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Friday, November 7, 2008

Chicken Stew
Copyright 2008 Jim Penny
Word Count: 1700

There are many variations on the chicken stew. My grandmother, Lily Penny, made the best that ever was and ever will be. Be sad if you never sat at her table. What you’re about to read is my variation on her stew. I would never try to match hers. There are easier ways to fail in this world.

The chicken

Go to Food Lion, and buy a whole chicken. Make sure it’s a fryer, not a stewing hen. A stewing hen can be cooked for the rest of time, and still, it will not be edible. You’ll find a carcass of a stewing hen that I left by the road in Tunis, NC. The hen is on the right side of the road where we parked the RV fifteen years ago and pretended to cook. I boiled that beast three hours, and it remained unchanged. It smelled good, but a magician’s rubber chicken would have done better in that pot. Dins that evening became beer and corn chips.

Grandmother did not have a Food Lion available. She had to send Papa out to the backyard with a hatchet. You can do that too, but I doubt you’ll find a chicken in your yard. If you do find a chicken in your yard, you’re in for a treat.

Alternatively, Food Lion sells chicken in cans. The small tins found near the canned tuna section are what I buy. Three or four of the small cans will do. If you buy tinned chicken, you’ll also want to fetch a couple of liters of chicken broth.

You want to avoid the canned whole chicken in the big tin. That particular product is an abomination unto the stew.

While you’re at Food Lion, pick up some beer, at least a 12-pack. Get a big onion too.

Preparing and cooking the chicken

If you bought a whole chicken, there will be a pack of chicken innards inside the bird. Use your own discretion here. For some, it’s not a stew without a giblet lurking about. However, I toss the giblets into the trash, despite how much I enjoy a big dinner of fried chicken livers. If you put the giblets in the stew and I’m there, make sure the beer you bought is readily available with a bourbon chaser, as I’ll need serious medication and sedation if I accidentally chomp down on a boiled chicken heart.

If you got your chicken from the yard, the innards will be in about the same place, but not so neatly arranged and removed.

I’ve never found innards in the canned chicken, which is one more reason to buy chicken in little tins.

Put the chicken in a large pot, cover it with water, add a fist full of salt, and set the pot to boiling until the chicken falls apart. I usually turn the chicken a few times in that process, and when the turning breaks off chunks of the chicken, I know I’m done.

Turn off the heat in whatever manner is appropriate for your cooking site, and remove the chunks of chicken from the pot. Put the chicken chunks in a bowl, and let them cool. I usually let the chicken cool long enough to have two beers, which are medicinally required to heal the fingers I just burned.

Disassemble the chicken. I retain only the chicken meat, which I shred into wee pieces, but there is nothing wrong with keeping the skin, knuckles, and other parts. In fact, my mother would search out the chicken knuckles, were she at your table. Laurie would seek the tail. My grandfather wanted the saddle.

The above steps involving chicken dismemberment are not required if you bought tinned chicken. All you have to do is open the cans, dump the chicken in the pot, add the broth, and boil it all for a while. You’ll still want those two beers to heal the cuts on your fingers from the tins.

Bear in mind that your duty with the stew is to meet the mystical requirements of your guests.

The pastry

Making the pastry is a bitch. The cleanup is the mother-of-all-bitches. This is why so many people make dumplings, which are an abomination unto the stew. If you’re going to make dumplings, just move north and eat corned beef or something.

The pastry is made from water and white flour, plain or self-rising doesn’t matter except in one step to be described anon. The brand doesn’t really matter either, though I buy White Lily flour as my finances permit. More often, I buy Food Lion flour.

My grandmother was ever poised to make pastry. She had a small room off her kitchen where she made pastry and biscuit dough. She also chased chickens and the occasional duck out of that room when they’d fly through the window, but that’s another matter not germane to the current discussion and certainly beyond the scope of this instruction.

Into a large bowl, dump a lot of flour, add water, and work the mess into a smooth, not sticky, ball. The trick here is to stop earlier than later. Work that ball of dough too long, and you’ll need a steam roller for the next step.

Coat a large flat surface with flour. Do not underestimate the amount of flour you want on that surface. Grandmother’s countertop in that little room was deep in White Lily flour. Pull off a small ball of dough, and flatten it on the flour-coated surface. Heavily dust your rolling pin with flour, and start rolling. I find it difficult to get the pastry thin enough because I prefer very thin pastry. However, some people like thick pastry, such as Laurie. When he was present, I leaned hard into the rolling pin, which probably accounts for extra beer he chugged at that moment.

If you bought self-rising flour, remember that the pastry will rise and make thick pastry. Remind Laurie of the rising, and he will smile. In turn, he might also drink less beer, which will mean you have more.

At some point, you have a sheet of dough of some thickness. Slice this sheet into long strips, and layer the strips on a platter with generous dustings of flour between the layers. Here is where you can get thick pastry regardless of the rolling you just did. Two perfectly thin noodles will merge no matter what, providing evidence of your sorry status in this world. Get used to it. Besides, this merging will produce a big smile from Laurie, and he will tip his beer to salute the General.

It is acceptable to curse the merged pastry strips.

I no longer require the punishment that is pastry making. Yes, I can self-loathe easily enough without the help. I pick up a box of Aunt Anne’s frozen pastry. At Food Lion, the frozen pastry is a few steps from the beer. The real Aunt Anne makes her pastry in Downeast, North Carolina. She freezes it in the freezer out on the front porch. Do not confuse her with the northern knockoffs.

The Stew

Bring the pot of broth and chicken to a rolling boil. While waiting for that to happen, chop the onion into little pieces, and toss them into the pot. It’s permissible to have a beer while waiting for the pot to boil. It is not permissible to watch the pot, unless you need another beer.

Now we reach a controversial point, that being the inclusion of sage in the stew. I like sage in my stew, and I tend to use it in excess. My grandmother would have my hide for that. Of course, she would also have a little something to say about the beer in the fridge. We won’t even think about her reaction to the onion. Laurie likes sage and onion in his stew. We agree on something. Go figure.

The point is that now is the time to add sage if you want.

By the way, the best sage is freshly rubbed by a barefooted, young man wearing overalls with a single gallous and nothing else but maybe a straw hat sitting atop his tousled mane. He should rub your sage gently with calloused hands in a white, slightly cracked, bowl on his lap, with respect and pride, while sitting on a folding chair under a pecan tree. For this essential service, he may sit this night at the big table for the stew.

When the pot is finally in a full rolling boil, chug the last of your current beer, and start dropping the pastry strips into the pot, doing so one strip at the time. With your third hand, stir the pot to keep the pastry from sticking. I drop pastry strips into the little swirls of boiling broth according to my mother’s explicit instruction. You should too.

The pastry strips are cooler than the broth, especially if frozen. If you drop them in too fast, the boiling will stop, and the pastry will clump. Clumped pastry is an abomination unto the stew, and you should throw it out with a flourish and a curse. However, Laurie will object to wasting perfectly cooked thick pastry. Be prepared to fight for what is right, and remember this is why we have beer.

At some point, all the pastry is in the pot. Bring the pot to a rolling boil, stirring as needed, and then turn down the heat to a simmer. Let the pot simmer until the thin pastry strips are translucent. It takes about one beer for proper simmering to complete.

The eating

Take the pot off the fire, and plunk it onto the table, preferably on a towel or something so you don’t have to refinish the table tomorrow. Spoon the steaming mass of manna onto chipped plates from a previous generation, listen to Laurie complain about the stew being too hot to eat, remind him of the beer, and settle in for a meal that links you directly to the lineage of North Carolina peeps who dined on this fine meal long before there was a North Carolina. The Sons of Liberty and Lumbee Elders are smiling tonight.


AJ said...

I always refer to the Sunday midday meal as dinner also. The other days of the week is always lunch. I also use Aunt Anne's dumplings. Thanks for the beer suggestions! LOL!

Jim Penny said...

Aunt Anne does have it figured out. Yeungling makes a good beer, if it is made up north. The price certainly is right. I'm not sure it would work with a Stew, not without follow-up investigation by the local federalies.