Chicken in the pot
As humans, we tend to think of putting on weight in the winter months, but really it is the abundance of summer and fall that ought to fatten us up for the winter—not unlike the Thankgiving turkey and the Christmas goose.
Speaking of our feathered friends, November is a great time to purchase chickens for eating throughout the winter and spring. In addition to the young broilers that have been available all spring and summer, late fall brings the ax down on some older laying hens that have outlived their usefulness in the egg house. These “spent” hens have probably been reliable egg producers for more than a year, but will enter a period during which they will molt their feathers, eat a lot, and finally grow new feathers—without laying any eggs.
For the producers, this represents a tremendous feed expense and a precipitous drop in daily supply. Older birds will never be as productive as their younger counterparts. For those reasons, some producers market spent laying hens as stewing hens, which are suited to longer-cooking, stewing, and stock making. The bones and joints of older birds are rich in collagen, which contributes a silky mouth-feel and superior nutrition to liquids made from these old biddies.—Lisa Reeder
Before you begin: Clean and trim vegetables BEFORE you freeze them for future stock; that includes removing dirt and any rotting or bruised areas.
Seek a balance of: Alliums (onion family—leek, shallot, garlic, garlic scapes, onion), Super soupers (carrots, parsnips, celery), Seasonal stars (corncobs, fava bean and pea pods, fennel fronds)
Lovely, but limit the quantity of: Tomatoes, apple and pear cores, clean potato trimmings, summer squash and zucchini, winter squash guts
Steer clear of: Brassicas (cabbage family, including broccoli, kale, collards; strong smell and flavor!), Lettuces (bitter), Beets (they bleed), Peppers (bitter)
Stock’s on the rise
As you visit the City Market in November, shop around for end-of-season chickens and make some plans for the future (and room in your freezer!). If no spent laying hens are available to you, broilers are still an excellent asset for the coming months.
Take the time (and the kitchen shears) to snip them into pieces according to the instructions in your favorite cookbook, making sure you keep the “frames” (consisting of the backbone, ribs, and any leftover bits that won’t make it to the plate, including innards). Innards can be sorted and stored for other purposes, like pâté, gravy, or a separate rich broth (with a marked mineral flavor).
While you have several broiler frames in front of you, collect all the frozen vegetable scraps from the season, and make a big batch of chicken stock to use for soups, sauces and gravy throughout the winter. (You were freezing vegetable scraps, weren’t you?!?)
If you do acquire spent laying hens, it is simple enough to store them frozen and use each one to make a batch of broth. To do so, give each bird two days to defrost in your refrigerator—put it in a deep dish or bowl so that the liquid is contained. Select the pieces that you would like to eat, cut them off the bird, and then make a batch of stock from the single, collagen-rich frame in front of you.
For instance, remove both breasts to cut into pieces and use in a curry; cut off both sections of leg-and-thigh for Coq au Vin; toss the remaining frame (including the wings!) into the stockpot with the trimmings from those other two meals plus some thyme, parsley, and peppercorns, then simmer on low heat for several hours.
From one old bird you’ll yield two whole meals (plus leftovers, potentially) and several quarts of rich, good-for-what-ails-ya chicken stock that can be frozen as is, or made into a favorite soup for stockpiling.
What goes into a good stock? Fortunately, it is nearly impossible to make bad stock out of good chicken, and you will develop a feel for stockmaking as you practice. Best stocks include some small portion of both meat and fat, a larger portion of bones, generous portions of vegetable matter, and fresh herbs. Peppercorns add depth of flavor, and vinegar helps pull collagen out of bones and render it digestible.
Begin with your chicken covered by an abundant amount of cold, filtered water. Bring the pot to a soft boil, add vegetable matter, herbs and vinegar and peppercorns, and turn down to a simmer. If a frothy substance collects at the top of the pot, skim it off with a spoon or ladle and discard it. Stock can be simmered for several days, but six hours should be sufficient.
Let it cool to room temperature, and use tongs to fish out as much of the chicken and vegetables as you can. For the rest of the solid matter, set a colander in another large pot in the sink, and pour stock through into the other pot (not down the drain). For a very refined stock, such as a consommé, line the colander with cheesecloth or skim the stock after refrigerating.
Finally, keep what broth you will use in three days in the refrigerator, and freeze the rest in small increments for future use. Don’t forget to label and date each container!—L.R.
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is a chef and local foods advocate and consultant. Read more about her at http://alocalnotion.wordpress.com.