HEN STOCK // elspeth

We pruned the fruit trees today. Big lops off all the upper branches, then thinning out in the middle, then a rather aggressive full body haircut all around. I'm not sure how it will pan out—whether this year there will be more fruit or none—but I'm at peace with whatever happens. "PRUNE FRUIT TREES" has been on my list of things to do for almost a year, and it's finally done.

That's how I've been feeling about things in general recently—let's get them done! And never have to do them again! Specifically, it's how I've been feeling about going to the dump.

I mentioned here a few weeks ago that I've been reading Bea Johnson's blog, Zero Waste Home. (Synopsis: she and her family produce a mere quart of trash a year. She talks about the nitty gritty details, like wrapping-free holidays and wooden toothbrushes.) Soon after I delved into the archives I read the book, and it's reminded me of why I got interested in local food in the first place. I don't want to be part of the problem I spent my entire education learning about. I want to be part of the solution.

Today, inspired by Bea, I did my first intentional zero waste grocery shop—brought bags and jars I already owned, marked the tares and prices of bulk items on them with a washable marker, and emptied all the food into the crisper or more jars when we got home. I was happily surprised with the unpackaged selection: I even found bulk organic jelly beans at our little local natural foods store. 

The feeling I got from bringing home no plastic bags or containers or things that needed to be dealt with once we finish the food was the same as the feeling I get from washing and rewashing the diapers we used for Sally and now Nora. It was a feeling of immense satisfaction, of closing a loop. I realize that to some people that may sound incredibly odd, but there it is. I am the rare breed of person who finds happiness in baby poop.

Also, and a little more normally, I find it in chicken soup. When Victoria sent out an email about buying some of her old laying hens the other day, I ordered four. She dropped them straight from the slaughterhouse to my fridge, and yesterday morning I pulled out the big stock pot and loaded in the birds along with four of Marie's onions, thyme from the recently unearthed plant out front, and carrots that overwintered under the snow in the big garden behind the shed. 

I was counting on the meat being too tough to eat, but even after the birds had simmered for hours, it was good enough for enchiladas or stew. And so in the freezer we have eighteen quart jars of rich, yellow chicken stock and five pints of meat pulled and cut, ready for soup.

Nora just started eating, and so far it's nothing like Sally's rushing, joyful fist after fist. Our second sensitive little soul has now tried and cried over red peppers, avocado, sweet potatoes, roasted chicken, crab cakes, eggs, chicken liver mousse, thawed peaches, whole milk yogurt, a lone French fry, apple slices, and a tiny drop of homemade hot cocoa. I can't tell if it's the process or the flavors that overwhelm her, but she starts out happily grabbing for it, then tasting, bewildered, and finally frustrated, in tears. I keep thinking maybe she's not ready, and that we should stop, but when we don't give her anything off our plates to taste she's equally dismayed.

Perhaps the answer lies in chicken soup.


I am by no means an expert on this topic, but here's what information I've gathered about using old hens to make chicken stock. First, they're fatty. We were going to skim our stock but ultimately couldn't get it to congeal quite enough, so we left the fat in. Victoria says it's good for cooking, just like lard, so if you do manage to get it off the top in solid form, set it aside for your morning eggs and toast. Second, don't discount the meat—based on some recipes I'd read, I figured the meat would be inedible after making stock out of it—flavorless and tough—and while the former was somewhat true, the latter was not. The meat wasn't bursting with flavor, but it certainly didn't taste bad, and chopped up and used for chicken salad or pulled chicken for enchiladas or chicken soup or really anything with some seasoning, it'll do just fine. For our stock we put:

three whole chickens
12 carrots
four halved onions
a handful of thyme sprigs
5 celery stalks
and a handful of peppercorns

into our big lobster pot (16 quart, I believe?) and filled it with cold water almost to the brim. I brought the stock just to a boil, then turned the heat all the way down and let it simmer for the better part of the day—after breakfast-ish until we stopped for a mid-afternoon snack. Then I strained it, let it cool, attempted to let it congeal, gave up, and filled 18 quart mason jars about 2/3 full with beautiful liquid gold. Tomorrow we're going to use the fourth hen to make jerk.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.