Meat Thrift — Three Meals from One Chicken

Here at Providence Farm, we only sell our chickens whole.  When folks ask if we have boneless skinless chicken breasts, we smile and kindly inform them that the breasts grow on the rest of the chicken, that they can have the breast meat as it comes: attached to the wings, thighs, drumsticks, and back.

Perhaps this is poor business practice.  Likely it is off-putting to customers who prefer to minimize their contact with raw meat.  But as farmers (and home cooks) we feel that comfort in the kitchen, knowledge of where food comes from, and ability to fully utilize such ingredients is vitally important for a vibrant, healthy local food community.  As such, we are committed to educating customers on exactly how to use a whole chicken, and how to get the most for your money.  It is in that spirit that we offer this post.

First, I’d like to offer up a few words about meat thrift generally.  Or rather, I’d like to offer up someone else’s words about meat thrift, as his writing is more eloquent, and certainly more effective, than my own.  The following quote comes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, excerpted from his River Cottage Meat Book:

Meat thrift is all about respect.  Respect for the animals that have died to feed you.  Respect for the farmers who have (assuming you’ve chosen your meat well) worked tirelessly to keep those animals healthy and contented, so their meat is as good as it can be.  And respect for the whole history of animal husbandry and meat gastronomy–endeavors that  until recently scorned any practice that was wasteful of the livestock on which they depended.

So how, exactly, can you be thrifty with a whole chicken (or any meat bird, for that matter)?  I won’t bother with specific recipes, as they are endless, but I will provide a general method for getting the most bang for your buck.

First meal: Cook the bird.  At our house we tend to roast chickens whole (look for a “how-to” page specific to heritage birds, coming soon), but the bird could also be braised or stewed, cut up and roasted, fried, grilled, you name it.  Assuming you’re not planning on half a chicken per person (and you probably shouldn’t: spending your food dollars on lesser quantities of great meat, rather than piles of industrial slop, is a good idea), this will feed up to six adults: two breasts, two thighs, two drumsticks.

Second meal: Pick off the bits of meat from the remaining carcass.  If you didn’t use all six larger pieces mentioned above, pick those as well.  There is a surprising amount of really tasty meat tucked in along a chicken’s backbone, so don’t miss that.  With these bits you have plenty of options: stir-fry, a replacement for ham in a sort of pasta carbonara, lunch salad with chicken sprinkled on top, soup, fried rice, pot pie, and on and on.

Third meal: Make a stock.  For this you will need the carcass, neck, skin, and bones from previous meals: in other words everything you haven’t used yet.  Some folks take stock-making pretty seriously, with specific quantities of this and that and the other, but our method is more laid-back.  Fill a stock pot with water, throw in the chicken carcass and whatever else is left, and if you like add in some veggies like onions, carrots, celery, and garlic, and perhaps some herbs (fresh or dried).  Don’t forget the salt and pepper.  (Vinegar is also a good idea–for an informative article on the benefits of bone broth, check out this page from the Weston A. Price Foundation.)  Then set it to simmer for maybe three or four hours–though it won’t hurt to go longer, say overnight–and when it’s done strain it.  To do this we set a large colander atop a large metal mixing bowl and pour (carefully!–it’s hot).  You could filter this through muslin or cheesecloth or some such to arrive at a crystal clear end product, but we feel this is mostly unnecessary.  Voila, chicken stock.  Now you have a base for soups of all kinds, a liquid for cooking risotto or other rice dishes, beans, you name it.

And there you have it: three meals from one chicken.

An Informal Heritage Chicken Tasting

On Sunday afternoon we hosted a small, informal heritage chicken tasting at our house with a few friends.  The birds were roasted in two batches of four.  To prevent other flavors distracting from the taste of the actual chicken, it was a simple roasting affair: each bird was rubbed down with butter, salt, and pepper, then roasted at 425 degrees for one hour (15 minutes on each side, to thoroughly cook the leg/thigh meat, and 30 minutes with the breast up).

After they cooled enough to handle, the meat from the breasts, drumsticks, and thighs was cut up into bite-size pieces, the meat from each breed put on its own plate.  The plates themselves were marked “A” through “H” without any breed identification.  Participants took a few pieces of each and scored them for flavor and texture on a scale of 1 to 6, adding comments to their scorecards as they went.  When we were finished the scores were totaled.

Prior to the tasting I gave our friends a brief overview of our project, explaining that the American chicken industry is dominated (to the tune of 90+%) by the Cornish-Rock Cross (CRX), but that we wanted to determine how some of the heritage breeds compared, both to the modern hybrids as well as to each other.  Since we raised eight breeds, as far as they knew they were tasting the eight breeds that we raised; however, one of the breeds we raised (Buff Orpingtons) turned out to be all females so we didn’t process any of them, instead replacing them in the tasting with a local pasture-raised CRX.

The first batch.

The first batch.

The second batch.  Can you guess which is the Cornish-Rock Cross? (Hint: it's obvious.)

The second batch. Can you guess which is the Cornish-Rock Cross? (Hint: it’s obvious.)

Our friends, it should be noted, did not see the birds prior to carving (as seen above); they only saw the meat after it had been cut into pieces and put on plates for serving.  When all were finished, out of 48 possible points for flavor, here is how they stacked up:

  • Speckled Sussex: 37 pts.
  • New Hampshire Red: 34 pts.
  • Dominique: 34 pts.
  • Silver-Laced Wyandotte: 32 pts.
  • Naked Neck: 31 pts.
  • Delaware: 31 pts.
  • White Plymouth Rock: 30 pts.
  • CRX: 21 pts.

So the Speckled Sussex was the clear consensus “winner” and the CRX was the clear consensus “loser.”  But to me, the real takeaway was that they were all good (with the exception of the CRX, which most agreed was just bland), and that they were all different.  Hopefully we can get away from this notion of “tastes like chicken” and realize that different chickens taste different, and indeed that “tastes like chicken,” when we’re talking about the modern hybrids, usually just means “tastes like whatever flavor was added to it.”

In the end Ame and I amused ourselves with the observation that we used to think the heritage breeds looked pitiful and scrawny, but after more than a year of eating them exclusively we now find the CRX to be disgustingly obese and disproportionate.  Maybe it’s no wonder we, as a country, look the way we do when we eat chicken that looks the way it does.

Everything But The Oink: Headcheese

Note: This is not a food blog.  Nor is this a photography blog.  What follows is headcheese as I made it, with some on-the-fly camera photography.  If you want to see artfully done photos of making headcheese, I’m sure you can find them elsewhere.  (Here is a good source.)

Also note: This post may contain images deemed “objectionable” by some.  Headcheese, after all, is made from a head.

Headcheese is an unfortunately misnamed product that is essentially a terrine made from the meat (and skin and fat) from the head of an animal, usually a pig or, to a lesser extent, a sheep.  It has everything to do with “head” and nothing to do with “cheese.”  My intent here is not to argue for the use of the whole animal (though that is itself a right aim) or to delve into the history and variations of headcheese (though that would certainly be interesting), but to give a fairly quick and dirty demonstration of headcheese as I made it.  (If you want more information on headcheese in general, Wikipedia, as usual, has a good overview.)

Two weeks ago we took three hogs into a local butcher, and as I was giving cutting instructions to the butcher I noticed that the cut sheet had the options to keep the head whole (rather than boning it out for cheeks/jowls, as we did with one of the hogs).  I had recently watched a three-part video series (On The Anatomy of Thrift) that included making headcheese, and I wanted to give it a try, so when I picked up the fresh meat from the butcher a week later it included one whole head.

I won’t bother giving an exact recipe here.  For one, there are many variations, and I have no knowledge to claim one is better than any other.  But more importantly, in the kitchen I tend to measure more with my eyeballs than with teaspoons, so I don’t have an exact recipe.  “A handful of salt, a good bit of pepper, some bay leaves…” wouldn’t be too terribly helpful.  But my process was influenced in equal parts by the video series linked above (the “Harvest Day” episode specifically) and the books Odd Bits and The River Cottage Meat Book (that version is repeated in The River Cottage Cookbook).

Typically when hogs are processed they are scalded and the hair scraped off, while ruminants are skinned.  Unfortunately our butcher, being a fairly small-scale affair, skins the hogs too.  In a headcheese the skin will help provide gelatin to allow it to ‘set,’ which is essential to the product.  But this one seemed to work just fine without it.

Step one: put the cleaned head in a large-ish container.

Put the cleaned head in a large-ish container.

Step two: add brine.

Add brine.

The brine can be as simple or complex as you want.  The simple version is salt dissolved in water.  The complex version is salt dissolved in water, with just about anything else.  Seems that headcheese recipes that use a simple brine will make up for it by adding other herbs and spices to the cooking liquid, while recipes with complex brines won’t.  I adapted the suggested brine from the Odd Bits book, omitting things I didn’t have and generally adding what seemed reasonable.  Basically this was kosher salt and brown sugar dissolved in boiling water, to which was added crushed black peppercorns, eastern red cedar berries (the recipe called for juniper berries, but the cedar–a relative of juniper–made a nice and local substitution), crushed garlic, and a few bay leaves.

Make sure the head remains submerged in the liquid (I set a glass Pyrex container on top and filled it with water) and refrigerate for a few days.  When it was time to cook I rinsed the head in cold tap water, stuck it in a large pot, and covered with cold water, then added some chopped up carrots, celery, and a small head of garlic.  Then turned the head on medium-lowish and waited.  Took three to four hours until the meat was falling off the bone, at which point I removed the head to a cutting board to cool, strained the cooking liquid, and commenced boiling the cooking liquid down.

Simmer in a large stockpot.

Simmer in a large stockpot.

Once the head was cool enough to handle I began picking and cutting the meat off the bone until it was pretty well cleaned, then chopped the meat (and the simmered carrots) into smallish chunks.  Once the liquid was sufficiently reduced (this took a while) all that remained was assembly.  There are special terrine dishes to be found that are used for this very purpose, but a loaf pan seems to work just as well.

Meat ready to be picked off the bone.

Meat ready to be picked off the bone.

Picked & chopped.

Picked & chopped.

Pack it into a loaf pan or terrine dish.

Pack it into a loaf pan or terrine dish, then cover with the reduced cooking liquid and refrigerate.

Ready to turn out.

Ready to turn out.

The finished product.

The finished product.

I was pleasantly surprised with how it came out.  Two things I would change: (1) pack the chopped meat less tightly into the loaf pan, to allow the liquid to better work its way through rather than just sitting on top; (2) cook a little longer to allow the meat and fat to break down a little more.  But the flavor was better than expected.  It’s certainly porky, and really quite intensely flavored–I see now why headcheese is usually eaten with pickles and mustard and such, to cut through the intense flavor of the meat.

Headcheese is now on my radar.  It takes a while to make, but it’s really quite easy and most of the time is hands-off anyway.  I think blood sausage would make a fine next foray.

On The Importance of Doing What You Think You Should Probably Do

Long title, yes, but a good lesson.  When we had all our chickens on pasture this spring and summer, I would pound in a couple of rebar stakes for each shelter, to tie the shelters to them to keep them anchored in the event of high winds.  (The lightweight hoop shelters, covered with tarps as they are, can catch the wind and really move around if you’re not careful.)

But after processing day when all we had left were some pullets and the remaining cockerels we had set aside for our own table, I got a little lax.  I might move the pens but not the stakes, because, hey, I had left them untied a couple of times already and we hadn’t had a problem.  Yet.

Then about two weeks ago we had rains overnight accompanied, apparently, by some pretty decent winds.  Never heard a thing (and I’m usually one to wake up when the wind’s howling), but the pictures of the pasture the next morning tell the tale:

Scattered pens -- the one on the far left was in the middle the night before.

Scattered pens — the one on the far left was in the middle the night before.

Three pens didn't budge an inch.  But the fourth...100 feet away.  (The pen on the right, by the way, houses a handful of heritage turkeys...)

Three pens didn’t budge an inch. But the fourth…100 feet away. (The pen on the right, by the way, houses a handful of heritage turkeys…)

1x3" framing lumber, snapped.  A 'scab' piece and a handful of screws brought this one back to life.

1×3″ framing lumber, snapped. A ‘scab’ piece and a handful of screws brought this one back to life.

That front cattle panel used to form a nice hoop.  Now it forms a nice peak.

That front cattle panel used to form a nice hoop. Now it forms a nice peak.

Thankfully we only lost one chicken to the whole shelter shuffle fiasco.  And incredibly, one of the shelters, upon shifting, had ended up on top of a Wyandotte cockerel so that his head was inside and his body (soaking wet) was outside–when I picked up the shelter, he just stood up and walked off as if this happens all the time.  Gotta love those hardy chickens.

Lesson: make sure those things are anchored!

When life hands you dead chickens…

…make chicken soup.

One downside of raising heritage breed chickens for meat is that, unlike modern hybrid birds, these guys like to roost.  (For all I know the Cornish-Cross and other hybrids also like to roost, but being genetically obese maybe they’re simply unable.)  And without roost bars inside the individual shelters–a problem I’m in the process of remedying–the birds go for the next best thing: roosting on top of the hoop structure.

Now roosting up high has its benefits, namely getting the chicken out of the reach of ground predators such as raccoons, opossums, coyotes, feral dogs, etc.  But those benefits are largely nullified when roosting on top of such a structure, as they then become little more than an easy dinner for one of the resident Great Horned Owls.

…or part of a dinner for a Great Horned Owl.  A few nights ago as I went to shut the chickens in for the night there were a couple of birds roosting on top of the shelters, and as I reached to grab them I kicked something lying between two of the shelters.  Shining my flashlight down revealed the black-and-white plumage of a Dominique cockerel who, upon closer examination, was headless.  Now, when owls swoop down for the kill they tend to grab at the highest point of their prey, which in the case of a roosting chicken is its head.  And sometimes the head is all they’re able to get.  So I checked the bird, and what he lacked in head he made up for in freshness; that is, he hadn’t been dead long.

Having recently crunched the numbers on this chicken enterprise I realized that this guy essentially represented a $12 bill lying on the ground, and I was loathe to just let him go to waste.  Sure, I could feed him to the dog, or toss the body in with the pigs, but that makes for expensive feed.  Then I realized that this was little different than hunting for game birds, only my weapon of choice was an owl whose sights needed a little adjusting.  So I plucked the chicken as I walked back to the house, then hung him up in the shed to finish the job.

As for his ultimate application, this particular bird was roasted, not turned into chicken soup.  But delicious all the same.

A free-ranging chicken’s diet

Bird with crop contents  Crop full of bugs

The above photographs, though perhaps a bit off-putting, are a documentation of the contents of the crop of one of our free ranging meat birds after processing.  (The crop, or craw, is an organ unique to birds that serves as a sort of food storage facility.)  The birds on pasture ran out of feed early yesterday, but based on how full this particular bird’s crop was I would venture a guess that this lack of prepared feed was met with indifference by the flock.

It is really past time to process this year’s batch of cockerels, so yesterday evening as we went to feed and water the flock I picked up a Delaware male and killed and plucked him in the pasture.  (Chicken feathers, high in nitrogen, make a great fertilizer.)  Back down at the house I eviscerated the bird and noticed that the contents of his crop were quite dark.  It looked like it was full of black oil sunflower seeds, but I knew that the chickens could not have possibly filled up on sunflower seeds.  So I took my knife and cut the crop open, laying the contents out on the table, and this is what I found:

  • 8 grasshoppers
  • 19 beetles of various sorts (these were what looked like black sunflower seeds)
  • 1 wasp
  • 1 katydid
  • 1 wolf spider
  • 1 cricket
  • a few pieces of pasture greenery, mostly unidentifiable to me except for a leaf from the legume known as black medic (aka hop clover)

We were fascinated.  I’ve looked into the crops of other birds I’ve eviscerated and typically found bits of corn and oats and leaves from grasses and other pasture plants, but never anything like this.

Recently Joel Salatin wrote a blog post for Murray McMurray Hatchery titled “The Perfect Chicken,” and in it he called for the selection of laying hens based on yolk color, as a darker (more orange) yolk color is indicative of more foraging.  And now this has me thinking: Can we select for a breeding flock based on the contents of a bird’s crop?  That is, can I train myself to feel the difference, on a live bird, between a crop full of grain and a crop full of insects?  I can use trap nests to determine which hens lay the eggs with the darkest yolks, but how do I know which potential breeding males are hanging out by the feeder all day and which are foraging for their fill?

Perhaps when it comes time to select male breeding stock, I can withhold feed for a day, then examine each bird one-by-one and pick the cockerel with the fullest crop.  I really think there is some potential here.