The Ballad of Coq and Vin, part 2

CONTINUED FROM PART 1

Driving to the Walmart means I have to drive past a pasture or two which invariably elicits a shout of “Cows!”  My 5 yr old never misses a chance to point them out. And what are cows good for I ask.  “Steaks!   Mmmmm…” she always replies. Smart kid.  See, there aren’t any homeless cows. We might have homeless cats, dogs, and people, but we don’t have homeless cows. Or Chickens for that matter. Why? Because they taste good damnit.  This is no small point really.  I’ve been trying to define what’s a pet and what isn’t a lot lately because of those birds.  Chickens don’t play catch, won’t fetch a ball or stick, can’t speak on demand, don’t protect the house at night, won’t curl up at your feet, etc, but people still grow attached to them.  Maybe a pet is something that actually shows affection back. It probably just boils down to whether or not we spare their lives for companionship’s sake. Man hasn’t always had this luxury. Most of our history has been about gathering food, not coddling it. Consider that guinea pigs are still livestock to the Peruvians, same with frogs and turtles in China.  Me, I knew what I was getting into when the original nine fluffballs came home. I was planning on raising them for eggs, then slaughter. You all should know that whoever raises these things will face that same quandry, so beware.

This is not a rite of passage. This is not about manhood.  I’m not a bloodthirsty guy that likes killing things for the hell of it. I don’t deer hunt because I think if you kill it someone should eat it and I don’t like venison really.  There was a time in my youth when I didn’t feel this way.  My mother, not at all happy with my behavior, once remarked that when I died I’d meet every little critter I’d erased with my BB gun, right there at the gates. Sort of a Hitchcock purgatory with Squirrels running the ground assault as the Birds worked me over from the air but , try as I might, I can’t picture our chickens in that mix.  No, this isn’t about bloodlust but about the origins of sustenance.  While some choose to believe chicken and steaks are grown in Styrofoam trays I feel an obligation to prove I’m worthy of the meal they died for.  I’ve grown much of my own vegetables and things for that same reason (well, that and nothing compares to a homegrown tomato).  For some reason I just think we need to understand the effort involved to appreciate the meal.  It might sound like new-agey BS but for a hardcore foodie like myself there IS a weird spiritual connection to food.

So fifteen months after the whole backyard chicken experiment began I found myself with just two remaining, my prized French hens.  My in-laws are preparing to move to California and my wife wants nothing to do with cleaning the coop.  She’s too afraid of salmonella to let our little girls do it either and since I’m not home every day…  As much as I’d like to keep them I have to accept I have a six month old baby in the house and the wife has her hands full. Coq and Vin must go, pet vs. livestock question be damned.  Its put up or shut up time and the wife doesn’t think I have the balls to do it.  She knows how I love animals.  Up to this point the father in-law has dispatched them all and I still haven’t learned how to do it properly much less see him do it. The hens got one last month of reprieve until I arrived home last week and by then they’d already walked the green mile. Coq and Vin were there in a cage next to the house, the coop was gone and vegetables were already growing in the now fertile soil.  I wondered if I should say goodbye to them…

How to kill and clean a Chicken, or, Mom, stop reading HERE

Commercial slaughterhouses like Tyson are a creepy operation when seen from the inside. Obese chickens cascade down a ramp into the skilled hands of masked and gowned workers, orange lights bathe the room in a halloweenish glow while one by one the birds are hung from their feet on an overhead conveyor. Dark keeps birds calm so there isn’t much of a struggle but the time from being upended and hung to the time they reach the electrified water bath must be a few minutes.  I can’t imagine it’s a peaceful few minutes either. From there they’re off to a boiling bath that includes a mild solution of Sulfuric Acid to kill bacteria and ease the feather removal. The rest is really more of an Upton Sinclair thing so I’ll drop it.  Me, I liked these two so I went to a bit of trouble trying to find the most humane way of killing them. Electricity was out of the question and probably in the pockee-lipse you won’t have any. We’re all familiar with the “hatchet and stump” cartoon style but I couldn’t figure out how to secure their necks without unnecessarily scaring the shit out of them.  My father in-law insisted that was not just difficult but messy as hell. What follows is how he taught me to do it. It’s not only the easiest and cleanest way but it seemed the least stressful for the bird. The Chinese have used this method for millennia.

You will need a very sharp knife, a bowl, and a pot of boiling water big enough to submerge the bird.

1: The hold

Bird in hand, pull the wings over the bird’s back and hold them near the base between your middle and ring finger (think Vulcan salute). Take one of the legs and, stretching it back toward the tail, hook it between your pinkie and ring fingers.  The chicken will not only be immobilized but at this point seems to relax.  Finally, grasp the neck behind the head and pull the head to where you can hold the neck still with your index finger and thumb.  Done correctly this entire sequence takes less than 10 seconds and the bird will not be struggling.

2: The kill

Quickly pluck a pinch of feathers from the neck about 2 inches below the head, right where the neck will be bent. With the skin exposed make a quick deep cut to the bone and using both hands to hold the bird, aim the neck over the bowl. The bird will bleed out in about 30 seconds but “fall asleep” in the process much sooner than that.  There will be no struggle, no kicking, no squawking. Continue to drain for about a minute then go get the boiling water. Done properly, the grab, hold and kill won’t take more than 2 minutes.  If done in a dim light setting the bird will be far less stressed than the ones I saw in the factory and will be done in half the time. As humane death goes, this is about the best you can ask for unless you have a contraption for beheading the birds and can do it in less than a minute.

3: The Dunk

Boiling water serves two purposes:  sanitation and feather removal.  Dip the bird head first into the water and immerse the entire body, including feet, for about a minute.  Once removed, let cool enough to touch and begin defeathering.  You won’t believe how easily they come out, they’ll almost rub off in areas.  Pin feathers are best removed by pulling along a lateral plane (straight out).   Remove all the feathers and put on a work table.

4: Cleaning

With the carcass on its back, make a cut one inch below the bottom of the ribs just deep enough to open the belly and remove the organs being careful not to cut or rupture the intestines. Yes, you’ll find eggs (they’ll all be yolks). Once cleaned out, continue the original cut to the spine and remove the ass end of the bird.  Remove the feet. Remove the head at the place where you cut the throat. For the craw, make a cut just deep enough to get through the skin and fascia at the bottom of the neck and slice up the length of the neck a couple inches. Reach in and you’ll find it looking like a grey bag. Carefully remove both the craw and as much of the windpipe as you can grab.  Immediately wash the bird and bag for the freezer. If you had ANY hint there might have been salmonella in your flock, use a capful of bleach per gallon of water when washing and rinse well.

Start to finish, from grabbing the bird to cleaned carcass, took me less than 15 minutes. With practice I bet I could do it in less than 10, easy.  I even got to say goodbye.  My middle kid caught me doing the final cleaning in the sink btw. Leaning over the counter she got a real serious face and asked me where they’d come from.  She asks “are they from the store or did we grow them?” I answer we grew them. her response?  “neat. but they’re funny looking” and off she went laughing.

Coq and Vin

2009 -2010

Rest in Peas

Speaking of peas, have you ever tried Chicken Vesuvio?  Although I love Coq au Vin and one of the birds will surely make its final appearance as such, I’ll give you a recipe for a true Chicago original. 

Chicken Vesuvio   

Ingredients

  • 1 chicken, about 3 pounds, quartered
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 cups canola or olive oil, for frying
  • 10 medium Red potatoes, cut in half
  • 1 HEAD plus 2 cloves of garlic separated, peeled and minced/mashed
  • 1/4 cup fresh GREEK oregano
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 4 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
  • 1 cup frozen peas

The night before you intend to make this, marinade the chicken. Combine 1 whole head of garlic and ½ cup of olive oil.. Toss bird in mixture, cover and refrigerate overnight.

To cook:

Heat oven to 400 degrees F.

 Remove chicken from marinade and wipe the garlic from the bird, then season with salt and pepper. Heat 1/3-cup olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, carefully place chicken in pan using tongs. Breasts and thighs first, then the rest. Brown well on all sides, remove chicken from pan. Pour off all but a few tablespoons of oil. Return chicken to skillet and place uncovered in preheated oven for 25 minutes, turning chicken once or twice.

Heat 2 cups of canola oil to 350 degrees F.

While chicken is cooking have potatoes peeled, wedged, rinsed and dry. Carefully add wedges into hot oil, but avoid crowding. Fry potatoes until golden and remove and let drain on paper towel and reserve for later.

For the last 5 minutes of cooking for the chicken, add the cooked potatoes, peas, garlic, oregano and wine to skillet, return to oven. Remove skillet from oven to stove top after the 5 minutes, add parsley and gently turn with a spoon. Remove chicken to a large platter, arrange potatoes atop the chicken and pour the pan juices over all.

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22 Responses to The Ballad of Coq and Vin, part 2

  1. Locke n Load says:

    If you think this is barbaric I’d ask you to remember that your grandparents probably did this as children. We’ve come a long way since then. We’ve forgotten where food comes from. Thats not really such a good thing…

  2. Nobody says:

    I blame Disney and Saturday morning cartoons for teaching an entire nation of kids who have never seen a live food-animal that animals are really just little people with feathers/fur.

  3. Nobody says:

    Yes, I am showing my age by thinking that cartoons only come on Saturday mornings.

  4. fletcher says:

    My great grandmother made me ring a chickens neck and clean it one time when I was about 10 years old. I firmly believe this is something that everyone should have to do at least once in their life.

  5. R.D. Walker says:

    Good stuff.

    When my daughter, who was an animal nut, used to ask me what was my favorite animal, I would always respond, “the pig.” She would think that silly and ask why and I would always respond, “because they are delicious.”

    I don’t do this to chickens much but I have wrung the necks of about a bazillion pheasants and turkeys over the last 20 years. The only difference between the above and what you get at KFC is whether or not you pay somebody else to do your killin’ for you.

  6. Locke n Load says:

    Ya know, that McMurrays hatchery site has pheasant eggs as well. With any luck by next year I’ll be able to get home or be home a lot more and I am planning on getting a dozen. They sell various quail and odd ducks as well. Come to tink of it I should have grilled my in-laws for their Peking Duck technique. When I was in Beijing it was everywhere and one place actually explained to me the whole process including the types of wood needed. It isn’t really that hard but the trick is getting the skin perfectly crispy. Nobody in the states seems to do it right.

    As for the neck wringing, the father in-law acknowledged the technique but thought it didn’t allow the bird to drain properly. I imagine it would be about the only way to do a large Tom though, short of the hatchet method.

  7. R.D. Walker says:

    The owners of the necks I was wringing were usually being adequately bled by #6 shot. I was just speeding up the process with a firm grip on the head and a quick propeller spin.

  8. Locke n Load says:

    Lol, of course, what was I thinking :) One author I read suggested that for quail, it was a twist and release thing. Apparently some folks just twist ‘em right off. Sounds weird but efficient. Me, I want to raise a few hundred Blue Scale for reintroduction to the north Texas plains near me. They used to be everywhere but with all the building they’ve vanished. The darn things breed like crazy in captivity, their eggs and meat are tasty, and the birds themselves are really pretty. They require a different setup though as being so small they can escape pretty easily.

  9. notamobster says:

    That was a wonderful post! I like the story, and instruction. The recipe sounds great!

    My wife grew up in a small town in Texas. She hated chickens worst of all. She said you’ll never EVER forget the smell from defeathering.

    She says NO on me getting chickens.
    As long as I have 1200 complete MRE’s with heaters and accessories, she won’t go for the birds.

  10. Locke n Load says:

    Ventilation my good man. Ventilation and clean birds. Sanitation really is important in the raising and slaughtering of the birds. Thankfully the coop rakings make great compost, mulch, and fertilizer.

  11. Jim 22 says:

    I did some work for a man about thirty ears ago who told me he had worked in a turkey farm for a while. They raised,slaughtered and cleaned the animals and then shipped them out.

    He said turkeys have a ‘feather brain’. What he meant was he learned to kill the birds with a slender-bladed pocket knife by pushing it into the brain through the roof of the mouth. He maintained if you do it right it loosens the feathers for a minute or two, allowing you to remove feathers easily without the boiling water.

    I have never tried it. Only experience I have had with turkeys was with he hatchet and stump method. Takes two guys, one with the hatchet while the other holds the turkey. We used a loop of baler twine, made a slipknot of it, and used it to stretch out the neck so we didn’t have to get fingers too close to the hatchet.

    I’d be interested to know if anyone else knows about the feather-brain thing.

  12. R.D. Walker says:

    I pluck wild turkeys immediately on their demise. A quick photo then plucking commences. The plucking goes easy without skinning if you do it while they are warm. Otherwise, you have to dip them or end up skinning them. Skinning is not a good idea on wild birds.

  13. notamobster says:

    How about a killing cone? You take a construction cone or LARGE funnel, etc and put the bird in upside-down. Pull the head through the (small) hole and slit the throat (you should position a bucket, tray, or trough of some sort to capture the blood). This cone (being upside-down) actually calms the turkey, I’m told.

    I’ve never done it myself. I just wring their necks. Grip and twirl! Like the handle on a boat trailer :-)
    LnL’s method includes the bleeding while the heart is still pumping which seems like it would force out more blood.

  14. Locke n Load says:

    Nota, that idea sounded real familiar so I went looking. Voila!
    http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/restraining_cone.html

    They also have automatic “pickers” for defeathering after scalding. I can’t imagine laying out any money for a contraption like that unless I had a LOT of birds to do at once. And yeah, the whole purpose of the throat cut is to let the heart push out the blood faster. It also has the effect of putting the bird to ‘sleep’ as oxygen deprivation kicks in.

    RD, How easily do the feathers come out when the bird is warm? Don’t you have issues with pin feathers and skin tearing? Jim22, I’ve never heard of the ‘feather brain’ thing but if RD is correct about the ease of removal, I’d say Pithing the birds that way would give you the same effect. Downside of course is the poor thing would be alive as you plucked it.

  15. BaconNeggs says:

    “Rest in Peas”

    Damn thats funny.

    As a kid we used to toss a bucket or card board box over the chicken, reach under and pull the neck outside, a firm strike of the knife blade took the head clean off.

    A lot of flapping under the bucket but done in the right area the chicken bleed out fast and were ready for the boiling water pluck and dressing you mentioned.

    That said we never grew attached to our livestock beyond the baby stage, after that they were food waiting to rest in peas.

  16. Jim 22 says:

    Pets or meat?

    I think if you give them names they become pets. If you refer to them as ‘The flock’ they are meat.

    Hard to kill Chicken George. Not so hard if it’s just another potential fricasee.

  17. R.D. Walker says:

    In wild turkeys at least, they pluck fairly easy when they are warm and without tearing. There are always a few pin feathers you have to pull with needle nose pliers.

  18. Locke n Load says:

    Since I want to raise a monster for myself, what have the tastiest birds you’ve found been eating? I can simulate the diet pretty easy I bet

  19. fubar says:

    >
    I think if you give them names they become pets.

    we name everything, and we still eat it. the kids have no problem with it and i have three girls. It’s just easier for identification. Every batch of calves we start, we have a ‘Kevin’. :)

  20. Rockheim says:

    Funny.. Because we’re still recovering suburbanites. We still wonder what our kids can accept and handle.
    We’ve always told them that our chickens are not pets. They’re food. They know what animal all their favorite dishes come from. They know that those animals are killed to feed us.
    As overprotective suburbanites we still limit what our children see.. Thinking that we’re “protecting” them. They know we killed our roosters and we ate them.. We just haven’t involved them in the process.. Not certain what they can or should be able to cope with..
    Well.. That was all dashed today.. I had one hen jump out of the cone after beheading and go flopping all over the yard.
    My oldest girl (7yo) immediately began laughing.. Jumped up in the window.. pulled the collar of her shirt over her head and started jumping around flopping her arms..

    So much for our worrying about what the kids will tolerate..

  21. Notamobster says:

    rock – that’s funny! Its amazing what kids can do and tolerate. My son helped gut his first deer at 6. I was so glad he didn’t turn into a whiny, bleeding heart.

    “protecting” children from reality only weakens them and hurts them in the long run.

  22. R.D. Walker says:

    Sometimes the kid doesn’t did the same stuff you do. My older son didn’t much care for hunting, fishing and camping. He like sports, baseball, football, basketball, golf… all of them.

    He did grow up to be a fine warrior and is an entrepreneur in his own right now.

    I think your children will watch the kind of man you are in general.

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