Saturday, April 3, 2010

From farm to pot

The smell wafting through the house right now is mouth watering. In my trusty soup/stew pot is a chicken just shy of 3.5 pounds, some chopped carrots and celery, a bit of leftover garlic and some salt and pepper.

Little more than a day ago, the chicken was still living the good life running around in the grass, clucking away with her coop mates, eating bugs and grass - in short, what chickens are supposed to do. But yesterday morning, with thanks from Courtney, this hen's life came to an end, as did the lives of three others.

I arrived to the farm apparently just as Courtney dispatched the second of the four hens, while Carden rounded up a third. Courtney apologized if I'd seen the fatal cut as I drove up. While I had seen two hens hanging by their feet, I didn't see the act. But I shrugged. It's part of the process. Chicken does not come to us in sterile (hopefully) cellophane wrapped packages in the grocery store, but from live, clucking, feathered birds who are ... well, entertaining.

Carden and Courtney hung the third bird by its feet. While Carden headed back to the coop for the fourth bird, Courtney knelt down, thanked the chicken for the life it had lived and the life it was about to give, and gracefully cut the bird's neck on both sides. Nearby, the second chicken hung suspended, wings outstretched in stillness. It sounds strange, crazy and a bit macabre, but it was an oddly beautiful scene. This was part of an age old cycle of life.

After all the birds were dispatched, we set about the task of scalding the birds in a giant pot of boiling water, and then plucked them of their feathers. Carden departed for the farm next door to do potato cuttings for the afternoon activity of planting potatoes. After the removal of chicken heads, we made for the kitchen, where the hens' feet were cut off, and we set about the task of eviscerating the chickens - or, for those of you who are unfamiliar: disemboweling and removing the organs.

I watched and learned, truly fascinated, while Courtney took care of the first three hens. Two of them, including one we dubbed "weird belly" for her, well, weird belly, had fully formed eggs. One hen was so fatty, she felt like she'd been soaked in olive oil. Early on, Courtney offered me the chance to process one (or more) of the hens. A lot of people might balk at that - but I'm keen on experiencing things. And, hey, if I'm going to know WHERE my food comes from, I might as well know HOW to take it from life to table, right?

Being hand deep into a chicken is interesting. Identifying the internal organs by feel is nothing short of an art form (the gizzard is large and relatively hard, the heart small and firm, the lungs small, soft and bright pink, and the livers smooth, soft and quite squishy). Removing them whole in some cases is tricky. Perhaps I'm just that much of a geek, but it was fascinating to see the innards.

After we cleaned up and put the eviscerated birds in an icy bath, we departed for the neighboring farm where I helped plant potatoes with John Brugman, standing on the back of a piece of machinery whose name I do not remember (but was, I'm assuming WAY better than a tobacco setter), pulled by a tractor driven by John Grant. Carden and John's wife, Bonnie Cecil, expressed concern over the state of my arms (which were pink, but not bright red, and now are browning quite nicely).

It was a day of good, hard work, and after retrieving my chicken (I chose the one I gutted) from Courtney, ventured home. Courtney also sent with me two gizzards for the dogs. The gizzards were rather greedily hoovered by the dogs, who seemed to wonder if I had anything else interesting in that green bag.

Time for the recipe:
This is not what you'll find at places like Cracker Barrel that's essentially overblown chicken and noodles ... this is a chicken stew with a biscuit top. And it is a GREAT cold weather meal. This is comfort food in our house.

Chicken & Dumplings
(a la the Betty Crocker cookbook)
3 to 3.5 pound stewing chicken, cut up
4 celery stalk tops (you can use the whole stalk, really)
1 medium carrot, sliced 1/2 cup (go for the gusto and add more if you like)
1 small onion, sliced
2 sprigs parsley (optional)
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
5 cups water
2.5 cups Bisquick (patooey! if you really want something good, make your OWN baking powder biscuit mix and the recipe follows this one)
2/3 cup milk

1. Remove any excess fat from the chicken (or not, it adds flavor to the broth you're making). Place everything but the biscuit mix and milk in a dutch oven. Cover and heat to boiling, reduce heat to low, and cook for about two hours, or until the juice of the chicken is no longer pink when centers of the thickest parts are cut.

2. Remove chicken and vegetables from Dutch oven, skim 1/2 cup fat from broth and reserve. Remove broth, reserve 4 cups (if you have extra, freeze it for later use).

3. Heat reserved fat in Dutch oven over low heat. Stir in 1/2 cup of the baking/biscuit mix. cook, stirring constant, until mixture is smooth and bubbly; remove from heat.

4. Stir in reserved broth. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir one minute. Return Chicken & veggies to pot and heat until hot.

5. Mix remaining 2 cups baking mix and the milk until soft dogh forms. Drop dough by spoonfuls onto hot chicken mixture (recipe says to not drop it into the liquid, but you honestly can't help that part). Cook uncovered over low heat 10 minutes. Cover and cook another 10 minutes, or until biscuits are done.

Notes: Sometimes I double the amount of veggies (not that I actually measure) to make the stew go a little further. Throw the whole chicken carcass into the pot ... even the back and neck, though there's not a lot of meat there. It all adds flavor to the stock. This time, I also added what was left of some smashed elephant garlic.

Baking Powder Biscuits
(adapted for chicken & dumplings from the Betty Crocker cookbook)
1/2 cup shortening (or butter for a really tender biscuit)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 TBSP sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
(STOP HERE and mix the above ingredients for use in the chicken and dumplings. But, to make some really good biscuits, carry on)
3/4 cup milk

1. Heat oven to 450
2. Cut shortening into dry ingredients using a pastry blender or criss crossing 2 knives, until mixture looks like fine crumbs. Stir in ilk until dough leaves sides of bowl (dough should be soft and sticky)
3. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly 10 times. roll or pat 1/2 inch thick. Cut using floured 2.5" round cutter. Place on baking sheet about 1" apart for crusty sides or touching for soft sides.
4. Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Immediately remove from cookie sheet, serve warm.

Notes: Roll out biscuits and cut with a cutter? Pffffffffffffffffffffffft. I hand shape mine when making for biscuits and gravy or for cheddar-garlic biscuits (I'll save that recipe for another day). If you use self-rising flour (patooey), omit the baking powder and salt).

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