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.
Types of Chicken
Back in the days before you could get broasted, full-breasted chicken on every street corner, chicken tended to be available at two primary times of the year. The first was late spring and early summer, when so-called spring chickens were available. The second was in the fall, after culling old hens and roosters so they wouldn’t have to be fed through the winter. Fall was also when the capons were ready. Capons are castrated roosters; a capon remains tender and gains weight readily. These chickens all looked very different from the Cornish Cross so prevalent today. Only the youngest were really what we would call tender – birds that could be fried or broiled. The old-fashioned definitions of the various size/ages of chickens are as follows:
- Broiler: 2-3 months old, 1½-2½ pounds
- Fryer: 3-5 months old, 2½-3½ pounds
- Roaster: 5½-9 months old, 4-7 pounds
- Capon: 7-10 months old, 8 pounds
- Stewing fowl: up to 12 months old
- Old Hen: older than 12 months
Cooking Old-Fashioned Chicken
Recipes for each differed. Cooks broiled, fried, braised or used broilers and fryers in chicken fricassee (a fancy version of braising). Roasters and capons were roasted in the oven. Stewing fowl became chicken pot pie, chicken and dumplings, and – depending on your ethnic and cultural background – enchiladas, chicken tetrazzini (despite the Italian-sounding name, it’s an American dish, created in honor of Italian opera star Luisa Tetrazzini), coq au vin or chicken fried rice. An old hen or rooster is good for broth and chicken soup – in fact, many old-timers will tell you that two- or three-year old roosters are best. The meat of an old hen or rooster is pretty tasteless once it’s been turned into soup, but our thrifty fore-mothers made the soup so tasty people ate it anyway.
Here’s an old-fashioned recipe for chicken fricassee, which has been around at least since 1300. The amounts listed are approximate (it’s a stew, not a cake). Cook this dish in a cast-iron skillet, which is the traditional cooking vessel. Fricassee variations include chicken sauteed or completely browned with various vegetables, then finished in either a white sauce or a tomato/wine sauce. The former was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorites, while the latter, known as fricasé de pollo in the Caribbean, came by way of immigrants from France and Spain. Fricassee can also be made with other kinds of meat and vegetables or vegetables alone.
- 2-3 pound chicken (heritage chicken if you can find it)
- One each: medium onion, carrot, celery stalk – all sliced
- 8 Tbs. butter
- 3 Tbs flour
- Chicken stock, hot (about 4-6 cups, but may need more)
- White wine (about 2 cups)
- One sprig each of parsley and thyme, and ½ bay leaf in a bundle or cheesecloth bag
- 1 ½ cups pearl onions
- 1 ½ cups baby button mushrooms
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 cup heavy cream
Saute the vegetables in 4 Tbs butter over medium-low heat for about five minutes, until softened but not browned. Push them to the side and add chicken. Raise heat to medium and cook until the chicken is slightly stiff and a light golden color – about three to four minutes – turning frequently. Lower heat, cover and cook about 10 minutes, turning once. Don’t let the chicken brown. Sprinkle chicken with flour, salt and pepper; turn pieces to coat flour with butter. Cook about four minutes, turning once. Pour in enough chicken stock to almost cover pieces, then add enough white wine to cover. Add herbs. Cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes.
While the chicken is simmering, cook the onions and mushrooms. Cook uncovered, in butter and chicken stock, until soft. They should still hold their shape but the liquid will be nearly evaporated.When the chicken is done, remove the pieces and keep warm. Remove and discard the herb bundle. Let the sauce simmer while you skim off the fat. Raise the heat to medium and allow sauce to cook until it will coat a spoon. Add more salt and pepper if desired. Whisk the egg yolks and half the cream in a heat-proof bowl. Keep whisking and add the hot sauce by tablespoonfuls. Once you’ve added about a cup, you can slowly pour in the rest. Return the sauce to the pan and boil for about a minute; add the cooking juices from the mushrooms and pearl onions.
If you want to be fancy, you can pour the sauce through a sieve. I figure why waste the delicious veggie bits in the sauce? Grate in a bit of nutmeg or add 1/8 to ¼ tsp powdered nutmeg. Arrange chicken, onions and mushrooms in the skillet. Bring to a simmer, take off the heat and add one or two more tablespoons of butter to enrich the sauce. Stir in the butter so it melts completely. Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley and serve. You can also serve over mashed potatoes, rice or pasta.