The varied diet of pasture-raised poultry, which typically includes forage of sprouts, grasses, grubs, worms, and insects coupled with supplementary chicken feed, enriches the flavor of the birds’ meat. While the flavor of conventionally raised chicken or turkey seems mild, the flavor of pasture-raised birds tastes concentrated—as though you taste a bit more chicken in each bite.
Raising poultry on pasture allows the birds to lead a natural life, one in which they can live as nature intended: stretching their legs, pecking at worms, bathing their plumes in soft piles of dirt. Each chicken enjoys expansive space by comparison to conventionally raised birds. That space coupled with clean air, clean water, a natural diet, and access to sunshine means that as a result the birds typically enjoy better overall health.
Leaner than most grocery store chickens, pasture-raised chickens benefit from long, low, and slow cooking, which allows their full flavor to develop while also yielding a luscious, succulent texture to meat that might otherwise be tough. I typically braise, stew, or slow-roast chicken and other birds.
Stewed Hen with Leeks and Prunes
If you ever see a stewing hen for sale at your local farmers market, pick it up in a hurry because the flavor is incomparable. But, like most pasture-raised birds, they require extra care in cooking. After a few years on the pasture, a laying hen will slowly decline in her egg production. Farmers harvest these spent hens and sell them as stewing hens to differentiate them from traditional meat birds. Unlike meat birds, stewing hens have been bred over generations for maximum egg production. Meat birds, by contrast, have been bred for packing muscle meat onto their frames quickly. Typically leaner, lighter, and less dense than meat birds, stewing hens benefit from very long, slow cooking for soups, stews, casseroles, or broth making.
This stew of chicken, leeks, cream, and prunes tastes mild and gentle, perfect for rainy evenings when one craves comfort food. The stronger flavor of a stewing hen works well in this recipe; however, if you cannot find a stewing hen, simply substitute a whole chicken.
- 1 whole chicken, preferably a stewing hen (about 3½ pounds)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 6 leeks
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 ribs celery, finely diced
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ½ cup pitted prunes, very thinly sliced
- Finely ground unrefined sea salt
Rinse the chicken under cold water inside and out until the water runs clear. Place the chicken in a heavy stockpot and cover it with cold water. Drop in the bay leaves and peppercorns. Trim the root tips and the dark green leaves from the leeks and add the trimmings to the pot. Slice the white and light green section of the leeks paper thin and set them in a bowl while you prepare the chicken.
Bring the pot with the chicken to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, then cover the pot and lower the heat to medium. Simmer the chicken for 1½ hours, or until the meat loosens from the bone.
Turn off the heat, remove the chicken from the pot, and place it on a platter to cool until you can comfortably handle it. Strain the broth through a colander into a large bowl or pitcher. Wipe the pot clean with a kitchen towel to remove any stray peppercorns or leeks.
Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove its skin and pick the meat off the bones. Shred the meat with a fork and set it in a bowl until you need it.
Melt the butter in the stockpot over medium heat. When it begins to froth, stir in the white and light green part of the leeks. Sauté until they soften, about 6 minutes, but do not let them brown. Stir in the celery and continue cooking for 3 to 5 minutes longer, until the celery releases its fragrance. Add the shredded chicken to the pot, then pour in the reserved chicken broth. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Stir in the cream and prunes. Cover the pot, turn off the heat, and allow the prunes to soften in the residual heat of the stew. Season with salt, ladle into bowls, and serve.
Chicken in Riesling with Peas
I make this dish in the springtime, when I can pair the last of my overwintered celeriac with the new foods of the season—young carrots, young leeks, peas, and fresh herbs. Deeper in flavor than the breast, the flesh on a chicken thigh also has more fat, which in turn produces moister and more succulent meat. I leave the meat on the bone for this stew, for bones offer up a lot of their richness when cooked in liquid over time.
- 2½ pounds bone-in, skinless chicken thighs
- ½ teaspoon finely ground unrefined sea salt
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- 1 large leek, white and light green parts only, sliced paper thin
- 4 carrots, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
- 2 celeriac, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
- 2 cups Riesling wine
- 1 cup Chicken Foot Broth
- 1 pound English peas, shelled (1 cup)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill
- ¼ cup sour cream
Sprinkle the chicken thighs with the salt.
Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. When it froths, add the chicken and cook it for 2 minutes on each side. Remove the chicken from the pan and stir in the leek. Lower the heat to medium-low and sauté the leek for 6 to 8 minutes, until translucent. Add the carrots and celeriac and cook until they soften and become crisp-tender, about 6 minutes. Return the chicken thighs to the pot and pour in the wine and chicken broth.
Cover the pot and simmer the chicken and vegetables for 25 minutes. Remove the cover, stir in the peas, and continue simmering for another 25 to 30 minutes, until the chicken falls apart when pierced with a fork. Stir in the herbs and sour cream and serve warm.