The Lessons of Four Old Hens

In the midst of puppy mayhem and holiday madness, I am revising the manuscript of my third book. Well, that’s what the array of papers strewn across the dining room table would suggest anyway. There hasn’t been much actual revision going on, no sitting down with red pen to mark up printed pages. Mostly I have been walking around the table where the sheets of manuscript lie, thinking, occasionally stopping to make mental notes, shifting paper from one pile to another while trying to figure out how best to proceed. Then, once I have managed to completely confuse the organization of paperwork and myself, I leave the mess and head into the kitchen. Yes, indeed, I walk away from it all.

I thought the book was done, or as close to done as books always are before an editor comes in and helps to give a work its best shape. But once again I fooled myself because I wanted the book to be finished. It’s a great feeling to reach “The End” and put down that pen for the last time – who wouldn’t want to rush to get there? And rush is exactly what I have done this time. In truth, I haven’t actually dug as deep as I might have, I haven’t put myself on all the pages, haven’t invested the blood, the sweat, the tears. The storytelling is all glossy surface in spots, a fact pointed out to me by a generous agent, because a person can finish this kind of skimming the surface writing faster. It’s hard work to mine real emotions and truths. It also hurts. I feel the pain of all those truths acutely, in every instance as if they were my own even if they are not. Somedays, I don’t even want to go there.

The closer I get to dealing with the hard stuff, the more anxious I am to leave them behind. This week and last I have been leaving to bake holiday cookies and walk the dogs. I have folded piles and piles of laundry and scrubbed toilets. Mundane grocery shopping holds a special allure. I even took out of the freezer the four hens I got from Middle Earth at the end of October so that I might make rich chicken stock. I rarely make stock, not in this quantity anyway. For a job this size I needed a couple of huge stockpots, knives, chopping boards, kitchen twine, piles of root vegetables, bunches of herbs, about 10 quarts of water, and four hours to babysit the simmering concoction. Four hours: a good chunk of time spent not dealing with the tough stuff.

I felt quite proud of myself for devising a chore of this magnitude.

But as the hens stewed and the stock deepened in color and flavor, as the four hours passed and I tasted the dark yellow liquid and came face to face with what I had always known – that homemade stock always tastes better than a shortcut version – I also realized books are better too, when made with a deeper, richer, more arduously achieved base. There’s no escaping that; they just do. I learned my lesson and it’s back to work.

Here’s the method for homemade chicken stock and a recipe for Creamy Celery Root Soup to use it in.

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Homemade Chicken Stock

  • 4 stewing hens, about 4 0r 5 pounds each
  • 10 quarts water
  • 4 large onions
  • 8 carrots, peeled and cut in half crosswise
  • 8 ribs celery, cut in half crosswise
  • 2 small bunches of parsley
  • 12 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 Tbsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. whole peppercorns

I used two 12-quart stockpots and divided the above ingredients evenly between the 2 pots. Tie the herbs together with kitchen twine if you’d like. It’s neater but not necessary.

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Set the pots over a high heat, cover, and bring the mixture to a boil. When boiling, crack the lids about 2 inches and reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Simmer the stock for 4 hours. Let cool a bit before straining the stock through a fine mesh sieve set over a very large bowl. Discard all solids.

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Chill the bowls of stock overnight. Once chilled, you may take a large spoon and remove the solidified chicken fat from the stock’s surface. Discard this.

Transfer the stock to freezer containers and freeze for future use.

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I got just shy of 9 quarts.

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Creamy Celery Root Soup

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 medium celery roots (celeriac), well peeled and  cut into cubes
  • 2 smallish Yukon Gold potatoes, about 8 to 12 ounces of potato, peeled and cut into cubes
  • up to 6 cups chicken stock
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in heavy large pot set over medium heat. Add celery, onions, and thyme and cook until the onions and celery have softened.

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Stir in celery root and potato, then add all but 1 cup of  broth.

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Increase heat to bring the soup to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until vegetables are fork tender.

Remove the pot from the heat and cool the soup slightly. Using a stick blender, puree the soup in the pot until very smooth. Alternately you may use a countertop blender, working in batches and pureeing until smooth. Add part or all of the remaining stock if the soup is very thick. Thickness will depend on the amount of potato you used.

Taste and correct seasoning with salt and black pepper to taste. Serve hot.

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©2012  Jane A. Ward