Quest for my Grandmother’s Chicken, Part 1

Most people have nostalgic memories of a favorite food made by their mother or grandmother. Just the smell of it will instantly propel you back to your childhood. In many cases the memory has been romanticized by our brains and it may therefore seem impossible to recreate it. For me, this was the braised chicken my grandmother made. Her husband, my grandfather, was the only one who had left the family farm, where his brothers and sister kept livestock including chickens long past retirement age. This included chickens, the original ‘organic’ kind, running around freely in the yard scavenging for food including food scraps from the kitchen. The chickens were held for their eggs, but after a few years the chickens stopped laying eggs and were slaughtered for the meat. Most chicken you buy nowadays has not been allowed to live to retirement age and is not even an adult by the time we eat them — in most cases after only 42 days, they grow so fast that their legs can’t bear their weight anymore; a sign that they are ready to be ‘harvested’. 95% of the chicken sold in the Netherlands is of this type and is called ‘plofkip’ (exploding chicken or ‘thud’ chicken) since the chicken grows so quickly and because of the ‘thud’ when it collapses.

The difference between the meat of a 42-day old chicken that has lived with 19 others on a square meter (that is 2 chickens per square foot) and has been fed optimized feed for fast growing and the meat of 2+ year old chicken that has been running around a yard finding its own food is huge, especially the meat of the legs that have been doing all that running. It is dark rather than white meat and has much more flavor, but is also very, very tough.

So my grandmother had to use one of these (a petroleumstel in Dutch, according to Google translate it’s called a paraffin stove in English) to braise the chicken over very low heat for a day or two in her shed to make it edible. And with the word “edible” I don’t do it justice at all, because I remember it to be phenomenally delicious. The meat was very dark, tender, flaky and flavorfull.

To try and recreate this experience, there are two problems: where to find a suitable chicken and how to cook it? As readers of my blog can guess, the second problem is easy to fix for me, as I’m an avid user of a sous-vide water bath and cooking sous-vide is the modern day equivalent of the paraffin stove and very suitable for slow braising. Sourcing the chicken however is not as easy, because even the most expensive chicken available commercially is not more than a few months old. I once paid 50 euros for a single poulet de Bresse to try once and for all whether it was really that special, and was sorely disappointed because it was basically just chicken. It tasted just fine, but nothing special and certainly not worth 50 euros.

This post is called “part 1” because I expect there to be a part 2 for which I will need to find someone who still has chickens running around their yard and is willing to sell a ‘retired’ one to me. What I tried first is to see whether a stewing hen (soepkip in Dutch) would be a good substitute.  Stewing hens are readily available, although I had to go to a specialized poulterer as supermarkets in the Netherlands do not carry this. Just like my grandmother’s chicken, stewing hens are slaughtered for their meat only after they have been laying eggs for a long time (12-15 months, shorther than my grandmother’s chicken). They have not been running around though, just like their cousins bred for the meat, they haven’t had much room to do so. Stewing hens are even less expensive than regular chickens, and are usually used to make chicken soup.

But I wanted to see if I could create something like my grondmother’s petroleumstel chicken by cooking the leg of a stewing hen sous-vide. So I seasoned two legs with salt and freshly ground black pepper and sealed them into individual pouches, skin on. I then cooked them at 64C/147F, the regular temperature for chicken legs. But instead of the usual 2 to 5 hours, I tried the first leg after 24 hours. It was edible but still way too tough, so I decided to leave in the second leg for 72 hours (i.e. 3 days) total.

The result was quite good! The meat was not as dark and flavorful as I remember my grandmother’s chicken to be, but it was as tender and flaky and definitely much more flavorful than regular chicken.

The meat was a bit dry, which was no surprise after seeing the amount of juice in the pouch. This always happen when braising sous-vide, but perhaps I can keep the meat juicier and still make it tender by using a slightly lower temperature next time. The juice can (and should) be used to make a very flavorful sauce. Making a sauce from sous vide pouch juices is not straightforward, as the proteins in the juice will curdle when you heat the juice. The trick is to heat the juice to let the clots form and then strain them out with a slotted spoon. Finish by filtering the juice using cheese cloth or a paper towel. There won’t be much juice left, but it has a very strong chicken flavor to use in a sauce.

My next experiment will be stewing hen at a lower temperature, and hopefully I can find a proper ‘running around in the yard’ type chicken to really recreate my grandmother’s chicken…

12 thoughts on “Quest for my Grandmother’s Chicken, Part 1

      1. Yes I know. But chicken that is not genetically modified and that gets to run around the yard definitely tastes much better. The meat of such chicken is normally quite lean. Even the thighs aren’t that fleshy but the taste is amazing 🙂

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  1. Great piece. I am curious how the temperature can impact keeping the juices in. We have tried a variety of very low/slow chicken recipes and had similar issues. I think you need a very old/tough pastured chicken..

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  2. Another excellent post. I love the way you get so deep into the topic. As a young lad, while on holiday in county Clare, we were staying in a farmhouse. We were told that it was chicken for dinner. I was asked to go and fetch one from the yard. I was 7 years old and horrified. It was a good lesson in where our food comes from.
    Best,
    Conor

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        1. Hmmm, I do think people should know where food comes from and I think it’s hypocritical to only eat meat or fish that doesn’t look like the animal that it came from, but killing the chicken in front of a young boy like that seems a bit harsh.

          I remember chasing chickens because I wanted to pet them when I was a lad (believe it or not), but just like sheep they’re not into that.

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  3. Thats interesting. I read somewhere that the chicken we get in chinese take-aways etc over here comes from holland because its cheap (and injected with water to fill it out). My favourite memory-food is my grandmother beef stew – will never be able to recreate it!

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    1. Everything but the breast is cheap because there is a much higher demand for chicken breast than for the other parts. People prefer meat for which it is not so obvious it came from an animal. Good for me, since I prefer thighs over breast. The water-injected stuff is terrible, because all the water will be released as soon as it is cooked anyway.

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