It's a blustery winter day at the Orange County Farmers' Market in Hillsborough, and the public market house is a wind tunnel breezeway. Freezing temps notwithstanding, Bryan Horton, of Fickle Creek Farm in Efland, generously discusses with me the fine art of stewing a chicken.
Horton is a local chef turned farmworker who gives recipes away when you buy a stewing hen or two from him or one of his co-workers at the markets in Hillsborough, Chapel Hill and Durham. He hands them out as photocopies on recycled paper; you might find an excerpt of a farm budget plan on the back.
Stewing a hen is not as straightforward as you might think. First, you want to do it in such a way that the meat can be used in enchiladas or tacos, stir-fry, salads, pasta sauces and risotto, without losing its fullness and flavor to shreds and tastelessness. Secondly, you want to maximize the nutrition and deliciousness of the stock, which is "the beauty of the stew hen," Horton says.
Stewing hens don't roast well; they're too lean. Normally I make stock from leftover roasted or grilled chicken or turkey carcasses, so Horton's approach is new to me.
At first glance, you might think a frozen ball of stewing hen won't yield much dinner. They do tend to be small, and for this reason Horton recommends two small hens (2-3 pounds each) or one large (4-6 pounds) for the following recipe, which he gave me permission to tweak and print for Indy readers.
Bryan Horton's Basic Stew Hens
6 pounds of whole, uncooked stewing chicken (two small or one large)
2 medium onions, quartered
2 large stalks celery with leaves, or half a bulb celeriac (or substitute celery seeds)
2 large carrots, or 4 small ones, or a handful of carrot seedlings
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 long, leafy sprigs fresh thyme
10 peppercorns (or more)
1 teaspoon soy sauce (optional)
If frozen, thaw your hen in its package in the refrigerator the day before. Or quick thaw in lukewarm water for an hour and use right away. Rinse hens inside and out with water, setting any giblets aside. Place in a large stockpot with enough cold water to cover (it's OK if leg tips aren't completely submerged). Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 1 to 2 hours or until breast meat loosens from the bone. Skim foam from surface a few times. When meat is loose, lift chicken out of pot and let rest until cool enough to handle. Remove meat from bones, and refrigerate for later use. Return bones and skin to pot. Add remaining ingredients and return to simmer for a total cooking time of 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Horton recommends tasting the broth in the last hour to monitor its progress. There is a big difference in the blended flavors and richness of stock that has had full simmer and that which is cut short. When you're satisfied, strain into a wide bowl so that it will cool quickly. Refrigerate or freeze in 1-quart containers if not using immediately. I have found the yield to be a quart of stock for every pound of bird. This liquid gold can get locavores through the winter "localizing" dried legumes that many soups are built around and of course inviting stews, dumplings and hearty pasta casseroles. I find adding the de-boned meat at the last possible second to be best for flavor.
Co-op Chicken Tacos
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 cup green, yellow or red bell peppers, diced (I'm lucky, I froze 'em at the end of last season), optional
1 small storage onion or 2-3 thick green onions, diced, including the green parts
2 cups stewed chicken meat
12 flour (steamed) or 16 corn tortillas (as fresh as possible) fried into crisp half moons
Salsa (homemade from last summer, of course)
Baby lettuces and spinach, handful per person
Grated cheese for garnish
In the olive oil, sauté the peppers, onions and chili powder until soft. Meanwhile have your companions(s) prepare the tortillas and keep them warm. Assemble onto large platter lettuces, cheese, salsa and sour cream for passing at the table. When everything else is ready, add chicken to the onion-pepper mixture and heat through for 1-2 minutes on medium high heat. Spoon mixture into tortillas at the table, passing condiments and garnishes. Serves 4 (or more, if you don't have teenagers).