Ode to a Laying Hen

A while ago I bought a retired laying hen from my friends at Sunny Hill Farm. It languished at the bottom of my freezer for longer than I care to admit until I decided the other day that it would be great for coq au vin and removed it to the refrigerator to thaw. I confess that I had never had a free range laying chicken before and it was quite a revelation. To start with, like most of us who have reached a certain level of maturity, its skin had a few brown spots—beauty marks I like to think. And like our cohort it had quite a bit of fat; beautiful golden yellow fat. The white meat was deep pink and the dark meat almost mahogany like duck meat. This, I thought, is what chicken is supposed to look like as I set about breaking it down.

The first thing one does with a chicken after rinsing and drying it is to remove as much fat as possible from the inside and around the rear opening. Do not throw it away! Set it aside to make schmaltz: more about that later. With a sharp knife cut away the skin between the thigh and side of the chicken then pop the hip joint. Use the knife to cut away the entire leg. Repeat on the other side. Next remove the wings using the same technique. The hardest part is removing the back. Slit the skin on either side of the backbone and, using chicken shears or large kitchen shears, cut out the spine. The next step is a bit trickier with an old layer than with a young supermarket chicken because the rib cage of the former is somewhat narrower, supermarket chickens having been breed like Hollywood starlets, if you know what I mean. Put the breasts ribs down on a cutting board and, using the back of your hand, press down until the sternum cracks. Turn them over and split with a large knife. Or, you can do as I sometimes do and just cut the breast meat from the bones without separating the two. Now cut the drumsticks from the thighs—I like to skin them first—and cut off the wing tips. You should have eleven pieces: two thighs, two drumsticks, two breasts, two wings, two wingtips, and one back. The first eight will go into the coq au vin while the last three will make the stock.

About the fat that we saved: you may think that schmaltz is overly sentimental music but if you are an Ashkenazi Jew or a native German you will recognize it as rendered chicken fat. Sometimes flavored with onion, sometimes not, schmaltz is an essential ingredient chopped chicken livers and in many kosher meat dishes where butter is forbidden. Now I know that many of you are thinking, “but isn’t chicken fat bad for you?” No, not really. In fact chicken fat contains 30% saturated fat, 45% monounsaturated fat, and 21% polyunsaturated fat (I suspect that free range chickens have even less saturated fat but can’t prove it). Compare that with butter which is 63% saturated, 29% monounsaturated, and 3% polyunsaturated.

To make schmaltz, cut the fat and the skin with a lot of subcutaneous fat into one-inch pieces. Put into a small sauce pan and just cover with water. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat and cook slowly until the water has evaporated. Strain into a jar and store in the refrigerator for up to a month or freezer for later use.

So there you have it. All goodness of a veteran chicken. Sometimes age has its beauty.


4 responses to “Ode to a Laying Hen

  1. Stephanie September 18, 2011 at 18:36

    do you drink the vin before, during, or after the chicken surgery?

  2. Joe Begenwald September 18, 2011 at 22:07

    Hey, Leo,

    I forwarded this to some chicken-raising neighbors of mine up here in Maine to compare techniques, They raise both laying hens and also fryers, for their own personal use.

    Bave enjoyed getting your posts.

    Best to your family,

    Joe Begenwald

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