“How does your wife cook roosters?” Elias asked. Elias is a Zacateco of the old school, raised on a small ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. He’s been here in California for thirty years, but he still wouldn’t dream of going to the store for chicken or eggs when you can have a flock of hens scratching around the dust. Elias also believes in the restorative power of pure, natural food. A happy chicken makes a tasty chicken! Because it’s natural, and so that his hens can be happy, Elias also keeps a number of brightly feathered roosters to strut about the yard and crow their own praises. Of course, living as he does now on a suburban street and not on a ranchito in Mexico, Elias has to contend with neighbors who don’t share his appreciation for natural living. Recently he decided to slaughter several of his older roosters and keep only the most virile cocks to husband his flock. I had to explain to Elias that my wife had probably never cooked a rooster in her life.
“My wife cooks gallos long and slow in a caldo like pozole,” Elias said. Traditional pozole is usually made from a pig’s head that’s been quartered and cooked slowly in a light chile broth with plenty of hominy corn so that the soup gets body from the bones, but I imagine a whole chicken would make a very acceptable substitute. I told Elias that I’d like to try cooking one of his birds, so a few days later he brought me a big one, all cleaned and ready to go. It was a Sunday morning, so I got out a big earthenware pot I bought at the Spanish Table over on San Pablo in Berkeley, heaped up some dry rounds of oak, and built a fire. I placed the chicken in the pot and surrounded it with vegetables fresh from my fields. I used several stems of green garlic, a couple of leeks sliced into rounds, a few sprigs of thyme, a bunch of soup celery stems chopped up fine and a bay leaf or two, plus sliced fresh mushrooms, and chunks of Chantenay carrot and parsley root.
Parsley root is a curious vegetable. I’d read with interest the passage in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini by Elizabeth Schneider where she writes that “(parsley root) has been deemed the significant indicator of authentic Jewish chicken soup.” I’m not Jewish, but great soup is nondenominational. Besides, if I’m going to grow parsley root on my farm I’d better be proficient in using it. Parsley root is a common vegetable across Central Europe– it’s often called “Hamburg parsley”– but it’s not too well known here in California, compared to its leafy green cousins, Italian parsley and curly parsley. I didn’t have any potatoes on hand and I hoped the parsley root could thicken the broth as it cooked, as well as add an herbal, savory note to the stew. I splashed a couple of cups of white wine into the clay pot, added enough water to cover the bird and the veggies, nestled the pot in the coals at the edge of the fire pit, and set the heavy clay lid down on top. After a half hour I had steam coming out from under the lid, so I raked a few coals back so that the liquid only simmered and sat back with my dog in the shade to enjoy the day.
Six hours and three beers later I judged the chicken to be almost ready. The meat had fallen from the bones. Droplets of golden fat had risen to the surface, and I do mean “golden.” Because the rooster had spent his life in the sun chasing after hens and flies, pecking at grass and weeds, and eating ants, bugs, and seeds, he’d taken in a lot of natural carotene. He hadn’t been a fat bird, but what fat he’d had was saffron yellow, and the dark meat was dark like a game-bird’s flesh. I added some pasta shells to the broth, let them cook a bit, and then carefully carried my clay pot into the kitchen. When the stew cooled enough I took out the bones, the bay leaves, and the thyme stems. The meat wasn’t as tender as a mother kissing her baby, but it wasn’t as tough as my pair of Tony Lama rough-out cowboy boots either. Company was coming over so I decided to cut the chicken into small pieces. We gathered around the table and sat down.
After grace was said– me giving thanks to the Lord for giving us this time to share a meal together, and for all we’ve been blessed with etc. etc. – my twelve-year old daughter opened her eyes and stared into the pot.
“Is there pig in that?” she asked.
“Of course not, Lena,” I replied. And here’s where I went wrong. Up until this point I’d been living out the small family farm, local, organic, grass-fed, sustainable gospel; really “walking the walk,” so to speak. “It’s a boiled rooster!”
Lena put a curl to her lip that would have made Elvis patented sulky sneer look like Alfred E. Neuman’s idiot grin. I got the message. Sometimes it’s important to know when to swan in and “talk the talk.” Here’s what I should have said:
“Tonight’s special, Miss, is le Coq a la international.”
And when Lena looked up at me quizzically, I could have hooked her.
“Chef has prepared le coq hearthside over cured Black oak in a terracotta olla from Spanish Table, seamlessly blending Hamburg parsley, Rioja garlic and English thyme with French wine, Welsh leeks, Italian pasta and Greek laurel. Enjoy!”
But it was too late; I’d already called my stew “boiled rooster.” Naturally, there was plenty left over, even though it tasted pretty good. I had some for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day, and so did Julia. But my stew seemed to grow in the pot. I’d originally made a couple of quarts of chicken stew, but by the third day the stuff filled up a five gallon bucket and was threatening to overwhelm the refrigerator. I decided to share some with my dogs.
Blue got a hefty serving of chicken stew. He’s a big, hard-working, hard-barking livestock guard dog, and his portion of stew disappeared so fast it was as though the whole doggie dish had been sucked down a black hole like a stray photon. Red, on the other hand, is a reflective dog, timid around sheep, and less subject to violent passions, so I had a chance to work on my sales pitch. I wanted to balance my developing kitchen chops with some “front of the house” finesse.
“Hi, darling,” I said to Red. “Today’s special is a rich stew of crispy- crunchy kibble mixed with lots of tasty-licious, roostery goodness.” I set the bowl down with ceremony. When I came back five minutes later Red had finished her meal. She’d polished her bowl, but she still sat peering into it like a lonesome lover gazing down a wishing well. When Red finally looked up, her shining eyes told me that I can cook a rooster for her anytime. Cooking is like that; it’s impossible to please everyone all the time, but when the stars align, cooking brings as much joy and satisfaction to the cook as it does to the diner.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
Julia’s new Food Blog Index: each of these is someone I personally know one way or another