This winter, the folks at JuHa Ranch have been culling their flock of hens. Some of their hens are no longer laying eggs, and some of them have turned to eating other hen's eggs. So, what happens to old hens? Well, they aren't much for roasting.
The chicken you buy at the store is usually young. Most chicken farms sell their birds as soon as they reach adult weight. Older chickens get tough, but they can be delicious and tender if cooked in liquid. That's why they're called stewing hens.
There are lots of ways of getting the full flavor of a stewing hen, but they all require a bit of time. It takes years for a bird to toughen up, so it can take hours to tenderize them. The payoff, however, is big. Older chickens have more flavor per ounce than younger ones, and that's all there is to it.Leave it to the French to come up with some of the great stewing hen recipes. After all, it was King Henry IV who said he wanted no peasant in his land too poor to have a chicken in his pot (poule au pot) every Sunday.
6 pounds of whole, uncooked stewing chicken (two small or one large)
2 medium onions, quartered
2 large stalks celery with leaves, or half a bulb celeriac (or substitute celery seeds)
2 large carrots, or 4 small ones, or a handful of carrot seedlings
2 bay leaves1 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 long, leafy sprigs fresh thyme
10 peppercorns (or more)
1 teaspoon soy sauce (optional)
If frozen, thaw your hen in its package in the refrigerator the day before. Or quick thaw in lukewarm water for an hour and use right away.
Rinse hens inside and out with water.
Place in a large stockpot with enough cold water to cover (it's OK if leg tips aren't completely submerged). Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 1 to 2 hours or until breast meat loosens from the bone.
Skim foam from surface a few times.
When meat is loose, lift chicken out of pot and let rest until cool enough to handle.
Remove meat from bones, and refrigerate for later use.
Return bones and skin to pot. Add remaining ingredients and return to simmer for a total cooking time of 3 1/2 to 4 hours.
Judi recommends tasting the broth in the last hour to monitor its progress. There is a big difference in the blended flavors and richness of stock that has had full simmer and that which is cut short. When you're satisfied, strain into a wide bowl so that it will cool quickly.
Refrigerate or freeze in 1-quart containers if not using immediately. I have found the yield to be a quart of stock for every pound of bird. This liquid gold can get locavores through the winter "localizing" dried legumes that many soups are built around and of course inviting stews, dumplings and hearty pasta casseroles. I find adding the de-boned meat at the last possible second to be best for flavor.
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