Another birthday dinner. This time my husband Don is the birthday boy. And, as most everyone knows, Don is all about meat. So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to use a locally-harvested, free-range stewing hen that has been in my freezer for a couple of weeks. A stewing hen is just the thing for from-scratch chicken and dumplings. (See Don smile.) Since this green gal has never really made from-scratch chicken and dumplings, it is also a chance to be brave in the kitchen… deep breath.
If you are unfamiliar with stewing hens, you’re probably not alone. They are not typically found at most local supermarkets. Stewing hens are laying hens that have, essentially, become menopausal—they’ve stopped laying eggs. Once they’ve reached this point in their lives, they are of far less value to the farmer, and so… well, they are butchered and become a stewing hen.
How do I feel about this? I’m the vegetarian, remember? But I’m not ethically opposed to eating meat, as long as the meat was raised and harvested humanely (Yes, “harvested” is an easier word to write than butchered, in case you are wondering.). I can count on the humane treatment of the animals that enter my kitchen because I buy local and know my producers. So, I’m okay with it.
In fact, I just read an article in the new Sauce Magazine about just such an ethical dilemma; its title is “Down the Rabbit Hole.” Okay, I saw you shudder, and you are correct; the article is about raising, butchering and eating adorable rabbits—even has photos that just scream Easter Bunny. But before you judge, you should take a look.
The writer is talented, sincere and brave—she won my admiration for both her skill as a writer and as someone who isn’t afraid to look deeply at and challenge her own beliefs. She made me think, feel uncomfortable, and finally (because she really is an excellent writer) she helped me sort out my thoughts and come to a new, comfortable understanding of my husband’s desire for meat and my desire to make wonderful meat dishes for him.
As usual, I have digressed, but only slightly. Back to my little stewing hen. She went into my big stew pot on Thursday, which was actually my hubby’s big day, but I was only making the stock—or is it broth? This is a culinary question that may or may not be necessary to answer at this point. However, to be truly informative and accurate, I did a little research and landed on Epicurious.com, a favorite site of mine. I’m not sure it answered the immediate question regarding my recipe, but it is informative and worth a look.
While all stocks and broths are basically constructed of the same ingredients in greater or lesser amounts, this was my first attempt with the raw stewing hen, and, let’s face it, the older we all get the tougher we become. So cooking time had to be extended to about six hours of constant but gentle simmering. Of course, I added some carrots, celery, onion, garlic, spices and herbs for flavor and kept a very close eye for the first three hours in order to skim off the foam, which contains bitter-tasting impurities. But, really, it’s a no brainer kind of thing that can be accomplished as you do other things around the house—like writing a draft of your blog or something.
Eventually, she cooked down; her carcass was left to cool, solids removed from the cooking liquid and the stock was strained into about six large containers (There was plenty of stock, the surplus of which will become the basis for chicken-flavored rice or something when Don needs a side dish and I don’t.). The stock remained in the frig until the day of my dinner, with the excess fat separating nicely for super-easy removal.
Now it was simply a matter of creating the dish, for which I actually added extra chicken—a package of organic, free range chicken thighs. I did this because my little hen really had become a skinny old bird in her final years. And while I did get some meat from her little bones, it was not enough. Thigh meat, consisting of more dark than white meat, was perfect. I gently roasted about six small thighs in my oven the night before, then cooled and deboned them. The rest of the story is all basic chicken and dumplings.
- One-quarter cup olive oil
- Three or four carrots, thick-sliced on the diagonal (about two cups)
- The entire heart (leaves and tender stalks) of a head of celery, stalks thick-sliced on the diagonal and leaves chopped fine (about two cups)
- One large yellow onion, chopped (Red would be fine, too, if that’s what you have on hand.)
- Three to four cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- About two to three cups cooked deboned chicken meat (A mix of light and dark meat creates a flavorful stew.)
- Eight cups chicken stock/broth with excess fat removed (Refrigerating your homemade stock for 24 hours makes skimming the fat off the top very easy.)
- Two bay leaves
- Two tablespoons each chopped fresh rosemary, thyme and sage (You could also use dry herbs and just reduce the amount slightly.)
- Healthy dash of turmeric (Optional, depends on how much you like this flavor—We do!)
- The zest and juice of one medium lemon
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- One tablespoon fresh parsley
- A quarter cup of cornstarch slurry (about two tablespoons of cornstarch whisked with a little of your stock.)
- Two cups flour (I used organic all-purpose unbleached flour.)
- Two teaspoons baking powder
- One teaspoon raw sugar
- One teaspoon salt
- Four tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
- One and one-half cups buttermilk or heavy cream (I love Kalona organic buttermilk and used that.)
- Begin the chicken stew by sautéing the onion, garlic, carrots and celery in olive oil. Add some salt to season the vegetables and help them develop a sheen as they soften. Cook, stirring occasionally for five to 10 minutes.
- When the vegetables have softened, add the chicken meat and continue to cook for three to five minutes, seasoning with additional salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
- Add six to seven cups of the stock, reserving the rest so that you can add as needed—you want to keep a good amount of liquid in this stew so that you can drop in your dumplings and have them cook completely near the finish. Let it all come to a boil and reduce it to a low, steady simmer. You need to maintain this simmer throughout, but you don’t want it to boil again.
- Add your bay leaves, herbs, turmeric, lemon zest and juice. Continue cooking for about an hour to an hour and a half at this steady but low simmer.
- When your stew is nearly finished, prepare your dumpling dough as follows: whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add the melted, cooled butter to the buttermilk or cream, whisking to combine and then adding the liquid to the dry ingredients. Work this together with a fork or your hands until you get a sticky dough. At least, mine was sticky—so much so that I did end up adding a bit more flour and then chilling it for a few minutes (Remember, this is my first attempt at the dumplings.). I then rolled the chilled dough into little balls—makes a lot so you will probably have about 18-20 dough balls.
- Now, taste-test your stew; check the tenderness of the chicken meat and adjust seasonings as necessary. Remove the bay leaves and add the slurry, stirring constantly until your thickener is completely incorporated into your stew. Once the broth of the stew has thickened a little, you can add your dumpling dough by dropping them into the steadily simmering stock. It is very important to have that steady simmer going, or the dough balls will not cook properly. The dumplings took about 12 minutes to plump and cook through. Add a sprinkle of fresh parsley and serve immediately.
I was generous with the prep and cook time here, but it does not include the time it would take you to make your own stock from a stewing hen. I recommend making the stock, if you are going homemade, at least a day ahead. Also, you will probably have some extra stock, if you've made your own--not an exact science. Use it to make flavorful rice or quinoa or in any recipe calling for chicken stock. Stock also freezes in tightly fitting freezer containers.
In my investigation of how others used stewing hens—just to make sure I was on the right track–I “met” Megan, who writes the blog Whole Natural Life. One of the greatest joys in doing this blog is “meeting” others, like Megan, who are on journeys similar to mine. Check her out!
How do you feel about the meat you eat? During the preparation of this dish, I clearly anthropomorphized my little hen. She sort of became my friend—yep, I even had conversations with her. But, you know, that’s okay. I respected her, tried to honor her and celebrate her long life. She gave my husband a wonderful birthday dinner and she was remembered at the table—talked about and appreciated. Honoring the animals and the sacrific that puts food on the table is an ancient tradition. I felt very good about it all in the end.