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What to do with a bad, bad rooster

April 19, 2010

How the rooster lost his crow

Any activity that calls for a rooster, a whole bottle of red wine, a pound of bacon, some Jack Daniels and a lighter sounds like a good bet to me! I had a chance to make some tres delicieux coq au vin this week, and I will not pass up the opportunity again. I’m starting to wish I had a few more bad roosters, or even a lot more.

It’s not that they’re bad, honestly. It’s that they’re really too good; they’re overqualified and excel at every aspect of their jobs, from mating with their harems to protecting their territories and their flocks. They strike with ferocity and speed, often employing cheap shots after you’ve turned your back. They flap and fluff, strut and puff, and generally bully anyone foolish enough to come near. As in Vonnegut’s satire Harrison Bergeron, these extraordinary examples need to be chained. Or in our case, beheaded.

I took care of Charlie in much the same way I butcher the ‘meat birds’ we raise each spring for the next year’s freezer load of poultry. (You can read about that here.) I started by stringing up a killing cone and sharpening a fillet knife and a skinning knife. Then I used a big landing net to fetch my quarry from the chicken run. I had Tony Stetzko cut his throat while I made sure none of the kids or guests (!) were venturing outside. I left the rooster dangling over the bucket for at least an hour while I distracted kids and guests.

We usually set up a scalding bucket and a plucking line, as well as an ice bath and a chilled cooler, for butchering, but I decided to dry pluck Charlie, and it was so easy. I needed his hackles, and I didn’t want to risk scalding them and having them dry funny, thereby ruining their value. Let me just say, if you think it is hard to find recipes for real rooster, try finding instructions for freshly harvested hackles from a bird you plan to eat. That, apparently, is way out of the box. (As if we do anything inside it!)

Dry plucking detail

Allow me to digress. I had an unfortunate outcome with hackles last year that I didn’t want to repeat, and I’m still in the midst of trying to right that wrong. Those feathers were gathered from a surplus white rooster, and I froze them for a week or two and salted them heavily before wrapping them in newsprint and securing them under a heavy weight. That method has always produced perfect hackles, with soft, pliable feathers attached to a stiff, preserved section of jerky-like skin. This time, the specimens came out stained a rust-orange color, and the texture of the feathers was somewhat altered. It was as if they had been doused in cola, rinsed, and placed back on the shelf. The newsprint was black and white, the weight was a big gray rock from Nauset Beach, but – oh! – what was on the shelf? A burned-out patch of metal corroded from someone’s bad battery or some such thing. (Thank you, transfer station shelving.) I washed the hackles carefully and put them out to dry, but I think those feathers are permanently damaged and will not become part of any future fishing expeditions.

Needless to say, I was a little gun-shy about scalding my Speckled Sussex rooster’s hackles. So I cut the saddle and neck hackles off and set them aside carefully before dry-plucking the bird. I knew the wing feathers would be tough, so I cut the ends of the wings off – they don’t provide much meat anyway. I cut off the head and the feet, as usual, and began plucking the breast. Feathers came out in great clumps and I worked my way quickly around to the back, where I had to hold the skin taut where the saddle had been cut away. The hardest areas to pluck were the wings and the little knees above where the feet had been cut off, but even those spots weren’t terrible.

Either all this farm work is giving me big hands, or a 5-lb rooster doesn’t have a lot of space under its ribs. Because a rooster has a skinny breast, I found the eviscerating to be a little tight, even with cutting a larger than normal hole around the cloaca and up toward the ribs on both sides. Also, he had not been fed the finishing ration of cracked corn and the requisite last day water-only diet the broilers enjoy, so detaching the crop and pulling it through with the rest of the digestive system was a little tricky. Interestingly, because he was a ‘normal’ chicken, not a monster meat bird, he was less ‘full of crap’ than the birds we usually butcher, even without a fasting period. And there was one surprise that shouldn’t have been very surprising – big internal gonads! Just when you thought a liver, gizzard, heart, and kidneys were enough! Although they are reportedly a delicacy, I had to pass – this time.

Legs and thighs, definitely not 'white meat'.

When I was finished undressing the rooster, I washed him inside and out and wrapped him up in a bag and let him rest in the fridge for a few days. After perusing all the coq au vin recipes I could find, I settled on this one from, with a few modifications. My research on the dish revealed an interesting twist – in some of the recipes, the breast meat was used along with some of the giblets to create the bouillon. This seemed to make perfect sense to me. The most common complaint I have heard, and uttered myself, about rooster meat is that it is really stringy. Our American style is to focus on the breast and regard the legs as an afterthought, at best. To exclude breast in favor of the legs and thighs was totally contrary to everything I thought I knew about chicken, but it was right. I left the breast out of the main dish and the results were spectacular. The rich broth and extremely tender meat made for one of the best meals we’ve ever had, period.

On the revisions. I didn’t have any acceptable brandy, so I used half a cup of Jack Daniels, or ‘mean juice’, as someone who’s father drank it used to call it. I also poured off the reduced juices and fat from browning and flambeing the rooster parts and reserved them, then cooked the bacon and poured that fat off into the bacon grease can before putting the rooster back in the pan with the reserved juices. I just couldn’t agree with cooking the bird in the fat from a whole pound of bacon (I upped the amount from 12 ounces to 16.) I didn’t use any ham, but added sage to the bouquet garni.  As the recipe smartly called for letting the dish sit overnight before reheating and serving it, I saved sweating the mushrooms for the next day (obviously!).  Hearty bread, fresh salad, a little more wine and voila! Fabulous eating. The hackles are safely tucked away in the freezer and I will retrieve them and salt them down in a week or so, with hopes of some exciting night fishing on the beach for stripers. There’s another bad ass rooster out there, and if he continues down that road, he has a place of honor at my table.

In memory of Charlie, whose legs changed our appetite for roosters forever, here is a video of him serenading us with his call. He is the rooster in the foreground, not the funky-headed Polish bantam in the background.

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