Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Chicken sole for the soup

...take one set of chicken feet...

Walking around Maine’s Common Ground Fair a couple of weeks ago, way up in Unity, I greeted people I had not seen in years including some Vermonters – lots of whom attend this annual late-September gathering – when I came to the end of my day. I always leave the farmers’ market portion for last so I can load up on dried beans and other heavy delicacies and not have to lug them too far. The Common Ground is something like our own Solarfest except about five times bigger and with LOTS of organic farmers.

At one of the several free-range meat stalls, a woman from Boston was trying to procure some chicken feet for Chicken-Feet Soup. Now there was a woman after my own heart – I’ve performed a somewhat desultory search of my own for chicken feet for years, knowing that they add a delicious gelatinous quality and flavor to a good chicken stock. The woman was unsuccessful – she and the farmer were unable to determine how they would be shipped – but I would think that she could find some in her urban and multi-ethnic setting, because chicken feet, in spite of the ugh factor, are used by many Asian and Caribbean and French cooks.

I should have some soon, too, since I‘ve found a free-range chicken farmer who will save them for me at slaughtering time. Otherwise they’d be thrown to the dogs. I can’t believe how much goes to waste during slaughtering. Whatever happened to our ancestors’ need to use every little bit of something they killed? The last time I bought a local, organic chicken there were no giblets in the cavity, though I found out later that the chicken-farmer kept them for himself, figuring no one would miss them. “But I shoulda known YOU would, Sharon,” he said.

So I thought I should check out how to use these things. Does one skin them? How are they cleaned? I checked Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions. She suggests using a whole chicken including the head. I put some thought into that and realized that everyone has an Ugh level, and mine rose just to the top of the neck and below the chicken chin. Though why that should be so, I don’t know.

Fallon advocates simmering bones for stock very slowly for a very long time – up to 24 hours – to release all the good ah, um, electrolytes. “Properly prepared, meat stocks are extremely nutritious, containing the minerals of bone, cartilage, marrow and vegetables as electrolytes, a form that is easy to assimilate,” she writes, and recommends adding a bit of acidic wine or vinegar to help draw out the calcium, magnesium and potassium into the broth. Of course you’ll use bones from free-range animals that have not been shot full of hormones or antibiotics, or that’s what you’ll be drawing out of the bones and into your stock as well.

Fallon did not tell me how to clean chicken feet or, for that matter, a chicken head, so I went online and found several people talking about chicken feet. One source said, “Wash them chickens feet... scrub between toes... remove ‘toe-jam’. Rinse in clear water.” In fact they all said that, obviously having cribbed from each other. I do remember seeing one recipe that prescribed removing the “toenails”.

On another level, I had assumed that once the stock was made, the feet were given to the dog, but no, most people talked about the pleasures of eating the feet themselves. One said, “chicken feet are a delicacy that many people – not just epicures – are moved to order in many cultures. The prevailing method (order) of consumption, according to the lip smackers, involved the: 1. ‘Fleshy pads’ 2. ‘Toes’ 3. ‘Gelatinized toes’. The verb ‘sucking’ was commonly used.” Another, Caribbean, woman recounted making the soup for herself and finding that her small daughter wanted to chew on those chicken feet: “You could have pushed me over with a feather when my finicky daughter asked for a chicken foot to eat... Sucked the chicken digits and spat out the bones like a real West Indian.”

A Jewish woman wrote: My mother made chicken foot soup twice that I can recall. She felt guilty about preparing something so outlandish, something my father would never eat – but secretly, she loved it. Sucking the soft pads off the well-cooked toes (something my father would gag at if he caught her), my mother tasted her childhood, comfort, and home.” Apparently this woman grew up in a multi-generational family, and her father made fun of his mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law for boiling up chicken feet – which they had to make a special trip to find – and using stale bread – which they had to specially keep track of – for other dishes. In the daughter’s words, He “rightly pointed out, when you are a peasant living in Russia or Sicily, you have to make do with what you can scrounge, and eating chicken feet and stale bread crusts is understandable. But we were living in middle class America, and not only were chicken feet and stale crusts unnecessary, they were hard to come by.”

I wonder about that word “unnecessary”. It seems to me we’re finding that a reliance on agri-business for our food is a very unhealthy thing. It may be that these basic foods really are very necessary! If you’re going to pay $18 and up for an organic, free-range chicken, you might find you want to suck those toes and eat the gizzard.

So, in a couple of weeks, when I get my chicken feet – how many do you think I should get? Most recipes call for 2 pounds, so maybe I’ll just see how many they have. I wonder, too, what’s attached to the feet... – anyway, when I get my chicken feet, and a couple of chickens, too, I’ll make a stock, and I think I’ll make it this way: In my big cast-iron Dutch oven I’ll make a mirepoix: Sauté some onion, celery and carrots, probably two of each. In the meantime take a chicken (I haven’t decided about the head yet) and chop it up into fairly small pieces, bones and flesh, cleanly, with a big cleaver – this makes the marrow more accessible. Add that to the pot along with the chicken feet scrubbed of toe-jam, ¼ cup of raw cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon of sea salt, and cover it all with filtered water, or water left out overnight to let the chlorine escape. Put the cover on nice and tight; bring it to a low simmer on the stovetop, then place it in a 200 degree oven, and let it simmer in there for a day or so... well, maybe 6 or 7 hours. Oh yum!! We’re gonna be strong like Bull

...a good butcher...

“A good butcher saves the bones for you. He keeps a running account that you pay off from time to time. He knows how thick you like your steaks. He saves things aside for when you come in. He is pleased that you are a fan of variety meats. A good honest butcher makes life that much better.”.. from Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook at blogspot.com

We had a good butcher here in Wallingford – in fact, we had two: Justin and Paul Courcelle. In addition to most of the qualities one of my favorite bloggers, Lucy Vanel, outlined above, they made me smile; in fact they made me laugh, even on the dourest day. I say most of the qualities, because Justin was not the slightest pleased that I was “a fan of variety meats.” Many are the lectures I got from him for asking for a calves foot on a busy Saturday morning. “It grosses people out!” But really, that was the only variety meat he ever gave me chaff about. They had nothing against liver or kidneys or sweetbreads, even tripe. And they did save the bones for me and others, kept running accounts (we buy more that way), and knew how thick we liked our steaks. They certainly made life better, so much so, in fact, that when we heard they were going to retire last winter, and sell the Wallingford Locker or, lacking a sale, simply close it, we were worried and upset and even a little heartbroken. It was a very scary winter!

But! They did find a buyer, and though we miss Paul (Justin can be found behind the counter still, when he’s not golfing, skiing, traveling, or simply driving his wife crazy), we now have several good butchers!

“The terms ‘butcher’ and ‘meat-cutter’ are synonymous,” Holly Keeler tells me with a grin, “but I like to think of myself as a meat specialist.” She owns the Locker with her brother Will Hagenlocher, whom you may have heard drumming with the groups, Rattlesnake Ridge, Exit Only, and Ziggy Jagger. Take a good gander at him – Will’s about 7 feet tall, a handsome guy with a big smile, just like his sister – and you will immediately realize that drumming and meat-cutting are natural activities for him. Holly’s husband, George Keeler, Jr., runs the smokehouse, and her brother-in-law, Donny Keeler, is the meat manager. Donna Wilkins, who, with dry wit, expertly managed Justin and Paul for many years, has stayed on, much to Holly’s pleasure. She is also, Holly says, making a new sign for the business from her folk-art studio, Foggy Creek.

“We’re going to do things the same way Paul and Justin did,” was their mantra from the beginning, and they really meant it. Well, except for some remodeling – giving the trusty old locker a nice new façade and a little more space in the store to accommodate the crowds, especially on Saturdays. “It was something we’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” says Justin. Both Paul and Justin spent several weeks to months after the sale to acclimate the new owners to the Courcelle way of doing business and meat cutting.

And, I’ll tell you, that’s just what we wanted to hear, because the way meat is cut has a great deal to do with the taste and the flavor and the texture, and even beauty, of the final product. Wallingford Locker hams are celebrated far and wide, their bacon travels to every destination we go to, and the cut meats are done perfectly, the ground ones the perfect texture.

But, that said, there’s one thing I wish the Keeler/Hagenlochers would do differently. I really, really, really wish Holly and Men would get in some local grass-fed beef, pastured pork, and free-range chickens. I encourage them. Really. It would give local producers a chance to raise more free-range animals, and it would satisfy the growing number of people who do NOT want to buy feedlot meat. So the other day I mentioned it to her again, and she said, conspiratorially, “Down the road we’re going to get a few more refrigerator cases and we’ll be looking at filling them with organic, and we’re going to be looking at Local!”

Yea!! And when they do, dear readers, it’s up to us to give them our business – make it worth their while. You’ll see. Those chicken feet are going to be mighty tasty!

...and the stew, too...

Holly’s Crockpot Cider Beef Stew

· ½ cup flour

· 1 ½ teaspoons salt

· ¼ teaspoons each, pepper, garlic powder and thyme

· 2 pounds “Wallingford Locker Beef Stew meat”

· 3 potatoes, peeled and cubed

· 4 carrots sliced in 1 inch chunks

· 1 medium onion, chunked

· 1 ¼ cup cider

· ¼ cup water

· 1 ½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar

Mix the dry ingredients. Toss the meat in the dry ingredients to coat, put into the crockpot, add the vegetables and toss, then heat the cider, water, and vinegar and stir into the meat/veggie mixture. Cover, cook on low heat for 10 to 12 hours, or on high for 4 to 6 hours.

...food in a siberian hut...

Everything they could find in the house was on the table: pickled khairuz, a Siberian salmon, sauerkraut, marinated bilberries, fried mushrooms, potatoes with oil and shallots. Even canned pineapple from faraway Mexico was opened for the great occasion. Grisha donated his beer, which was set in a pail of well water...Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Wild Berries

this column was originally published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on October 9, 2007

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