Tastes like rubber chicken

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If you read the last post about our Dogpatch chicken plucker, I know you’ve been on the edge of your seat, wondering how Sam’s birds tasted. The short answer is, they tasted fine. In fact, they tasted fine for a long, long time as you tried to chew them to the point where they could be swallowed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I could reduce them to inedibility, I had to cut them up.

Sam's two chickens, after

I’ve cooked hundreds of chickens in my life, but I’ve cut up very few. If I want a chicken in parts, I generally just buy the parts (thighs, which are the best parts). The whole chickens that come my way usually get cooked whole. So I was at a bit of a loss, and not happy to be flummoxed by such a basic kitchen task.

Luckily, the sequel to the chicken-slaughter video by Russ features Mrs. Russ cutting up the slaughtered chicken. I watched this video two or three times, and felt prepared.

But, after spending a good half-hour reducing two chickens to shards and shreds, I’ve concluded that Mr. and Mrs. Russ raise chickens with strange, easy-cut anatomy. It’s like they’re bred with unconnected limbs and nice dotted lines on their skin where the joints should be. They bear a passing resemblance to other chickens in that they have legs, wings, and breasts, but the similarity ends there.

Those ball joints that just pop out for Mrs. Russ stubbornly refuse to give for me. That “cartilage” that Mrs. Russ just slices through in her chicken is unsliceable bone in mine. The skin that stays firmly on her chicken parts comes off in my hand.

Either Russ raises alien chickens, or I really suck at this.

Don’t say it. Just don’t say it.

The time it took me to cut up the chickens was part of the reason my dinner plans fell victim to logistical problems. Since we had Sam’s family over for the Great Chicken Massacre, we wanted to let them taste the fruits of the event. Unfortunately, by the time the chickens came out of their ice-water baths, it was already late afternoon. By the time I’d finished butchering (!) them, it was downright evening.

Plan A was to braise them in beer with white beans, carrots, and mustard. It’s a dish we make regularly with either rabbit or chicken, and we thought it would be a good vehicle for a long, slow cook. Unfortunately, it was almost 6:00 by the time the chickens were browned and beginning to braise, and we couldn’t very well keep people waiting until midnight for their dinner. So, a little over an hour later, I pulled a piece out to test it.

Do you remember those Purdue chicken commercials from (I think) the seventies?” You know, the ones where Frank Purdue says, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” Well, this chicken tasted just like I imagine Frank Purdue would have. Tough. Rubbery. Stringy.

But not without flavor. There was a real meatiness that gave me a glimmer of hope.

Everyone was a good sport, and ate the white beans and carrots without complaint. I picked out all the chicken pieces and put them on to simmer in water, hoping to get a nice stock out of them.

I cooked them for a couple of hours that night, and another couple the next day, until the water had morphed into a beautiful, rich stock. I drained it, and was left with a pile of meat and bones. All the meat had fallen off all the bones, and I was looking at a pile of, more or less, shreds. I tasted it.

I won’t say it was delicious. It was still a little stringy, and it had lost a lot of its meaty flavor to the stock, but it was absolutely, positively edible.

 It was absolutely, positively edible.

I know “edible” is a low bar when it comes to food but, given my recent track record, I’m figuring “delicious” is out of reach. I’ll take what I can get.

I separated the meat from the bones – no mean feat, since I’d managed to crush all the ribs into little teeny pieces in the process of cutting the birds into parts – and put the meat in the fridge.

The next day, I went for Plan B. I made a simple red chile sauce. (Sauté five chopped garlic cloves in olive oil, add five cut-up dried red chiles and water just to cover. Simmer until chiles are soft and puree the whole thing in the blender.) I added the shredded chicken to the sauce, and simmered for a few minutes. A little salsa, a little guacamole, a few beans, and we had burritos.

And they were good. They might even have been delicious. They were certainly way beyond edible.

Phew.

I still have some meat left, and I’m thinking of turning my original braise into a kind of thick soup. Either that, or we’ll have burritos again.

Next time, I’m going with classic Coq au Vin, but we’ll schedule the slaughter for the morning to give me plenty of time to simmer.

I never bought into Frank Purdue’s tough-man/tender-chicken theory. Seems to me any bonehead with a backyard and Murray McMurray’s phone number can make a tender chicken. That’s what meat birds have been bred for. Making a tender chicken out of a long-in-the-tooth laying hen is a different proposition. Still, it’s not toughness that’s required. It’s just patience.

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Comments

  1. And here I was–expecting a “jelly hen.” Jelly hens were the way people used to use tough, stringy old layers to get something relatively paqlatable, but very unhealthy. If memory serves (I only did one of these one time, and that was 15+ years ago.), to make a jelly hen you: Put the dressed, plucked, whole bird into boiling water and boil it until the meat comes off the bones. Remove the meat (including skin) and bones from the stock. Discard the bones. Seperate the stock and add chicken bullion, then reduce it to a “thick fatty liquid” consistency. While the stock is reducing, cut the meat into pieces and place in a tureen. Heap the meat in the tureen and press it down with a weight. Add the reduced stock to the tureen and chill the tureen overnight. Serve cold by unmolding from the tureen and slicing the jelly hen into 1/2″ thick slices. It really is soimilar to potted meat, but is by no means low fat, low sodium, or otherwise healthy. It was good enough to eat if you were hungry, and certainly beats throwing the carcasses in the trash, but since that trial I have used the soup and stock method.

  2. Greg, I used to scoff at jellied meats until my boyfriend made wild boar head cheese from a four-year-old boar. Once I realized the “jelly” melts into broth in your mouth, I was all over it. So your recipe doesn’t sound so bad at all!

    Tamar, I’d like to say I can relate, but only barely, since Hank does 99% of the cooking in our house. But we’ve had similar issues with old neighbor chickens and some geriatric pheasants. Their joints definitely get tougher with age (as are my own), and yeah, the cooking can be a challenge. But I salute you for making the best of it and consuming the birds with such great determination!

  3. I could be completely off with this since I’ve never handled freshly slaughtered anything but what I’ve read is ‘Don’t eat it right away!’ Rigor mortis sets in and the meat is tough and pretty unpalatable for the first day or so. After the meat starts to relax you can do your thing with it. Some of the reason people hang deer after they dress them, to let the meat mature a little. Or, like I said, I could be very wrong. So, I’m probably not much help.

  4. I have yet to render a laying hen edible. I got what you got the first time round: great stock, and stringy, chewy meat. I tried the coq au vin – didn’t work. Next time out I’m either trying a confit of some sort (in duck fat?), or I’ll grind it up with pork fat and make a fresh sausage of some kind. If I were nearby, I’d be happy to give you a 3d chicken butchering lesson. It’s one of the very few things that stuck from the just-the-basics “meat fabrication” class in culinary school. Useful skills to have, so keep at it whenever you get the opportunity.

  5. Kim Graves says:

    Tamar,

    All fresh killed animals (other than fish) need time get the rigor out of them. I put a fresh killed chicken in the frig for up to a week prior to eating it. Three days is a minimum. If I’m going to freeze, I “hang” them first, then freeze. That way, they’re ready to go when I unfreeze.

    Best, Kim

  6. Do you have a pressure cooker? Rigor aside, it can make short work of long, slow braises when needed. 40 minutes for shreddy, fall-off-the-bone short ribs, for example. Good for incompletely (or not at all) soaked dry beans too.

  7. Thanks, all, for weighing in! I’ll do much better next time. That whole rigor mortis thing was obviously part of my problem, and I’ll refrigerate the bird for a couple of days next time. (That’s also a good lesson for hunting — pheasant season starts in two days.) Kate, I wish I could take you up on that lesson! I’m sure it would help to have a real, live person standing with me in the kitchen, guiding me through it. Peter, I don’t have a pressure cooker, but it’s one of the things we’ve been thinking about getting. Now I’ve got one more reason.

  8. i will be more than pleased to share with you the hint that a great pair of poultry shears is indispensable when separating a chicken/turkey/duck down to parts, and otherwise its anatomy, happy to demo sometime. even on tough old birds, with which i have some experience, in a completely different way:) I actually only buy whole chickens and break them down myself.

  9. Brining also helps…

  10. I know you are far more of expert than I am at this… but reading your story, I couldn’t help but wonder if your knives were sharp enough. The last time I tried to debone a turkey, having an expert sharpen the knives made all the difference!

  11. martha in mobile says:

    My old hen formula: chopped veggies from making stock + tough stringy chicken from making stock = dinner for happy dog for several nights. Bonus: I get stock.

  12. If I had half a brain I would have posted something about dealing with aged hens BEFORE I actually had one in front of me. Then I would have known to wait a couple of days, brine it, and get my poultry shears!

    Allison, I will say, in my own defense, that my knives were sharp. Although I didn’t have a professional do it (I’ve done that in the past, and it’s marvellous!), I did it myself, pretty carefully. The knives went through skin, flesh, and cartilage easily and cleanly. It was those damn bones that did me in.

    And, Martha, I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to feed to animals what I’m bound and determined to make edible for humans. At least, that’s what I say now. Check back in another couple dozen chickens.

  13. Tamar,
    I have slaughtered and butchered exactly one chicken in my life. It started out as a joke. I bought an old, randy rooster at the fair and snuck him under the cloak of darkness to a tree limb in the front yard of a friend who was known to me as an animal lover and adopter of strays. I figured to test her devotion on several levels ~ including waking to a crowing rooster and taking in said bird. It didn’t work. I got the satisfaction of her rude awakening, but she had no intention of keeping the bird. So it was decided we’d eat him. I gathered up enough courage to lop off his head at the chopping block, then scalded and plucked him. We tossed him into a pot of water and waited … and waited … and waited. He was, as you may surmise, completely inedible. To this day I regret my lack of foresight and skill to do right by that bird. If I had him again, I’d employ many of the suggestions you’ve already received; I’d age him, I’d brine him, I’d break him down into 8 pieces and I’d braise him low and slow.
    Good luck with the next round.

  14. Hi Tamar

    These last two posts are fascinating – when we ate our year old rooster we slow cooked him in the giant thermos for 30 hours. The meat was a bit tough but tasted divine.

    I have tagged you on my blog
    http://www.cottagesmallholder.com/tagged-7033
    Do hope that you’re up for it.

  15. I’ve never brined a bird before, but I keep coming across the process in recipes, so I’m going to try it out on the chickens and the pheasants (dead ones only, mind you…)

    I know you’re a big fan of the research process so I’m going to offer you a thesis to test: does hanging a bird make a noticeable difference to the tenderness of the meat. If you are doing in a few of your old laying hens, try leaving one in your fridge for 2-3 days before butchering and cooking it.

    You dispelled the “home raised eggs taste better than store-bought eggs” myth and, as a proponent of the hanging method, I would love a second opinion.