A Menu for your laying hen’s retirement party
by Suzanne Lupien of Scio, OR
(this article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Small Farmer’s Journal)
When that hard working hen comes to the end of her egg production once and for all and you are reflecting on what she has given – so many delicious eggs! And the arrival of every one of them announced so enthusiastically – not to mention that valuable manure which has made a world of difference to the rhubarb patch, and her enduring example of perpetual industriousness, she has one more gift to give: chicken pie.
Do not be deterred by her scrawny physique. What she lacks in flesh, she will make up for in flavor. (Breadth of life experience translates into richer flavor). A plump young roast chicken is a very popular dinner on my farm, but everyone crows the loudest for chicken pie. And a chicken pie requires less time and attention during evening chores than roasting a chicken, preparing green vegetables and the gravy and mashed potatoes to go with. Aside from making a batch of pie dough, assembling the chicken pie and baking it, the entire preparation can be done here and there during your busy farm day.
A hatchet, a stump, a heart filled with thanks and we’re ready.
The kindest and therefore quietest way to catch chickens is, of course, in the dark. So if you’re an early riser you might gently remove a couple of birds from their roost in the wee hours of the morning and put them in a ventilated box for a short time, until you’re ready. Or else the night before. Whatever you do, please be gentle and firm handling the old girls, careful to hold them close and compact so as not to risk injury to their legs and wings (and your face and hands).
Make sure your heart is calm and your hatchet or cleaver is sharp and heavy. One clear intentioned and accurate blow should suffice. Holding the chicken by her feet with her head and neck just barely resting on the block is a good way. Then immediately put down your blade and grasp the bird with both hands holding her wings firmly around her body until all movement ceases. This will prevent bruising the both of you and keep her feathers clean and dry.
I prefer to eviscerate cold birds as everything is firmer and neater so I would be inclined to dispatch them the night before, or early in the morning of the cooking day. Heads off, hang them by their feet with a piece of baling twine or strong string and dry pluck them immediately while the blood drains. Killing and plucking a couple of chickens need not take more than twenty minutes or so. They pluck easier warm, and they cool rapidly, especially on a frosty morning, so jump right in and get it done. And take just a few feathers at a time taking care not to tear the skin. The most likely place to tear is the strip of fat running through the breast. Plucking in an upward direction works better than a downward one at this spot.
Leave them where they are to cool for an hour or two, and take care that they’re hung high enough to be out of the reach of the dog, and out of the path of the rising sun. After morning chores and breakfast dishes are out of the way, check the chickens over for missed feathers, and if you’re lucky enough to have a cook stove you’ve got the perfect singeing device. Take the front lid off the firebox, toss in a fat strip of birch bark or such like and burn the feathers and hairs off. Scrub the chickens in cold running water with a stiff brush, select a sharp and narrow bladed knife and eviscerate. All you need to do is to lay open the newspaper on a good sized cutting board, set the chicken down legs facing you and make a neat horizontal rectangular cut around the vent, draw out the vent and entrails, then the organs and windpipe. I keep the feet on the bird until evisceration is complete in order to have something to hold onto. Cut the bloody end of the neck off, peel back the skin and remove the crop, and then cut off the feet by bending the joint backward which helps to reveal the gap in the joint. Chicken feet do make excellent stock but I don’t always save them, and today for expediency sake, I’ll just save out the heart and liver for lunch, wrap all the rest of it in the newspaper and push it into the firebox.
Wash your birds again thoroughly in cold water and set them to drain sitting up in a colander, while you fetch that big heavy wide stew pot from the depths of the pantry. If the wings have refused to relinquish all their feathers, you can simply cut away and discard the wings or wing tips, or go fetch the pliers, if there’s time.
Chicken Pie is more about golden, velvety gravy and flaky crust than it is about heaps of meat. And to achieve this gorgeous gravy we must start by browning the birds all over in a little fat prior to stewing. I prefer lard if it is homemade, carefully rendered and odorless and kept in the freezer, then it’s my all time favorite cooking fat, tolerating higher heat than butter without burning, and it even beats butter for the flakiest biscuits in my experience. Another thing about tasty gravy with good rich color is to keep the stewing liquid, which will become the gravy, to a minimum. Instead of drowning the birds in water, keep the liquid level to just under halfway, or knee deep so to speak. Add an onion, a bit of salt, a dash of apple cider vinegar for tenderizing and bring the chickens to a boil. Spoon off any foam which forms on the boiling liquid, reduce the heat to a simmer, turning the chickens occasionally and cook with the lid on, until the meat is so tender it’s nearly falling off the bone. Make sure the legs are indeed very tender, for they are the last to soften; after a chicken lifetime of trotting around the hen yard, it’s no wonder. So the cooking time could be anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on the age of the birds.
At the point of doneness, remove the pot from the fire, and gently lift the chickens out of the beautiful golden stock with a couple of slotted spoons to a platter or an open bowl for rapid cooling. A half an hour should cool them down sufficiently for comfortably removing the skin from the meat and the meat from the bones.
So this is a good time to go milk the cow and collect the eggs if you haven’t already. Just slide a sheet of wax paper over the cooling birds and keep the stock warm on the side of the stove before heading out with the milk pail. And on your way back in you might nip off a bit of parsley and thyme from the kitchen garden to add to the gravy. And save out a couple of tablespoons of milk after the straining to brush the pie crust with on its way into the oven.
Now it’s time to get the oven as close to 400 degrees as possible and shift the stock back onto the heat. Take care to remove any wing bones or skin that may be lurking in the stock. When the stock boils you can add some chopped carrots, then chopped onion, then peas if you have them and cook the vegetables until just tender.
Try to resist the temptation to add potatoes. It’s just too much starch and tends to upstage the flaky crust and its perfect counterpoint to the gravy. A little over half an hour before suppertime should be enough time to assemble the pie, including making and rolling the crust and getting the table set while the pie’s in the oven, browning up. If the phone doesn’t ring, no one stops by for eggs, and the heifers don’t get out again you might even get to stew some frozen cranberries with some maple sugar for sauce and cut a few flowers for the table.
Choose a low, wide baking dish or basin for your pie and chop your skinless, boneless, lovely, tender chicken in smallish pieces and distribute the cut up chicken evenly in your baking dish. Then with a slotted spoon transfer the tender vegetables from the stockpot to cover the chicken. The ratio of vegetables to meat really doesn’t matter. The quality and quantity of gravy is much more important. So if the paltry amount of chicken in relation to the number of mouths to feed has you concerned, by all means add more vegetables.
Now it’s gravy time. Take a good look at the stock. Dredge the depths again for any feathers or bone bits or better yet pour the stock through a sieve and return it to the fire. Turn your attention to determining about how much stock you have. Personally I never measure; I just have an idea what volume I’m looking for to make a very generous amount of gravy so that the liquid level comes right up under the crust. You’ll want something like 3-4 cups anyway. So if there’s more than that in the pot why not take some out and save it for another day?
Before you thicken the stock, always make your crust. Why? So you can be thrifty with your flour left over from rolling your dough and use it to do the thickening.
My preference for snowy white lard for crusts and biscuits is on account of its excellent handling properties as well as its delectable flakiness in the finished product. We’ll talk about rendering lard at butchering time in a subsequent Journal. Suffice to say that cold lard is easier to incorporate than cold butter in a dough as it is a softer fat, and it holds together better as a richer dough than a butter dough does. The character of this perfect crowning crust we’re aiming for is extra rich and flaky, a bit saltier than for a fruit pie and quite a bit thicker. A rich, lightly worked, thicker dough nearly rises in a hot oven, and that’s a perfect match for the gravy.
I apologize for being little help in giving precise measurements; I will give you very general guidelines. So something like a cup and a half unbleached flour to ½ cup or a bit more lard and 2-3 dashes of salt. Remembering that a tender, flaky crust is a lightly worked one, blend the fat and flour and salt in a very few minutes, moisten with cold water, gather in a ball and roll out thickly on a very well floured surface. Especially with such a rich crust as this one, I tend to roll it out halfway, and then flip it over onto a newly floured surface to prevent sticking, and then finish the rolling out. Cut your decoration, roll up gently on the rolling pin, scrape up the flour left on your pastry board and mix it up with cold water in a tea cup with a fork to make a nice smooth thick paste. You’ll need a generous ½ cup or so to make a good thick gravy. Stir it well into your simmering, shimmering stock, add the chopped herbs if you will, correct the seasoning and keep stirring till it thickens. Then pour it into your pie, roll your crust out over it, then, using a teaspoon seal the crust to the rim of the basin to prevent the bubbling gravy from lifting the crust right off the pie. In the back of your mind, you may recall the original purpose of crusts is to act as a lid, protecting the contents and retaining moisture.
Brush the crust with that bit of milk and carefully slide it into the hot oven. It should be ready in twenty minutes or so, golden brown.
You’ve got just enough time to clear up a bit, and set the places at the table with grandma’s soup plates. You’ll want to serve at the table tonight, so get out a hefty trivet for the blistering hot pie. During the short spell when all are seated, gathered together for this special meal (as all meals are) this climax of the toils of the day on the farm, all will admire your creation, express gratitude for the chickens, and give thanks to the creator.