Ask around and you'll get a lot of naysayers to the eating of an aged egg layer. They'll tell you that the meat isn't fit for consumption; that it will be tough and stringy and disgusting. Well I'm here to tell you that they are wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong.
The folks that think a stewing hen is inedible are the ones who are attempting to prepare it like a broiler. That doesn't work. Broiler chickens, the kind that you buy at the store tidily wrapped in clinging plastic and styrofoam, are harvested at around eight weeks. Eight weeks, people! The incredible rate of growth is mind-boggling, unless you see it firsthand. Think about it. That creature hatches at only a few ounces and then puts on nearly a pound of weight a week. Those muscles that end up on your dinner plate probably haven't even been properly stretched. Talk about fresh, young meat. But of course a hen or rooster that has been running around the yard for a couple years will be a tad more rough and tumble in taste and texture, the tenderness and succulence of adolescence long gone. The secret to preparing one of these old cluckers is the same as with any tough cut of meat: cook the shit out of it for a really really long time under low heat.
I knew that I would have to find a tried and true recipe to prepare Pop Tart's thin frame so I turned to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, British author of the award winning The River Cottage Meat Book, my crockpot, and the French. Coq au vin, as the name suggests, obviously descends from the French. Long considered a peasant dish, an old rooster who was losing his abilities between the legs would be cast into the stewing pot along with some wine, onions, mushrooms, salt pork and a bouquet garni. The lengthy cooking period broke down the tough connective tissues that tend to build up in older, active birds, creating a tasty and inexpensive meal. My modern version utilizes my crockpot for the slow, low temp cooking. Today, coq au vin is most often prepared with broilers and cooked for shorter periods of time. What a waste, I say. Let's create a stewing hen revival. I know Hugh is on board. He has several videos (look for more info in my next post) on his experience as a small holder, of which the American translation would probably be "hobby farmer", where he advocates for using all of one's resources in a sensible, holistic manner. He would never let an old rooster or hen go to naught.
Hugh's recipes have never steered me wrong so I went with a variation on his coq au vin.
- old laying hen
- a couple bulbs of green garlic
- 1/2 pound button mushrooms
- 1/2 pound bacon
- half a glass of brandy
- 2 cups red wine (I used Bogle's Merlot)
- 2 cups water
- a bouquet garni of celery, parsley, thyme, and bay leaf
- pepper to taste
Little Pop Tart strutted across the stage of existence one last time in a serving vessel fit for a queen (one of my finest thrift store finds).
We served her with a lovely spread of homegrown artichoke hearts, homegrown pickled carrots, pickled beets, and grilled asparagus. Her flesh, atop heaps and heaps of mash, transformed into a toothsome meal good enough for any king.
And we, the court, made merry one last time before our summer apart.
What will I do without my farm sitter?