This was a special dinner, an occasion for pulling out all the stops. Joshua McNichols—a childhood friend of mine AND co-author of The Urban Farm Handbook—and his wife Emily came to dinner. My teenage sons joined us for this formal dinner in. It was a meal bordering sacred: the six of us were eating a ‘gourmet’ feast to honor Joshua and Emily’s recently culled chickens.
Joshua and I butchered chickens together last fall, and I brought them home and made stock from chicken feet, wings and backbones then pressure canned them for safe keeping. I cleaned, separated and labeled the remaining parts of a 5 year old Barred Plymouth Rock, an 18 month old Speckled Sussex and 2 year old Ameracauna. I even had a pile of chicken fat that I kept—not yet knowing if I would use it for rendering or grinding into sausage.
But let me back up.
Joshua and I recently found each other again, now that we both live in Seattle. We have been building our urban farm for just under two years—and my mom mentioned his just-released book The Urban Farm Handbook. And by the way: you two are practically neighbors. How perfect for our paths to cross, especially with our shared passion for sustainability, local food and urban farming.
Our first ‘get together’ was butchering his beloved chickens. Me the chef and blogger, him the urban farmer and chicken butcher. I wanted to learn about urban farming—in this case ‘how to butcher chickens’—and Joshua wanted to honor his chickens by having a chef prepare them with respect and a trained hand. In some ways, it was a barter. His teaching for my cooking.
It isn’t easy to butcher your chickens, and for most it is equally daunting to eat them. Joshua hinted that his wife Emily isn’t particularly fond of eating their former pets (who can blame her?), so I planned to offer meal-time alternatives to this otherwise chicken-inspired feast.
My new favorite ‘water’ concoction is quite simply: water, ice and sliced cucumbers.
Manhattans, Lemon Drops.
LOVING Manhattans—I make with a local whiskey from Mischief.
Chicken Pate on fresh baguettes with bartered* dill pickles and European Butter**
The pate was made from livers of a Barred Plymouth Rock (named Lottie), an Amercauna and a Speckled Sussex. Note: Lottie was a 5 year old hen, and the last one their family ‘named.’
* In seeking out sustainable alternatives, and local urban farming groups and communities, I ran across something called a ‘Backyard Barter.’ A recently started ‘meetup’, a backyard barter is an opportunity for individuals to barter/trade their goods and services with one another. I showed up, was one of about 20 people who traded everything from preserves to prosciutto, fresh herbs and vegetables, hand-crafted beer, sourdough starts, handmade soap and flower seeds. I brought our chicken eggs and came home with a pile of goodies including leek seeds, rosemary soap, pancetta, beer and the above mentioned dill pickles.
**European Butter. This combination of pate, pickles, butter and a baguette is served at one of my favorite restaurants in Paris. And whenever I think of Paris, I cannot help but think of butter. I have eaten some of the best butter of my life in Paris, often teasing that given the choice I would eat it right out of a cone.
Red pepper jelly, goat cheese and flash-grilled pita
A classic, go-to appetizer for guests.
Italian Wedding Soup (recipe follows)
Chicken dumplings made from all 3 chicken’s breasts and chicken fat, plus Lottie’s chicken stock and chicken feet stock. For the chicken feet stock, I cleaned/scrubbed the feet in boiling water; the feet are used instead of the bones.
Squash ribbon pasta with chantrelle mushrooms & walnuts
A non-chicken alternative for guests.
Roast Chicken with Pancetta and Olives (recipe follows)
The flavors of this dish were divine, and serving it over garlic mashed potatoes a MUST. However, it was this dish that let us realize old laying hens’ meat can be tough.
Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Vin Santo, Grappa.
In honor of chickens, I chose creme brulee. It is full of eggs from my urban hens and always a family favorite.
It felt good to honor the chickens through good food and good company. As a chef and urban farmer, I was particularly interested in working with culled hens in my kitchen. Knowing the birds might be ‘tough’ and/or lean, I was curious to find what recipes and methods would be successful. Here is what I discovered: the chicken stock is gorgeous. To me, this is the most approachable means to process your urban hens—they contribute exquisite flavor to the stock, and you aren’t directly eating their body parts.
The chicken fat was lovely and ground together with chicken breasts made tender, tasty meatballs. I highly recommend making meatballs and sausages out of the chicken meat. As for the legs and thighs: I rubbed them in oil, then roasted them submerged in white wine, and they were still tough. Too tough. The flavor of the dish was fantastic—I will make it again and again with chickens raised for meat (instead of layers)—but not with culled hens. Next time I will grind the leg and thigh meat for sausage. And if it is still too tough, I will make stock.
Finally, I made pate from the combined livers of the three girls. The pate was simply lovely. I always save livers from chickens I fabricate, adding them to a Ziploc bag in my freezer. When I have enough: I make pate. This pate was one of the tastiest I have ever made—thanks to these humanely treated, well-fed and much loved birds.
A special thanks to Joshua for walking me through the butchery process, for trusting me with your girls and for joining our family—along with your lovely wife—for this multi-course meal.
Italian Wedding Soup.
this soup is from Ina Garten, though I adjusted it a bit. serves 10.
1 1/4 LB chicken meat, ground
1/2 cup chicken fat, ground
1 cup bread crumbs
4-6 cloves minced garlic
1/3 cup chopped, fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup Parmesan (or Grana Padano)
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg
kosher salt, ground pepper
2 T olive oil
1 cup minced onion
1 cup minced carrots
3/4 cup minced celery
10 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup white wine
2 cups small pasta
1/2 cup minced fresh dill
For the meatballs: get out a large bowl. Add all ingredients and mix rapidly with hands for a minute (this develops the meat/fat and other ingredients). Roll into ping-pong size balls, bake for 30 min. in 350 oven. In a soup pot, caramelize the onions, carrots and celery in the olive oil until caramelized. Add white wine (or vermouth) and simmer a few minutes, then add stock. Bring stock to a simmer and add pasta. When pasta is al dente, toss in dill, spinach and meatballs for another 1-2 minutes. Serve immediately.
Roast Chicken with Pancetta and Olives
makes 8 servings.
2 chickens, cut up (I used legs and thighs)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T thyme
1 T rosemary
1 T sea salt
1 tsp pepper
large pinch red pepper flakes
2 slices pancetta (bartered*)
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup oil cured figs and black olives
Oven to 450. Toss chicken pieces with oil, herbs, salt and peppers. Arrange chicken skin side up in a baking dish—single layer. Scatter garlic and pancetta on top, pour wine over dish and roast 25 – 30 minutes or until cooked through and crisp-skinned (internal temperature 165).
*Foodbuzz 24×24 is a monthly challenge where 24 bloggers cook 24 meals and post them over 24 hours. As a Foodbuzz featured publisher, I am invited to submit ideas for approval and receive a small stipend. It is a fun exercise when selected. You can read my previous 24×24 meals here: 1. an all white wintry meal, 2. an all-jar feast, 3. returning to America (after a year abroad) and 4. my experience cooking in a farmhouse in Southern Tuscany.