Last Saturday I decided to stay in. I also decided a challenge was in order, seeing as I wouldn’t be goading my liver or my neighboring stool warmers. I had a selection of the last of the CSA vegetable share that still had to be eaten. There were turnips, carrots, red peppers, green onions, garlic, red potatoes, and sweet potatoes. I knew I had the foundation for a roast, but should it be pork? I do love the pork tenderloin slathered in crushed fennel seeds, garlic, olive oil, and black pepper, but that seemed too easy. This was supposed to be an opportunity to try something new. Beef, perhaps? What about a roast chicken? I went off to the market with a vague notion about a protein.
At Tony’s, I surveyed the choices. The beef was expensive. And I lacked the most basic knowledge of what cut to buy to roast. It’s a waste of some to roast, but others are too chewy for the purpose. I was out of my depth with the red meat. I thought, “Keep it simple—try the chicken.” Further down the cooler, I found the whole chicken I was looking for. *Full disclosure: I'd found a recipe for chicken roasted with carrots and turnips and thought enough to bookmark it.
This chicken was the required size—four pounds. I noticed the label said "stewing hen." It gave me pause. I plowed ahead, though, and put the bird in my basket.
Back at home, I prepared the rub and peeled and chopped the vegetables. I got to the point where I was going to have to touch that hen. I don’t really like handling raw chicken ever, and a whole bird requiring rinsing inside and out and “excess fat trimming” was taking me to my limit. But this whole idea started with the challenge, right?
I got the chicken in the oven and added the vegetables as instructed. I sat back with my wine, not exactly smug, but certainly a little self-satisfied. That whole “stewing hen” bit still nagged at me. Hadn’t I heard somewhere that you wanted a young bird, maybe even rooster, for frying? Would that also go for roasting? Was it because roosters are so annoying that people just want to eat them?
I watched some Svengoolie, Facebooked messaged an old friend, and checked on the roasting chicken periodically. It was taking a long time to cook. I poked and prodded the hen with the meat thermometer. One hour, then two hours went by. The internal temp was hovering at ten degrees less than the recipe calls for. Finally, it was done. It looked OK, not great (there’s a reason this blog post doesn’t have any pictures of this meal). The vegetables were tasty, and the buerre manie (say what?) made a good gravy, but this chicken was somehow not what I'd expected. There was this extraordinarily thick skin to start with. I was hacking away at the breast, and the slices showed it.
I had some—good, not great.
The next day Tim tried it and he noted its gamy flavor: "It tastes like turkey." Funny, because doesn't the cliche run that when you come across anything whose taste you can't describe it's “like chicken”? I finally decided to call Granny Jean—she should know about these things. Chickens, hens, corn bread. I’ve grown up with stories about the mean chickens in the yard and how they always got their comeuppance.
Days later, I finally ask Granny what the difference is and what kind of bird is better for what kind of dish. She tells me how she’s the wrong person to ask, seeing how she was always trying to escape from the kitchen and its attendant drudgery. Duh, I know she doesn’t like to cook. It’s kind of legendary the near zero interest she has in it. I just thought the farm childhood granted you instinctual knowledge. We talk poultry in passing and move on to family news. There’s a kinship in talking about tough old birds with thick skin.