Each spring my mother and her sister Roberta ordered baby chicks from the local farmer’s cooperative. My four brothers, three cousins and I watched these cute, furry yellow creatures grow into sturdy chickens running about our respective farmyards. Then, each fall, my brothers, cousins and I gathered the first day at one farm and the next at the other farm to watch our mothers chop off chicken heads. Then the fun began.
The processing began early in the morning when instead of being turned out to roam the yard, the chickens remained locked in the pen. They clucked away wondering why this day should be any different from any other as one by one each woman bought out a bird, held its wings and feet together, laid its head on a tree stump and chopped it off with an ax. She would then toss the headless chicken onto the grass where it ran around and flopped about for what seemed a considerable time. Thus, I suppose, came the saying, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Once the women completed their slaughter, a few lucky laying hens remained in the pen, their job now to provide eggs for the family.
Once the headless chickens lay quiet, they received a quick ducking into a pail of boiling water to loosen the feathers. This had to be done quickly so as not to cook the skin. The job of removing the feathers generally fell to the older children in attendance. Then the birds went back to the women for removal of all those parts no one wanted to eat. Finally, each washed her bird and tossed it into an ice-water bath to cool before wrapping each for the freezer.
One of my jobs entailed cleaning gizzards; with the challenge to remove the sack inside this digestive organ without breaking it and having the grain inside contaminate the eatable part. Usually, I broke the sack, which meant considerable time spent removing unwanted skin and grit.
The other part of the chicken that I got to clean more often than not, was the neck, which if the bird in its floundering left the grass, would be imbedded with dirt. Chickens purchased in supermarkets these days rarely come with the neck attached, but the fried chicken placed on my mother’s, aunts’ and grandmother’s tables always included the neck and back with skin attached and fried crisp. Neither skin nor frying are poultry correct these days and it’s been a while since I saw a chicken with its neck attached, but I still find tasty use for a chicken’s back.
The following recipe feeds one or two depending of the size of appetite.
Chicken & Dumplings
Ingredients for the soup
1 Chicken back with skin and bone included
1 Large carrot, divided
1 Stalk of celery, divided
1 Small onion, divided
1 Clove garlic, smashed
1 Tablespoon fresh or frozen parsley (1 Teaspoon if using dried)
3 Cups water
1 Tablespoon butter or oil
Directions for soup
1 Wash and dry chicken back and place in 3-quart saucepan. Wash carrot and cut in half. Place one half in pan. Peel the second half and slice thinly, reserve.
2 Cut celery in half. Cut one half in large chunks and place in pan. Thinly slice the remaining half of the celery stalk and reserve.
3 Cut the onion in half and add one half to the pan. Chop the remaining half of the onion and reserve with carrots and celery.
4 Smash the garlic clove and add to pan along with parsley, peppercorns, water and salt to taste.
5 Bring water, chicken back and vegetables to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 1 hour. Remove chicken back and set aside to cool. Strain vegetables from stock and reserve stock. Skim off any excess fat. (At this point, the stock and chicken back can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.)
6 When ready make soup for dumplings, melt butter or oil in 3-quart saucepan. Add reserved vegetables and sauté until onion is transparent, 2-3 minutes.
7 Add soup stock to pan and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
8 Meanwhile, remove and discard skin, bone and any gristle from the chicken back. Remove any remaining meat and chop into small, bite-sized pieces. When vegetables are finished cooking, add chicken meat to pan and return to a boil.
9 Mix dumplings using recipe below
Ingredients for dumplings
2/3 Cup Jiffy Mix
¼ Cup milk (can use fat-free or low-fat milk)
Directions for dumplings
1. Stir milk and Jiffy Mix together until well blended and drop by spoonfuls into the boiling soup.
2. Reduce heat, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Do not remove lid while dumplings are cooking. Makes 6 small dumplings.
Chef’s note: Use a pan large enough to cook the dumplings without removing the lid. It is important to leave the cover on while the dumplings are cooking to prevent them from becoming gummy in the center.
Added note: If you do not have a back, a leg or thigh works well.