Cooking Heritage Chicken


Delaware roosters.

Chickens are on my mind at the moment as we are butchering the excess roosters from the chicks we bought last fall. My husband believes that there are few finer meals than fried chicken dinner (preferably with corn on the cob and mashed potatoes). He’s also partial to roasted chicken, chicken and noodles, chicken and dumplings and chicken soup. Since we prefer to raise our own chicken and since I am not enamored of the Cornish Cross, I thought I might talk a bit about how to cook a heritage breed chicken.
First, a bit of background. At one time, “egg” chickens were the breeds that didn’t go broody and that didn’t need as much food to produce eggs. They were otherwise not really much different from what we now call dual-purpose or even meat birds. For example, Delawares are supposedly a meat bird and Australorps are supposedly an egg bird (although you’ll often see both breeds called dual-purpose). Yet both produce about the same number of eggs per year. Delawares grow a little faster and at maturity will weigh more. Modern Leghorns, on the other hand, will produce at least half again as many eggs, have not the slightest interest in setting or raising chicks and eat less food. However, any meat, egg or dual purpose breed can be used for frying, broiling or even roasting – if you prepare and cook them correctly. I like Delawares because of their fast growth, but Australorps are also good dual purpose birds, as are the various Rocks, Sussex, Javas and Orpingtons.
Chickens are classified as broilers, fryers, roasters or fowl. Back in the day, the first three were more likely to be the surplus roosters, although hens could also be used. Since about half the chicks in each season’s batch were roosters, they held an important place in the food supply chain, unlike today when hatchery roosters are usually killed within a day of hatching. Fowl could be the hens past their laying prime or an older rooster. The classifications take both age and weight into account:
Broilers: 7 to 12 weeks in age and about 1 to 1 ½ pounds in weight; squabs are a sub-classification, traditionally Leghorn cockerels about the same age but ¾ to 1 pound in weight.
Fryers: 14 to 20 weeks of age and 2 ½ to 4 pounds in weight (similar to the typical supermarket chicken in terms of weight, but those chickens are butchered at about 9 weeks of age, well before they’ve developed any flavor). The other way to assess whether this age group should be fried or roasted is to check the tip of the breastbone – if it’s still soft and flexible, the bird can be fried; once it becomes hard, it’s better to roast.
Roasters: 5 to 12 months of age and 4 to 8 pounds. This was the classic, old-fashioned Sunday dinner chicken.
Fowl: any chicken over the age of 12 months. Mature roosters would probably go about 8 ½ to 9 pounds and hens about 6 ½ to 7 pounds.
When cooking heritage breeds, it’s important to recognize that these birds are older when butchered – no way could you butcher a heritage bird at 9 weeks as you can the modern Cornish Cross meat bird. It’s the extra time that promotes real flavor, but it also means the bird has been well-exercised and is more muscular. In similar fashion, a two- or three-year old grass-fed steer has great flavor, but improperly cooked, it can also be tough. In both beef and chickens, proper aging increases the tenderness of the meat. Heritage chicken needs at least 24 hours of aging in the refrigerator and older chickens can/should be aged up to 5 days.
Next is the cooking method. Broilers should be split and grilled or broiled. A little butter basted on them as they cook adds to the flavor. Traditional fried chicken is soaked overnight in buttermilk before frying (and was always fried in lard). Cooking gets little trickier with roasters. Because of the difference in time requirements for breast and leg meat, the best method is an open roasting pan with the breast side up. If you cook this way, you MUST baste about every 15 minutes. Alternatively, cook the chicken in a tightly covered granite ware roaster (that’s what they were originally designed for). This supplies moist heat but also allows the skin to crisp. For roasters over 10 months, add about a cup of water to the pan. Roast at 325 degrees, 30 minutes to the pound. Fowl is simmered at about 180 degrees – do NOT boil it or it will become tough. Allow about 45 minutes to one hour of simmering per pound. I prefer to boil fowl cut up as more calcium leaches from the bones, but it’s not a requirement. Fowl boiled this way will produce excellent broth – add about ¾ to 1 cup per pound of chicken if you’re stewing a hen, and about 1 ½ cups per pound for a rooster, as roosters make stronger broth. You can also steam-bake fowl at 300 to 325 degrees for three hours for a three- to four-pound chicken, with one to two cups of water added to the covered roasting pan.
There you have it – heritage chicken, properly cooked, healthy and absolutely delicious.

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Old-Fashioned Cooking: Cauliflower Leaf Soup


These cauliflower transplants look so promising at this stage…

In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
In the old-fashioned kitchen, nothing — and I do mean NOTHING — went to waste. It was too darned hard to grow it, store it, process it and cook it, so canny ranch wives created all sorts of dishes with things we throw away today. Take cauliflower leaves. There’s at least twice as much leaf as there is head on a cauliflower plant. And the leaves have plenty of nutrients, so why waste them? I have trouble growing cauliflower because it’s a cool weather vegetable and my springs tend to go from cool and damp to dry and hot in the blink of an eye. The cauliflower, thinking summer has arrived, promptly sets a very small head and bolts into the flowering stage. The miniscule heads don’t make for very good eating (and look rather odd, as well), but the plant itself is quite large and the leaves have plenty of nutrients. I have similar problems with broccoli, but it doesn’t seem to be quite as heat-sensitive, and it will winter-over well so I can harvest before the spring weather heats up.
Balked of being able to eat cauliflower heads, I just use the whole plant for soup. I usually make the soup base and freeze it. This also works well with broccoli, or you can combine the two.

Cream of Cauliflower Leaf Soup
Leaves from two cauliflower plants, washed and roughly chopped
One head of cauliflower (optional, in which case you can use a third cauliflower plant)
One large onion, roughly chopped
Three or four cloves of garlic
Two or three stalks of celery

Put the veggies in a large stockpot with enough water to cover. Cook until onion and cauliflower or cauliflower stems are soft. Let cool. Run through the food processor in fairly small batches (otherwise it runs over the center post and makes a terrible mess — just sayin’) until the vegetables are pulped. Depending on how many people you plan to feed at one time, freeze in one or two cup batches. When ready to serve, defrost, heat to a simmer and add whatever you consider to be the right amount of cream; I usually use one cup cream to two cups soup. Sprinkle on a little parsley, add salt and pepper and enjoy.

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Aging in Place


Using equipment to do the heavy lifting really makes a difference.

We all get older (darn it!). Given that it’s inevitable, I’m always surprised at the folks who seem to think they’ll be able to keep right on doing the same stuff in their 70s that they did in their 30s. Here’s a little secret for you – you can’t. So start thinking about how you’re going to age in place.
When I was 30, picking up a bale of hay was no big deal. Today it is – although that’s partly because in the days of my youth, a bale of hay might weigh 60 or 70 pounds. Today’s bales are meant to be handled with machinery, so most bales start at 100 pounds and go up, with an “average” bale often weighing in at 120-130. I can’t lift them and neither can hubby or the right hand ranch hand (oldest granddaughter). Not to mention that even if I could lift the beggars, it wouldn’t be long before the discs in my back would start to give out. So I drag, roll or tip them on end to get them loaded on the hay trailer.

This low hay trailer makes feeding chores a lot easier.

It’s going to take you longer to accomplish tasks as you get older – might as well get used to it. It will help if you organize first, instead of just leaping in the way my nearest and dearest tends to do. You should also plan to take breaks. The body might be willing, but it’s not physically capable of the kind of sustained heavy work you could accomplish 30 years ago. Not to mention that you have a bunch more aches and pains. I can still put in 10- and 12-hour days but I have to break them up with rest periods.
While the basics of exercise, nutrition and sleep were important in your youth, they are absolutely critical now. I am the first to admit that I’m lazy (which helps me be efficient) and a routine exercise program just grates. But there are some muscles that don’t get much of a workout in my day-to-day activities, and if I don’t stretch regularly, I can barely hobble. I see a chiropractor regularly. I have also come to the realization that wheat causes all sorts of nasty side effects (like pain, stiffness, asthma flare-ups and high blood pressure) and that I feel best when I minimize my grain intake. I don’t have trouble sleeping unless it’s a few days around the full moon, but if I did, I would cut out my coffee entirely (I only drink one cup a day as it is) and take steps until I was getting a minimum of seven hours a night.

Keeping your immune system strong is vitally important as you age; blackberry syrup helps.

In addition to accepting your limitations and doing everything you can to stay healthy, start thinking about some of the other things you can do to help you age in place. Live in a house with stairs? What happens if you can’t climb them in 10 years? A big part of this, when you live on a ranch or farm, is making sure that the younger generation has the necessary skills and knowledge to take over. My library contains a number of “how-to” books; while I don’t necessarily need them at this point, they’re great reference material for the up and coming gang. It also helps to get the kids involved, as many of these things are psycho-motor skills – meaning they involve brain and body and should be practiced regularly.
How are you planning to age in place? Got any tips and tricks for the rest of us?

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