More Lessons from Four Old Hens

It’s the time of the year at Middle Earth Farm when non-productive laying hens become soup hens. Scratch the bucolic surface – fields under a blue sky, fruit on the vine, animals roaming freely – and most farms will be exposed as non-sentimental places. A functional farm, even the smallest, has to be run efficiently for there is hard work to do and sales to make. When you sell eggs, you want prime layers. When there’s little enough room to keep a clutch of new birds, the older souls have to make way.

That’s not to say the hens no longer serve a purpose. They do. It’s just that their purpose changes. For a good long run they fed us well with their eggs, and now they will feed us with good rich stock. I am always grateful for the soup hens.

Four frozen hens were waiting for me when I picked up my CSA share a week ago Tuesday, and after thawing them in the refrigerator for the next few days, I spent one evening and the entire following day turning the birds into deep golden jellied broth. That same day I also took all my late summer fruit out of the fruit bowls and the freezer where it has been waiting while the kitchen renovation was underway, and made it all into jam. It was a productive day and a half, with many pots bubbling away at the back of the new range. I now have seven quarts of stock and two dozen jars of preserves (apple butter and spiced pear, golden plum, and blackberry-lime jams) and the stovetop got its first real workout.

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Up until the soup and jam marathon, though, I had been rather unproductive myself. I was either welcoming workers into the house and listening to them bang away while I tried to keep the dogs from killing each other, or waiting for workers on the off chance they might be able to come and work for the day, or cleaning up piles of sawdust and drywall particulate. I wasn’t writing, not even blogging. Even now that the builders have packed up the last drop cloth and roll of duct tape and have gone for good, I am turned painter and tidier-upper of all loose ends. I am not yet back into my daily groove of cooking and writing and writing about my cooking, and I probably won’t be in full swing until the room feels finished – that is, when the last lick of paint dries and the last serving platter finds a home.

And the thirty six solitary hours in the kitchen stewing both birds and fruit afforded me lots of time to think about all that, the upheaval of the last three months and the ways – sometimes good, sometimes not so – I handled it all. As if I needed any reminder of my personal shortcomings, this kitchen renovation acted as a giant fluorescent pink highlighter, calling all my worst character traits into high relief. CONTROL FREAK. ANXIETY DISORDERED. And this, the worst, harkening back to my kindergarten days when daydreams would place me out of sync with classroom activity: HAS DIFFICULTY STAYING FOCUSED.

Yes, yes, and yes: all true.

However, the same span of time offered me the opportunity for focus that had been sorely lacking. Sure I could think, but I could also do, without thinking. Just do: Peeling, dicing, cooking, running through a food mill, cooking again, stirring, reducing, canning, water bath processing, cooling, storing; chopping, simmering, straining, boiling, straining again, cooling, skimming, jarring, freezing. Labeling everything. It felt good – the accomplishment, the jars of jam in the larder, the stock in the freezer – and reminded me that life was getting back to normal.

Yes, I am always grateful for those soup hens.

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Last year I gave you a stock recipe and method, and you can check out those instructions (and a great fall soup recipe) here. When making this year’s batch, I added a couple of steps to last year’s recipe. Maybe I felt I needed a little more discipline and so invented some more work for myself; who knows? No matter the reason, the extra steps I took added only a little more time to the venture and yet made for more refined stock. First I strained the carcasses and vegetables and then steadily boiled-simmered the remaining stock to reduce it a bit. Once reduced (about 15-20 minutes, nothing drastic; although you could reduce and concentrate this stuff for a really rich product), I strained this broth through a very fine mesh chinois into a shallow bowl and allowed it to cool overnight in the refrigerator. Once cool, the fat skimmed off the top easily and the stock was ready for the freezer.

Already I have used 6 cups of the stock in a simple chicken stock-pastina-swiss chard soup.

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If anyone wants the recipe, I’ll walk you through my process in the comments. It’s so simple I can hardly call it a recipe, and any whole grain or even lentils can be substituted for the pasta that I happened to have on hand and wanted to use up.

Much more interesting is the apple butter I made using the week’s share of six pounds of apples. I like a tart apple, so chose the Cortland and Northern Spy varieties, and then I cooked these down for several hours and then overnight in the slow cooker, my inspiration for this method from Amy Traverso’s The Apple Lover’s Cookbook. Using the slow cooker left my hands and the stovetop free for the chickens in their stockpots and all the other pots of jam.

The apple butter recipe I used was not Amy’s but one I have used off and on for years, a tweaking of an old Fannie Farmer stovetop version. To highlight the winy tart flavors and also amp up the apple factor, use unfiltered apple cider vinegar instead of lemon juice.

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

  • 6 pounds tart cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
  • 1 cup apple cider
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
Add all the ingredients to the liner of your slow cooker, stir to combine, and turn the cooker to high.
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Cover and cook for 3 hours, stirring only once or twice. Then, right before bed, reduce the heat to low and prop one side of the lid open using the handle of a wooden spoon if necessary. Continue cooking overnight until mixture is syrupy and dark, about 8 or 9 hours more.
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Turn off and unplug the slow cooker. After about 15 minutes, use a stick blender to puree the apple butter right in the pot. Allow to cool a bit more, and then pass the butter through a sieve, pushing down with a wooden spoon, to remove any lumps. Strain the butter into a saucepan.

Place the saucepan on the stovetop and bring the butter up to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally. If the mixture looks at all thin, allow it to cook down a bit more or until it is the consistency of very dense applesauce. The apple butter will be quite dark brown.

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Fill a water bath canner with water, cover, and bring that water to a boil. Sterilize six 1/2-pint jars for 10 minutes in another large pot of boiling water. After 10 minutes, place clean lids and lid rings into a mesh basket and drop that into the pot, reducing the water to a simmer. Simmer lids for 10 minutes then remove the basket to drain lids. Set these aside.

Using canning tongs, remove the jars from the hot water. Place the jars upside down for a minute on a wire rack set over a towel to drain. Carefully invert the hot jars to fill them with the apple butter.

Ladle the apple butter through a canning funnel into each sterilized jar, leaving 1/4 inch of head space at the top of each jar. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp paper towel to clear any drips and then place the lids on top. Screw on the rings but do not overtighten. There should be some give.

Place the filled jars into the canner, one at a time, using the jar tongs. The water should cover the jars by about 1 inch. Add more boiling water, if needed. Cover the pot and maintain a steady boil. Process the jars for 10 minutes. Transfer the jars to the wire rack and listen for the “pop” sound of the vacuum seal. If any jar does not seal within a few minutes, re-process in boiling water for another 5 minutes. Let fully sealed jars sit undisturbed overnight. Label and then store sealed jars in a cool place.

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©2013  Jane A. Ward