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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.

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