Last week I bought some chicken at the nostalgic price of 89 cents a pound. But first, I really hesitated. Not because I was afraid there was something wrong with it, but because, unlike most of the chicken I’d ever cooked, this was “mature stewing hen”.
The chickens whose meat you find most often in stores are called, in ascending order of size, broilers, fryers, and roasters. Despite the names, they’re all good for cooking pretty much any way you want. Also,they’re all under five pounds in weight, less than eight months old (broilers and fryers are eight weeks or less), and raised only for their meat. So they’re tender and juicy, if a little bland.
Whole chickens take about 20 minutes per pound in the oven at 350, so your typical three-pound fryer will take roughly an hour. For chicken pieces, it takes 45 minutes if they still have their bones, 25-30 if not. They’ll taste better if you brown them first, stovetop in a pan with a little fat, but you don’t have to do this, especially if the coating or sauce is highly flavored. You can also broil them at the end of cooking for a few minutes. If it’s just too hot to heat up the oven, you can brown the pieces, add some liquid (sauce, broth, even just water), cover the pan, and let them cook for slightly less than the time they’d need in the oven. Boneless chicken can also be sliced thinly and stir-fried in just a few minutes.
Stewing chicken, however, is older and tougher. It can still be good eating, but as the name plainly tells you, it has to be cooked for a long time, slowly, in plenty of liquid.
After looking for recipes specifically for stewing chicken, I settled on one from How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, because the chicken was supposed to come out so tender you could pick it apart with chopsticks, and I figured the soy sauce in the recipe would give the skin a little color it wasn’t going to get otherwise. (Another recipe, in my 1975 Joy of Cooking, said to “disjoint” the chicken and brown in it butter before stewing, but I didn’t want to cut mine up, and I figured the less dry heat on it the better.)
So the two “mature” hens went into a pot with a quart of water and a cup of soy sauce, plus some fresh ginger, green onions, and garlic, and simmered for three hours, smelling very enticing. At dinnertime, they were nicely brown and tender — almost too tender to carve, so the book was right about the chopsticks. The meat was a little dry and salty, but not unpleasantly so. (The cooking liquid was extremely salty,so I didn’t try making a sauce out of it — I’m still not quite sure what to do with it.)
Yes, it took extra time and planning. But when I consider that I got two dinners’ worth of chicken for $3, it was worth it.