For the past two years, my chicken flock has foraged over a large vacant lot, scratching the ground for bugs, eating grass and weeds and being very active. They lay the best eggs I've ever tasted. But, now that these birds are two years old, they've stopped laying eggs regularly and it's time to make a decision: either keep the old birds who aren't laying, but still eating just as much, or dispatch them in as humane a way as possible and bring them to the dinner table. In my backyard flock, the chickens now have less room to roam than they used to because the lot next door sold so for the last few weeks, I've been contemplating what to do with them. There's just not enough room anymore to keep some chickens that aren't producing, while raising new ones for future egg supply.
So, I honor the bargain that I made with myself when I reverted back to eating meat: I can eat meat as long as I know: 1) the animal had a decent life while it was alive and got to live in a manner true to its species, and 2) that it died in a humane way. The only way to really ensure those guidelines is to be involved myself. Luckily, chickens are relatively easy to slaughter, but when it comes to hens that have been with me for two years, I get anxious and need some back-up support.
So when I have hens to dispatch of, I take responsibility for some and a friend takes responsibilty for some and it relieves some of my anxiety.
Regardless, it's not fun, or pleasant at all—it's simply part of my process of getting food to the table. The easiest way I've found to dispatch of a hen is to have one person hold the bird upside down over a bucket, while the second person actually takes hold of the bird's neck, exposing the jugular vein, and slices through the vein with a knife. It's the surest, cleanest, fastest method I know of. I don't like to leave anything to chance when it comes to an animals' suffering—I want it done as quickly and painlessly as possible.
With the knife method, there's no messy sprays of blood like there is with a hatchet, and no horrifying headless chickens flopping around. The bird goes from a living animal to looking like food in matter of minutes.
Next comes the plucking and gutting, which sounds awful, but compared with the first step in the slaughtering process, it's a relief. You need a large stock pot full of near-boiling water to dip the dead bird into. Heating up the skin like this helps release the feathers for easy plucking. Most of the time I do a cursory pluck outside, then when the carcass goes to the kitchen, I go over it a little more thoroughly with tweezers if necessary, to get the more obstinate pin feathers.
Gutting can take some getting used to, but once you know what to look for, it goes fairly quickly. You cut from the back end, and basically reach inside and pull everything out as gracefully as possible.
Old hens still have plenty of value in the kitchen and I don't even know how to make Coq au Vin. I make pot pie instead, and gently poach the chicken before hand. Carve the whole chicken carcass into six pieces, then put in a pan with chicken stock and gently simmer until cooked, turning once or twice, for about 30 minutes. Then pull or cut the meat off the bone and cut into pieces. The beauty of this recipe too, is that you can really use any vegetables you have on hand, and frozen vegetables work great too!
Biscuit-Topped Chicken Pot Pie
Pot pie filling:
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 medium carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 celery stalk (with leaves), cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 onion, chopped
- 5 button mushrooms, quartered
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups chicken stock
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 4 cups poached chicken, or other cooked chicken
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Heat the butter in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the carrot, celery, mushrooms and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about four minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until browned, about one minute more. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for one minute. Pour in the chicken broth, then bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Simmer until the mixture is thick, about three minutes. Add the chicken, stir and remove from the heat. Season with pepper to taste and stir in the parsley. Set aside while you make the biscuit topping.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon fine salt
- 7 tablespoons olive oil
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
In a large bowl whisk the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt until evenly combined. Drizzle in the olive oil and stir until the mixture is in even pieces about the size of a pea. Add the lemon zest to the milk. Gently stir the milk into the flour mixture to make a loose dough.
Drop spoonfuls of the biscuit dough on top of the chicken stew in the cast iron pan until it's nearly covered. Place in the oven and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let the pie rest at room temperature for five minutes before serving.