Stewing HenHow to Stew a Hen

This winter, the folks at Dry Creek Farm have been culling their flock of hens. Some of their hens are no longer laying eggs, and some of them have turned to eating other hen's eggs. So, what happens to old hens? Well, they aren't much for roasting. The chicken you buy at the store is usually young. Most chicken farms sell their birds as soon as they reach adult weight. Older chickens get tough, but they can be delicious and tender if cooked in liquid. That's why they're called stewing hens.

There are lots of ways of getting the full flavor of a stewing hen, but they all require a bit of time. It takes years for a bird to toughen up, so it can take hours to tenderize them. The payoff, however, is big. Older chickens have more flavor per ounce than younger ones, and that's all there is to it.

Leave it to the French to come up with some of the great stewing hen recipes. After all, it was King Henry IV who said he wanted no peasant in his land too poor to have a chicken in his pot (poule au pot) every Sunday. This recipe for Coq au Vin de Chanturgues (aka Chicken With Red Wine Auvergnaise) is adapted from the Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking.

This recipe needs to be started two days before serving to get the very best results, so plan ahead. The dish is worth it.

  1. Cut up the bird into pieces. Use a sharp knife and cut the bird down the center, then separate the breast from the thighs. We also remove the wings and joint the legs, but the point is to cut the bird into at least four pieces, as you wish to serve them.
  2. Set up a marinade of the thyme, bay leaf, parsley, peppercorns and wine in a glass dish. Put in the chicken parts and toss them around . Cover with plastic and let sit overnight.
  1. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade. Strain and keep the marinade. Gather up all the marinade ingredients and wrap them off in a piece of cheesecloth and tie it closed with a piece of butcher's twine.
  2. Cook the bird in a big metal pot. A heavier pot will hold heat more evenly, but any pot will do.
  3. Dice the bacon into chunks. Clean and dice the mushrooms and onions.
  4. Melt the butter over medium heat and add the bacon, mushrooms and onions until the onions are translucent and the mushrooms have darkened.
  5. Add the chicken pieces and toss them around to brown them.
  6. Turn off the heat. Add the armagnac or brandy. Ignite. Stand back. Enjoy the show.
  7. When the fire is out, pour in the strained marinade. Chop up or crush the garlic and add it, and toss in cheesecloth bag with the marinade ingredients.
  8. If there is not enough liquid to cover the chicken, even after you have shuffled things around a bit, add more water, or more red wine. Bring to a boil.
  9. Simmer covered for at LEAST two hours. Check and see if the bird is tender. If it is not, cook it longer.
  10. When the bird is tender, let the pot cool and stash it overnight in the refrigerator. Cooling the bird in its own liquid gives it a special silkiness.
  1. Remove the layer of fat that will have settled out and hardened on the top of the pot.
  2. Remove the bag of marinade ingredients.
  3. You can reheat and serve the chicken now, or you can thicken the sauce as described in the next steps.
  4. Optional - Remove the chicken and the vegetables from the pot. Bring the remaining liquid to a boil and let it cook down over high heat until half the liquid has cooked off.
  5. Optional - If you want a much thicker sauce, you can make a beurre manie in a separate pan with 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of flour. Add a cup or two of the cooked down liquid to this mixture, stirring with a fork or whisk. Add this thickened mixture to the cooked down liquid, and stir it in to thicken it.

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