooking.

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Rouse usually has deli cups of dried peas at home. He reconstitutes them by soaking them in water overnight.

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Rouse chops up Seminole squash for the succotash.

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Rouse makes his own ranch dressing by combining freshly chopped herbs from his garden, buttermilk, and mayonnaise.

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Rouse puts the finishing touches on his succotash as the chicken finishes frying on the back burner.

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The final meal includes a succotash (from bottom) made with squash, corn, cow peas, and sungold tomatoes, fried chicken, sautéed green beans with fennel fronds, and an arugula salad topped with a soft-boiled egg and homemade buttermilk ranch dressing.

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Arugula Salad

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• 3 eggs
?• ½ pound arugula

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Buttermilk Ranch Dressing

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• 2 palm fulls of your favorite fresh herbs, chopped
?• 2 pinches salt
?• 2 pinches pepper
?• 3 tablespoons buttermilk
?• 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
?• Salt
?• Pepper

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For the dressing:
?Combine all ingredients except for the mayonnaise in a blender. Add mayonnaise. Once combined, and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

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To assemble the salad:
?Soft-boil the eggs for about six minutes. Shock the eggs in ice water so that they do not continue to cook. This will also make it easier to remove the shell without breaking the eggs. Put arugula in a large salad bowl. Add desired amount of dressing and toss to coat. Top with eggs and serve.

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Green Beans with Fennel Fronds

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Joeff Davis

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• 1 pound green beans
?• 1 tablespoon butter
?• Fennel fronds
?• Squeeze of lemon
?• Salt
?• Pepper

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Blanche the green beans in boiling salted water for approximately two to three minutes. Strain and shock in ice water. This can be done ahead of time. Finish cooking the green beans in a sauté pan with butter. Once green beans have come back to temp, add the fennel fronds, toss to coat, and remove from heat. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and salt and pepper to taste. Alternative seasonings for beans could be Thai basil, lemon and garlic, shallots, or Mexican oregano to give it a Latin American vibe.
 
 
 

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Succotash

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Joeff Davis

• 4 tablespoons olive oil
?• 2 cloves garlic, minced
?• 3 necks of Seminole squash, medium dice
?• 1 cup fresh cow peas (½ cup dried)
?• 4 ears of corn, kernels removed
?• 1 pint sungold tomatoes
?• Salt
?• Pepper

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Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add garlic and squash and cook for five minutes. Next add the cow peas and corn and cook for an additional 15 minutes. For the last five minutes add the tomatoes and cook until all the vegetables are tender. Salt and pepper to taste.
 
 
 

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Joeff Davis

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Hudson's Fried Chicken

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Buttermilk brine:
?• 2 cups flour
?• 2-3 teaspoons salt
?• 2-3 teaspoons black pepper

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• 1 whole chicken, broken down into pieces

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Seasoned flour:
?• 2 cups all-purpose flour
?• 3 teaspoons salt
?• 2 teaspoons black pepper
?• 2 teaspoons garlic powder
?• 2 teaspoons onion powder
?• 2 teaspoons paprika

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Prepare the brine in a container large enough to submerge all of the chicken. Add the chicken to the brine. Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 hours or overnight. After brining, remove each piece and dredge in seasoned flour. Coat the entire surface of each piece generously. Heat a pot of oil to 350 degrees. Add chicken to oil and deep fry until the pieces start to float. Remove from oil and check the internal temperature of each piece with a meat thermometer. Chicken is done when the meat’s internal temperature closest to the bone is 165 degrees.

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