Homegrown and Handmade (New Society, 2011) shows how making things from scratch and growing at least some of your own food can help you eliminate artificial ingredients from your diet, reduce your carbon footprint and create a more authentic life. Author Deborah Niemann writes from the perspective of a successful, self-taught modern homesteader, in a well-illustrated, practical and accessible manual for a simpler life. In this excerpt, get tips for using your poultry output to its full potential.
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Athough you may have been cooking meat and eggs for many years, there are a few unique challenges when preparing meat and eggs you’ve grown yourself. There are seasonal challenges as you are buried in eggs during the spring months, wondering what to do with them. And you will find yourself with meat that most people today have never cooked, such as stew hens and heritage turkeys. I’ll never forget the time we grilled an eight-month-old rooster, a cooking process that made it as tough as leather. What a sad waste of a good chicken! Since those days, I’ve been collecting cookbooks published prior to the 1970s in an attempt to relearn cooking skills long forgotten. Assuming you haven’t started your old cookbook collection yet, here's some information — plus a few recipes, above — to get you started.
Cooking With Eggs
As I mentioned earlier, you can eat eggs laid by any type of poultry. However, because chicken eggs are the most common, the recipes here assume that you will be using chicken eggs from standard sized chickens. If you are using bantam chicken eggs, you need to double the number of eggs in the recipe. Turkey and duck eggs are almost twice as big as regular chicken eggs, and a goose egg weighs as much as three chicken eggs.
Although chickens will lay for about nine months a year in most climates without any additional prodding on the part of humans, they tend to lay a lot more in spring than other seasons. After eating scrambled eggs, fried eggs, boiled eggs, egg salad, deviled eggs, and egg drop soup, what else can you do with all those eggs?
Meat From the Backyard Flock
Stew hens are the fine wine of the chicken world, improving with age and developing a rich flavor. In Julia Child’s 1989 cookbook, she laments the disappearance of stew hens from the grocery store, as she provides directions for making broth with chicken scraps. While a young chicken can provide you with one good meal, a stew hen can provide you with several. After being cooked in water over low heat for a few hours, the flavorful, tender meat can be used in casseroles and salads, and the broth can be used to enrich the flavor of other soups. Fat can be separated and used to make gravy or flavor other dishes. Sadly, most people in today’s world have never tasted meat from a stew hen, and they don’t know what a delicacy they are missing. But stew hens are not the only underappreciated meat in today’s world.
Like most people, I was never a fan of dark turkey meat. Raising heritage turkeys, however, helped me to understand that the reason some do not appreciate dark turkey meat is that we expect it to taste like breast meat. Legs and thighs on a heritage turkey are a rich, chocolate brown. One day when I saw it in a pot of turkey and rice soup, I realized that the turkey meat looked a lot more like beef than poultry, and my opinion of dark turkey meat changed significantly. Rather than using it in turkey recipes, I now use it in recipes that call for beef. Like most people, we roast our turkey whole, and then we use the leftover meat in a variety of casseroles and soups. Because none of us really eat the legs or thighs when we roast a turkey, they always wind up being used in another dish, such as my version of turkey stroganoff.
Cooking With Stew Hens
Cooking a stew hen takes a bit of planning but is worth every minute. It should be cut up enough to fit into a pot without requiring too much water to cover it. Usually, I just cut off the legs and thighs. Sometimes I cut the hen into individual parts, and I’ll give the back to one of our dogs raw because there is not much meat on it. Place the chicken pieces in a pot, cover them with water, put a lid on the pot, and cook over a low heat until tender. The older the hen, the longer it will take to cook, so it could be anywhere from three to five hours. I generally just assume it will take five hours so I won’t be disappointed. The only downside to cooking it longer than needed is that the bones will completely fall apart, although you will get a richer broth. I usually chop up a couple of stalks of celery, an onion, and two or three carrots to add to the pot for more flavor. The meat is done when you can easily pull it off the bone with a fork. Now, what do you do with it?
Remove the chicken from the pot and allow it to cool for twenty to thirty minutes so you don’t burn your fingers working with it. Pull the meat from the bones and chop into half-inch pieces. This is the perfect chicken to use for salads, casseroles, and soups. You can pour the broth into a canning jar and refrigerate for up to a week. The fat will rise to the top, and after it cools and becomes solid like butter, the fat can easily be lifted from the broth with a fork and frozen for using later as the fat in a gravy recipe or to flavor a pot of lentils. The broth can be used in any recipe that calls for chicken broth.
Backyard Heritage Turkeys
When heritage turkeys exploded onto the food scene in 2003, there was a lot written about how to properly cook them. Some authors advised cutting up the turkey and cooking the separate parts for different amounts of time. We have always roasted our heritage turkeys whole and have no complaints.
Lay the turkey on its back in a roasting pan, uncovered, and bake at 325°F. I really recommend a thermometer for determining when the turkey is done because there are few foods less appetizing than an overcooked, dried-out turkey. The USDA recommends the internal temperature reach 165°F, but some chefs recommend removing the turkey from the oven sooner. If you remove it when the breast temperature is 160°F, it will continue to increase a few degrees while resting for 15 to 20 minutes before carving. I have seen many charts that list cooking times based upon the weight of the turkey, but all of them have cooking times that are much longer than the cooking time for our turkeys. Check the temperature of a stuffed turkey under 10 pounds after only 1 1/2 hours because they seldom require more than 2 hours of cooking time. A 20-pound, stuffed turkey will probably be done in about 3 hours. And we have cooked a 35-pound broad-breasted turkey in only 4 hours, although it was not stuffed. I would not recommend stuffing a turkey that weighs more than 20 pounds because it is simply too thick to expect the stuffing to cook before the outside of the turkey is dried out.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Homegrown and Handmade by Deborah Niemann and published by New Society Publishers, 2011. Buy this book from our store: Homegrown and Handmade.