Sunday, November 17, 2013

Stewing Hen Comes Home to Roost

It was a few months ago that I picked up the beef I'd ordered from Clare at Big Table Farm. She was reorganizing the white-wrapped chunks of meat in her freezer and said, "Here, take this, too." It was a vacuum-packed stewing hen, one of the laying hens that had been culled from the farm's free-ranging flock.

I brought it home with the beef and put it all away in the freezer. It would be there whenever I opened the door, and I'd think, "I should really do something with that." Then I'd grab the loaf of bread or jar of freezer jam or piece of lamb or pork or beef I'd come for and shut the door on that poor hen, forgetting about her until the next time the freezer door would open.

Last week I retrieved a roast from the icy depths and grabbed the hen, too, knowing that thawing the bird would force me to deal with it. I'd read that stewing hens were literally tough old birds and were best when braised over low, slow heat. Plus they were rumored to produce a flavorful broth, which we go through like water around here, especially in the winter months.

My plan became to make a stock from the whole chicken, then tear the meat off the bones when it was done and make one of my very favorite comfort foods, a golden-crusted chicken pot pie. A couple of hours later the house was filled with the aroma of chicken stock and baking pastry, and I knew my first experience with an old hen wouldn't be my last.

Chicken Pot Pie

For the stock:
1 stewing hen

For the filling:
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped into 1/4" dice
3 cloves garlic, minced fine
3 carrots, quartered and cut into 1/4" slices
3 stalks celery, cut into 1/4" slices
1 c. peas (optional)
2 Tbsp. butter or margarine
2 Tbsp. flour
2 1/2 c. chicken stock
Meat from stewing hen (above) or 3 c. cooked chicken
Salt to taste

For the crust:
1 1/2 c. flour, plus more for rolling out dough

1 c. cornmeal

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter or margarine, frozen, cut into large pieces
1 egg, beaten

3/4 c. buttermilk or milk

Preheat oven to 450°.

Place whole chicken in large pot and cover with water. Bring to just boiling over high heat, then reduce to low simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 1 hr. Remove chicken from broth and cool until you can comfortably remove the meat from the bones. Bones and skin can be returned to the broth and simmered for another hour.

Heat oil in a large skillet, add onions and sauté till tender. Add garlic and sauté briefly to warm, then add rest of vegetables. Sauté till tender and set aside.

Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in flour until there are no lumps visible. Return to heat and cook the roux until it loses the raw flour flavor. Pour in stock, stirring constantly until it thickens.

Put the cooked vegetables in a 9" by 12" baking dish, then scatter the chicken meat over the top of the vegetables. Pour in the thickened stock.

Put flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt in food processor and pulse to combine. Add butter or margarine and pulse until the flour mixture resembles cornmeal. Add egg and milk and process until thoroughly combined. Generously flour the area where you'll roll out the dough, then remove the sticky dough from the processor with a spatula onto the floured area. With floured hands, press out the dough into a roughly rectangular shape, then using a floured rolling pin, gently roll out the dough until it's the size of your baking dish. Gently pick up the dough and place it on top of the chicken and vegetables. (Don't worry if it doesn't fit perfectly.)

Place the dish on the middle rack of the oven and bake at 450° for ten minutes, then reduce heat to 350° and continue baking for 25 min. until crust is browned and filling is bubbly.

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