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The stewing hen: A culinary bonus

(article, Kelly Myers)

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Recently I needed eggs, but I ended up buying a bunch of stewing hens. I was looking online at FoodHub, the new website for wholesale sellers and buyers of local food, where I met farmers Rachel and Keith Prickett. The Pricketts run Provenance Farm in Philomath, Oregon, where they raise pastured lamb, turkeys, and chickens. 

Rachel and Keith said sure, they had eggs for sale, but would I also like to try a few stewing hens? Hmm, I thought, searching my brain for what I knew about stewing hens. They are small and tough. They are full of tendons, and their recalcitrant meat requires hours of cooking. But I’d also heard about their exceptional flavor.

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Yes, I said. Absolutely. I would take a dozen.

I really wanted a chicken that actually tastes like chicken. My yearning felt like nostalgia for something I barely knew. Sure enough, Rachel told me that customers her grandparents’ age were buying up their hens for chicken and dumplings and chicken soup with homemade noodles. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="This ragu recipe makes the most of a stewing hen."]

Buying local food online is a pretty new concept. But stewing a tough old bird until the meat falls off the bone into its own rich broth is not. It’s just that now, with more small farms dotting the landscape, we have the chance to rediscover stewing hens.

Chickens bred for their meat grow quickly. Broilers and fryers are, astonishingly, processed at about eight to 10 weeks of age; larger roasters finish in less than eight months. This system is efficient, and it produces tender, juicy meat that cooks in relatively little time. 

A laying hen, by contrast, lives to a ripe old age. The Pricketts keep theirs for 18 months to two years, which is about as long as they produce enough eggs to earn their keep. 

I knew getting the stewing hens from a farm like Provenance would be a culinary bonus. Provenance regularly rotates their hens to fresh pasture. As the chickens move about for those two years, scratching for grass and insects, their muscles, flavor, and connective tissue develop. (Connective tissue has the virtue of melting into collagen when it is cooked over low heat. Collagen gives sauces body and gloss.)

I wanted to take advantage of the hens’ concentrated flavor and make a ragu. A ragu of the hens' mostly dark meat, served over pasta, gnocchi, polenta, or mashed potatoes, could feed four adults from just one skinny three-pound bird. 

I took a hen home and started by removing its legs just like Camas Davis instructs. Then I took off the neck and backbone. It’s much easier to cut up a soft young bird than a stewing hen, I thought. The hen’s joints were tight, its skin was thick, and its tendons snapped like rubber bands. I was glad my knife was sharp, and that I really wanted to eat a stewing hen.

I decided I didn’t want to break down the bird any further. All I did was give the breastbone a good whack to flatten it. This way, the breast section would be submerged in braising liquid as it cooked. Use a mallet or anything heavy for this task.

I reserved the backbone, neck, wing tips, and excess fat for stock.

I braised the hen with tomato, white wine, chile flakes, and herbs for about three hours, until it began to fall off the bone. I let the bird rest overnight in its stewing sauce to relax the meat.

The next day, I picked the meat off the bone, and added it back to the sauce. I threw the bones, skin, and tendons into a stockpot with the backbone, excess fat, and wing tips I had cut off the day before.

I then added a little water to the chicken and sauce, and stewed it half an hour longer. Doing so made the meat even more tender, and gave me a chance to adjust the seasonings. I brightened the long-cooked dish with a little lemon juice and parsley. To finish, I gave it a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, for its taste of green grass. I figured the chicken would approve.
 
Even if you can’t get a stewing hen, this method of turning braised chicken into a soulful ragu works with a typical 3-to-6 pound bird or even just chicken thighs on the bone. 

You can split the process over a couple of days. Save the result for a Sunday lunch, when you can slow down and appreciate the old hen that is reminding you how chicken can taste satisfyingly of itself, can taste of its own long life.

Once my ragu was completed and the dishes were washed, I looked back on the whole process. It kind of made my head spin, in a good way, to think what had just happened: I had gone online in hopes that FoodHub’s software would instantly connect me to an egg seller, only to find myself introduced by two young farmers to the lost, hours-long art of stewing a hen.

p(bio). Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.


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