The Story of the Big, Tough Chicken

A tale of local food and redemption.

This past summer at the Vermillion Area Farmers Market, my friend Nate Brady showed up with three processed (that is, gutted and plucked and frozen) whole chickens to give away to three lucky vendors. I got to pick the one I wanted, and I thought the challenge of an old tough bird sounded pretty good.

I remember when I was working at the now-defunct From the Ground Up Organic Food Farm and Garden Center, there was a mean old hen who wouldn’t lay, but she’d sit on all the eggs and peck the heck out of my hand when I went to collect them. Man, she was a mean old bird. One day, at the end of the day, my boss Julie said if we killed her, we could have her.

When I got home that afternoon, all the guys were downstairs in the Cottage Street house having beers and playing bluegrass–my ex-husband, the downstairs roommates, a few others. I sat down, cracked a beer, and mentioned to my husband-at-the-time, “Julie said we could have that mean hen.”

He whooped, jumped up, and before I knew it, I was in one of two carloads of very excited young men blaring bluegrass out the open windows and speeding toward the farm.  When we got there, and a couple of us got in the pen, it seemed pretty clear that all the other chickens knew whose time was up.

She’d run into a corner and they’d all scatter away from her, making sure they weren’t the one getting eaten.  After much ado, Keeley grabbed the bird and brought it squawking to a makeshift chopping-block (a board on the ground).

There was much discussion about who’d be the one to lop her head off with the axe they’d brought especially for the occasion.  I mean, it was a ridiculous, rowdy affair, but we finally got that chicken separated from her head and bled out on the lawn.

When we got home and got her plucked, the boys started building a fire.  I said, “you know, with a tough old bird like that, you want to stew her.”  But they were gone primitive, and they wanted their chicken over the open flames.

The thing was practically inedible.  Ok, it was just plain inedible.  And it felt like a real sin–a waste of life (albeit a mean life), and a waste of food.  So, when Nate offered me that tough old chicken earlier this summer, I vowed to make this one the way it ought to be made.

And then I stuck it in my freezer and sort of forgot about it.

That is, until yesterday, when I was thinking about a grand Saturday night dinner, and I was listening to the Splendid Table on public radio, and they were talking about braising.  Braising–cooking low and slow in flavored liquid and allowing the steam to escape a little–makes tough meat very tender and delicious.

So, out came the chicken and into the sink to thaw.  It took awhile to get it ready–it sat there all naked-looking and shivery in the sink for quite awhile–and it was too big to put in my Dutch oven, so I fashioned a steam tent over my eight by thirteen cake pan with a little air escape, and I stuffed that chicken full of leek flags (the blue-green tops) and rosemary branches.  I laid it in a bath of red wine and water, and I cooked that bird at 250 degrees for three hours straight.

Gail came over while I was stuffing the bird, and two hours later we were still chatting, so I invited her for dinner and started peeling Vito’s Yukon Gold potatoes for a mash.  Harry came home and then it was roast chicken and mashed ‘taters and red wine gravy to boot.  I ate three platesful, and I felt soothed to the soul about that poor old hen those boys didn’t know a thing about treating right all those years ago.

And then when we were done, I plucked that carcass clean and dumped all the bones in a pot with the leek flags and rosemary branches and what was left of the braising pan drippings and what was left in my wine glass, and simmered it down for about an hour into the loveliest soup stock imaginable.

That got sieved and set on a trivet in the fridge to cool overnight so the fat would congeal, and I could see if it’d be enough for making biscuits.  It wasn’t, but today’s lunch was chicken soup with purple carrots, sweet peppers, onions, and garlic from the gardens, as well as a handful of brown rice.

The last show of that chicken will be sometime in the next couple of days, once I finish the remains of the chicken soup and then start a pot of (probably) potato-kale with the rest of the stock.

I don’t know how good a life that chicken had, but I imagine Nate is pretty good to his birds, even when they do get into his wife’s garden and he has to dispatch them all.  I sure appreciated that gift of a chicken, and the chance to redeem myself through the transformation of a tough old bird.

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