January 1, 2007
Old hen chicken soup
Tonight we had an old hen for dinner. Though in the video I recommend
keeping hens for two years, this girl was four. Or maybe five. She was
an egg-eater caught in the act.
The first time my sister saw her pecking at and eating an egg, I caught
her and put her in isolation for 24 hours. Though I try to cull egg
eaters immediately, with the Holidays it was too crazed to take that
20 minutes to kill and clean her the same day. So she got double leg
banded and put back into the general population. When I went out to
choose a hen for this week's Sunday dinner, I picked her up and examined
her. It wasn't clear whether she was laying or not, but I knew she was
an egg eater. So she went into a cage along with another hen that definitely
hadn't laid an egg in a while. (The examining chickens section on the
DVD talks about how to tell if a hen is laying.)
I have to admit that I am a little behind on culling my flock. Right
now my hen yard has 14 chickens and none are younger than three. My
oldest birds (until a neighbor's dog got through a weak spot in their
fence and then broke into my hen yard) were three bantam silkies that
were still laying on and off (mostly off) but were almost 12! With my
birds molting, I get only one or two eggs a day from over a dozen hens.
It's time for some new chicks.
Even though I've slaughtered and butchered hundreds of birds, each time
I am moved deeply by the frailty of life, how fine a line there is between
here -- and gone. These old girls didn't struggle much. They required
repeated dunking's to get their feathers to release. Once they were
being cleaned, I was dismayed to discover that my egg eater was also
one of the few hens still laying. So today I only got one egg. But --
we had excellent chicken soup for dinner.
Chicken soup from an old hen
Clean bird and let rest in refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Cut the
bird up and disjoint wings, section back into pieces, cut legs into
drumsticks and thighs. Fillet off breast meat and reserve (even on an
old hen the breast fillets are tender if cooked gently).
Preheat a heavy stainless or other non-reactive pot, and drop in the
chicken pieces. Reduce heat to medium, and saute the chicken for ten
or fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. You want these pieces to
brown slightly and to render some of the fat out of the skin. Coarsely
chop up one medium onion and add, stirring it in. Reduce the heat to
low, and saute for another ten minutes. Add a quart of water, a stalk
of celery, some sage and rosemary, and cover. Simmer gently (tiny bubbles
just breaking the surface of the stock) for three to six hours, stirring
Add another quart of water, stir again, then drain off broth and separate
the fat. Return the de-fatted stock to the stew pot, add quartered potatoes,
carrots, and any other vegetables desired. If more water is needed,
add up to two additional quarts to cover the veggies. Simmer for a half-hour
until the veggies are done. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use chopped
fresh parsley as a garnish. This makes any other chicken soup you've
ever had taste like a pale imitation.
More about stewing hens
When commercial egg factories use hens, at about one year old the birds
begin to molt and then they are discarded as "spent hens.".
My first experience with those birds was when a roommate bought 50 of
them for 25 cents apiece. We put them in our hen house with the rest
of our flock. The new hens crowded together so tightly that three hens
were smothered that first night. Then the next morning they had to be
shushed out into the hen yard and they crowded together again in a corner
and two more birds were suffocated in the crush.
But in a few days they were scratching the ground, going in and out
of the house on their own, and looking a lot more like chickens than
terrified factory workers. In a month their new feathers had grown in
and they began laying again. For a year they lived in our hen yard and
I always thought they were grateful for the chance to see what chicken
life could be like.
Back in those days, spent layers would be sold for chicken soup or animal
feed. An article I just read (zombie chickens
link here) says that market is no longer viable and now the birds
are just killed and composted. Sometimes the birds don't die when they
are gassed, and die in the pile. That makes me just infuriated. Something
in me hates waste and I think of the millions of people who never taste
chicken because they are too poor to buy meat, and those thousands of
birds who go into compost piles because it isn't cost effective to cut
them up. Sure seems like something is wrong here.