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
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.
TWO DAYS BEFORE SERVING - MARINATE THE
- 1 teaspoon of dried thyme leaves (or 3 sprigs of fresh thyme)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 - 1/2 cup parsley - Flat leaf parsley is better than curly
- 12 peppercorns
- 1 bottle of red wine - a Rhone, a merlot, a pinot noir - This is
a great use for one or two of those opened bottles that you just
couldn't finish and have now gotten a bit flat. Don't use really good
wine for this, supermarket staples are just fine.
- 1 stewing hen
- 6 tablespoons of butter - You can probably get by with 4
tablespoons, but the butter is important.
- 1/4 pound of good bacon or pancetta diced
- 5 medium onions
- 1 pound of mushrooms
- 1/4 cup armagnac or brandy
- 2 cloves of garlic
THE DAY BEFORE SERVING - COOK THE BIRD
- 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.
- 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.
THE BIG DAY - FINAL TOUCHES
- 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.
- Cook the bird in a big metal pot. A heavier pot will hold heat
more evenly, but any pot will do.
- Dice the bacon into chunks. Clean and dice the mushrooms and
- Melt the butter over medium heat and add the bacon, mushrooms and
onions until the onions are translucent and the mushrooms have darkened.
- Add the chicken pieces and toss them around to brown them.
- Turn off the heat. Add the armagnac or brandy. Ignite. Stand
back. Enjoy the show.
- 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
- 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.
- Simmer covered for at LEAST two hours. Check and see if the
bird is tender. If it is not, cook it longer.
- 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.
- Remove the layer of fat that will have settled out and hardened
on the top of the pot.
- Remove the bag of marinade ingredients.
- You can reheat and serve the chicken now, or you can thicken the sauce as
described in the next steps.
- 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.
- 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.