Stew Hen Soup

This post is part of Food Bloggers Support For Sandy, organized by Barbara over at Creative Culinary. If you click on the graphic to the right you can donate to the Red Cross. There are several other worthy organizations raising money and Irvin at Eat the Love has a great roundup of them with links. Onto the recipe, well, more of a process document.

You’re not likely to encounter a stew hen much anymore. It’s a shame because they make the best stock and subsequently soup. Last month our CSA included an “expired” laying stew hen in our share. These birds are typically a couple of years old, lean and tough. Extracting all the flavor is a long process, but that can be speeded up in the pressure cooker. But if you don’t have one a bubbling pot on the back of the stove or a big crock pot will do.

One of the great benefits of these hens is their fat. It’s bright yellow on these retired laying hens. If you’ve ever cooked a recipe that called for schmaltz, this is what you want. It’s neon yellow from all the corn these hens ate. When you’re getting your stew hen cut up you can pull off these yellow fat deposits and render them in a pan under a very low flame. You can also save the fat you skim off the stock.

The best way to insure a flavorful soup is to make a flavorful stock. There are many techniques to achieve this, my favorite being browning. So, cut up your stew hen into several pieces however you like. I usually cut out the back with a pair of scissors first and go from there.

As you know if you’ve read my blog before I’m not much one for hand holding and describing every little thing. I assume you’ve got a good handle on cooking already. If you don’t there are lots of blogs and sites that will help you out more.

For this recent stew hen I didn’t feel like waiting 24 hours for the stock, so I used the pressure cooker to make my stock. You can use the stovetop or crock pot method if you like, but be forewarned that if this is a retired laying hen it takes a very long time to achieve falling off the bone tender.

Start out heating a tablespoon or so of oil in the bottom of your pressure cooker. Brown the chicken pieces and parts in the oil in batches. It will take several minutes for each batch. If you have extra backs or other pieces in your freezer they make a great addition. I always keep the extra pieces for stock.

While the chicken is browning cut up a large onion, a few carrots and some celery. Use whatever amount makes sense. I’ve never found that too many vegetables ruined a stock. After all the chicken pieces are nicely browned, remove them all from the pot and add the vegetables. Swirl them around in the oil and cook until at least the onions are soft. You can continue until they’re brown also.

Throw the pieces back in and cover with water. Don’t fill above your pressure cooker’s mark that show’s it’s maximum capacity for liquid. Add a bay leaf, some whole black peppercorns, some dried thyme and sprigs of parsley. If you are missing an item don’t worry it’ll be fine. Secure the lid on the pressure cooker and bring to high pressure. Lower the heat, but maintain pressure and cook for 90 minutes. I know that’s a long time, but these old hens are tough. I cooked mine in the pressure canner, so I was able to put in enough water that I wasn’t worried about cooking away all the liquid. If you’re using a smaller pressure cooker you will want to check it half way through to make sure you still got enough liquid. To do that remove it from the stove and quick release. Add more water if necessary, lock the lid again and bring back to pressure.

When the stock is done, skim the fat. I use a fat separator, which is one gadget I really love. Strain the stock through a fine sieve. I then strain it again through one of those gold coffee filters. Pick the meat off the bones, being careful not to get any of those little teeny bones. I kind of failed at this and we were spitting little bones out as we at the chicken in the soup. Reserve the meat for the soup.

Once again you’re going to need the basic three vegetable combination to make your soup. Feel free to add others that you like, but add them at the appropriate time. For example, frozen peas or corn would go in just before serving, potatoes at the beginning. I use lots of vegetables again so that the meat/vegetable to broth ratio is high. Sauté the vegetables in some oil and add any herbs or seasonings you like. For me it’s pretty plain, just salt and pepper. Add the meat and enough stock to cover and simmer away until the vegetables are soft. This only takes 30 minutes or so, depending on how small you cut your vegetables.

And you have soup.

Notes: If you’re using the stovetop or crock pot method, you will want to cook the stock for a very long time, up to 24 hours. A true stew hen needs that amount of time to release all the flavor.

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