Before the Fifth or Sixth Day of Christmas, I said to my true love, “it’s time for the chickens to go.” The 2016 barnyard census peaked at 95 mouths to feed. That’s unsupportable in terms of how much our land can carry and how much we have time to care for. We have now tested all the regular barnyard fowl for their utility in the orchards and other factors, like productivity and companionability. The chickens lost out to the ducks for eggs and turkeys for meat. We will keep a couple in case I need an egg white to whip (duck eggs don’t whip so well), but the lucky survivors have to live with the turkeys and get along. Over the summer and fall, we had been steadily reducing the numbers, but we still had work to do over the holidays.
So without any fanfare, we spent most of New Year’s Eve day doing the deed. Thirteen chickens dispatched, twelve processed (one had a prolapse and seemed a little unwell). What can you get out of a dozen layer hens? A lot, but you need a plan before you start processing, and it takes at least three days to get it all safely stored away.
- 12 pounds of boneless meat: we butcher into parts and let the meat rest overnight on ice. The next day I would freeze it in meal-sized bags, but since we are processing a bunch of turkeys next weekend, I decided to grind all the chicken meat for sausage. I blended some of it with pork to make chorizo and Hank Shaw’s Hunter Sausage from his book Duck, Duck, Goose (similar recipe here). I made sausage at the same time the stock was cooking. There’s another 5 lbs in the freezer waiting until I get more pork;
- 4 pounds of wings: not worth boning, these were frozen and will go into the crockpot on a football playoffs weekend;
- 8 oz of livers: these are destined for a chicken liver pate in the next couple of weeks;
- 6 oz of gizzards: not so much in volume for the effort to clean them, but we’ll combine them with turkeys’ supply to make corned gizzards, another fabulous Hank Shaw recipe. The recipe in the book uses a crock pot. Go buy gizzards to make this. Really. They are not anything like the disgusting “givers and lizards” my youngest sister used to beg my mom not to put in the Thanksgiving stuffing. If you buy gizzards, they’ll already be cleaned too.
- 15+ quarts of stock: the day after butchering, I roast the backs and necks in the oven, then simmer them for hours. I throw the hearts in the pot too. This time of year, our garage serves as a giant walk-in cooler, so I pulled out the bones then left the pots to cool overnight. On the third day, pick out any good meat for the dog (it’s pretty flavorless by then) and strain the stock. I process this through the pressure canner in quart jars. The turkeys get to clean the bones. Gross but they are carnivores.
- nearly a quart of fat: this is where our diet has changed the most since we started raising our own meat. Because of the high quality feed and foraging, the chicken fat from our birds is brilliant yellow and nearly liquid at room temperature. Fat from pasture-raised animals is far healthier than previously thought and certainly not something to waste. I pack it in 8 or 16 oz jars and freeze it, then we use it to cook potatoes, occasionally eggs or to saute chicken.
- incomplete eggs: all female birds, so no gonad treats for the dog. I know that the egg yolks found in the reproductive track, traversing a several day process to develop and get a shell coating, are a delicacy in some cultures. Not mine. If the yolks are big enough, they go to dog. Sometimes we find an egg in its shell that would have been laid that day; I’ll use that. We didn’t this time-these girls had really shut down for winter this year.
- 24 feet: we scald these as we prepare to pluck the birds, then put them aside. I could put them in the stock, but instead we freeze them for dog treats. One foot will buy 15 minutes of peace. The spoiled dog has his own section in the freezer;
- a bunch of feathers: a friend is making some cool fans out of feathers for the farmers’ market. She took a load of feathers off our hands.
I figure we’ll get about 30 meals out of the birds, plus soups and some amazing breakfast potatoes. That much food in the freezer and on the shelf is a great way to start the new year, What’s cooking at your place?