Monday, August 4, 2008

Let them eat chicken

It was a bit like a scene from Macbeth: thunder rolling in the background, a cauldron-like stockpot seething atop our grill, and across from me, Jack brandishing a shiny new chef knife.
It was chicken harvesting time.

Since out broilers first arrived, I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about slaughter. Not that I relish the thought of killing and cleaning a chicken (far from it!), but I wanted to be mentally prepared to take a chicken’s life respectfully, cleanly, and without excessive girlish squealing. I knew that the last bit might prove difficult after the execution of a rat snake recently found hiding in the chicken coop provoked some very undignified noises. We’ve lost two of our Cornish Cross broilers recently, once to an animal attack and once to dehydration, and in each case I have looked at the carcass and wondered: “could I turn that into dinner?” It seemed an awfully large transition from that limp pile of feathers to fried chicken.

An unfortunate side effect of the Cornish Cross’s unparalleled ability to put on breast meat is that these hefty birds sometimes grow so fast that they break their own legs. A chicken with a broken leg is a sad little creature, and no amount of athletic tape and popsicle sticks is likely to send it back to pasture. Once we realized that we had one such chicken, we knew that it was our duty to kill it as quickly as possible. I decided to view the process as a test run for our first real chicken harvesting day, and I convinced Jack to help me, at least by providing moral support.

I began by reading everything that Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profit$ had to say about slaughter. Unfortunately, the pictures are rather grainy, and the anatomical descriptions are only helpful if you can tell the difference between a gizzard and an esophagus. Let’s just say it’s been a long time since freshman biology. I then began scouring the Internet for tutorials, home videos, or anything else related to cleaning a chicken. Alas, the closest I could find was a PETA video about factory farming (not what I wanted to model my harvest after) and various clips of people dancing the funky chicken at weddings and bar mitzvahs. On Wednesday night I discovered that Sandy, the manager of the Hil Restaurant, used to kill and process her own chickens, but while she was more than happy to offer advice, she was busy with the Hil for the next five days. It would be all me.

A storm had been building all of Thursday afternoon when I finally set an enormous cauldron of water on the grill. While the pot heated up, Jack helped me do the deed. Beheaded chickens tend to flap, flutter, and inflict psychic scarring on all parties involved, so Jack and I decided to approximate the killing cones that most small-scale producers prefer. With killing cones, the chicken is inverted (for some reason this calms them) and its head pushed through a small hole at the bottom of a large cone (in our case, an old plastic flower pot). While I help the pot and the chicken’s feet, Jack cut our chicken’s jugular vein and we let it bleed out. From what I’ve read, the chicken dies instantly, though the heart continues to beat long enough to flush most of the blood out. Thanks to the cone, our bird did not do a grisly chicken death dance, though it did flutter enough for me to yell at Jack “are you sure you did that right?” One look, however, confirmed that our chicken was indeed going gently into that good night.

I checked that the water had reached 140°, then, once confident that the chicken was unquestionably dead, I dunked it repeatedly to loosen the feathers. Then, to my amazement, our chicken became dinner table fare. The feathers came off easily in soggy white clumps, and I was left with a slightly puny version of a grocery chicken. I finished the job that Jack had begun by removing the head, then I chopped off the feet. Now came the real challenge, the sprint before home plate—eviscerating the chicken. I had worried that I would find this inherently gruesome process both appetite destroying and just plain hard. By then, however, I was in full dissection mode. My curiosity kicked in, and I stopped carrying that an animal was becoming food in a setting reminiscent of Frankenstein’s laboratory.

I can’t watch the medical drama House without becoming squeamish; gory horror films still give me the creeps, yet there I was, with a smile on my face, happily studying the body cavity of a chicken to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything. I guess that’s how you know you’re a farmer.

Smothered Chicken with Mushrooms

According to my cookbook, Country Tastes: Best Recipes from America’s Kitchens, “Sunday chicken dinner on the farm was often prepared this way.” With an endorsement like that (and an abundance of shitakes in the fridge), I was an easy sell on this recipe. The sauce cooked up thick and mushroom-mellow and tasted far richer than it actually was.

1 frying chicken, cut up
salt and pepper, to taste
1 T butter
2 T vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
3 T flour
1 ½ cup chicken broth
½ cup cream or milk
shredded Parmesan cheese (optional)
chopped fresh parsley, to garnish

Preheat oven to 350. Wash the chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle chicken pieces with salt and pepper.

In a heavy skillet heat the butter and oil over high heat. Add the chicken, skin-side down. Brown on one side, then turn over and repeat. Remove the chicken to a casserole dish and cover the bottom of the dish in a single layer.

Pour off all by 2 T of any fat in the skillet. Now add the onions and mushrooms and sauté over medium heat 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the flour, then the broth, whisking until the sauce thickens. Add the milk or cream and remove from heat. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Cover with the cheese, if desired.

Cover the casserole dish and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the cover and bake for 30 minutes more, until the chicken is tender but not falling apart. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with mashed potatoes.


Lauren said...

I had a somewhat similar experience -- we were helping out some other, very experienced farmers, but it was my first time butchering. I was amazed at how quickly the birds turned into food-chickens in my perception. It was kind of a relief, really.

Anonymous said...

Well, you have my sympathies. I'm an expat American city boy who moved to rural New Zealand, and my neighbor recently gave me and my partner our first chicken killing lesson.

For my part, I was hoping to do it without excessive gay-boy squealing, but I failed.

I couldn't do the chop! I held the poor rooster's feet while my partner chopped its head off. It was horrible. The headless bird did backflips. 'Nuff said!