Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cooking an Old Hen, with Knefles

When we slaughtered the last of our broiler chickens towards the end of September, we also dispatched our two Cuckoo Marans hens at the same time. The Cuckoo Maran is a dual-purpose chicken, which means it divides its energies between laying eggs and putting meat on its bones. We found the legs on the Cuckoos quite sizable, though the breasts weren't all that much to write home about.  After butchering the birds into cuts, I put the carcasses into the freezer to save for making stock and rendered all the fat into schmaltz to use for sumptuous roasted potatoes and other vegetables. Given my penchant for frugality and the amount of meat the two Cuckoos yielded, I decided to try again to make old hen meat palatable.

I had tried the time-honored coq au vin recipe with a previous batch of hens to no avail.  Still, to buy myself some time, I let the cut up legs, wings, and breasts marinate in some cheap white wine in the fridge for three days.  Maybe this was excessively long for marinating, but I was hedging my bets as well as simply being too busy to get to it sooner.

I had ambitions for experimenting with several different methods for cooking the meat, but as it happened the one that I managed to execute worked out pretty well.  So I'll outline what did work.  I started with a few diced onions cooked in olive oil just until they were softened and then lightly seared the chicken parts in the same pan.  The onions and chicken went into a bowl with some of the white wine marinade (enough to come about halfway up the meat in the bowl) and then were cooked in my pressure cooker for 45 minutes, at about 10 pounds of pressure.  When that was done, the meat was reasonably tender, so I gave some thought to how I might use it.  And here we come knefles and to what I can only hope is a worthy divagation.

Chicken and dumplings is a time-honored American dish for good reason, and I felt like going in that direction.  But it was cold outside, and I wanted something a little denser than the light biscuits that feature in the classic southern supper.  So I thought of knefles, a culinary guilty pleasure of mine.  I found the recipe in a fortuitous reprint of a delightful old cookbook, Cooking With Pomiane.  The book is genteelly dated and well worth the read, more of a tour through a charming bit of culinary history than a cookbook for our times.  But the recipe for knefles has proved an exception and earned a place in my kitchen repertoire.  They're a sort of Gallo-Germanic pasta that would be considered an abomination by the Italians, which, I grant you, isn't saying much.  The Italians think that any deviation from the particular pasta of their own particular region results in something fit only for barbarians.  Knefles, which hail from the Alsace region, would be distinguished then by the unanimity with which Italians of every region would heap scorn upon them.

So what are knefles?  Just a rough dough made with flour, milk, and egg, then scooped up by the teaspoonful.  You knock the scoops of dough into boiling salted water as you make them one by one and cook for ten minutes.  That's it.  Sort of like gnocchi, or schupfnudeln, or spaetzle, but not really any of those things.  Knefles are easier to make and less refined.  You can sauce them when they're cooked, or add a little butter and cheese and bake them, or you can play around with them like I do.  I like to add lots of finely minced fresh herbs from the garden to the dough.  I'm fairly certain that it's incorrect, but I pronounce the K in knefles.  It reminds me of Roald Dahl's vermicious knids.  And how likely am I to run across anyone who could authoritatively correct my pronunciation?

To get back to my harvest meal, in this case I used knefles as replacements for the dumplings in chicken'n dumplings.  So I put some chicken stock on to boil with the remaining white wine from the marinade, threw in the onions that had pressure-cooked with the chicken cuts, added some thyme and made a batch of knefles with chives and garlic chives in them.  Here's the recipe, which can easily be doubled:


1/2 pound (~230 g) flour (1 1/2 generous cups)
finely minced fresh herbs to taste (optional)
1 egg
about 1/2 cup (~24 cl) of milk

Combine the flour with the herbs if you are using them.  Mix in the egg and then enough of the milk to make a thick, shaggy dough that is just a shade too sticky to knead by hand.  Work the dough with a sturdy spoon for a few minutes in the bowl to develop texture.  Bring salted water or another cooking liquid to a brisk simmer just shy of full boiling and begin to shape the knefles.  Using the tip of a teaspoon scoop up a small hunk of the dough, only enough to cover about half the spoon.  Dip the spoon into the boiling water and knock it firmly against the rim of your pot.  The dough will fall into the water.  (Avoid the urge to scoop more dough and make bigger knefles.  The dough will expand anyway when cooked, and bite-sized knefles cook through better than large ones.)  Repeat until all the dough has been shaped and put into the water.  Stir the contents of the pot once very gently to detach the knefles from the bottom of the pan.  Cover the pan and adjust the heat so that the knefles cook at a steady simmer for ten minutes.  The knefles should have doubled in size and all be floating. Test for doneness the first time you make them, just in case you made them too big.  Then drain and sauce to your liking. Serve hot.

I cooked the chivey knefles in the chicken stock and wine, adding chopped garden carrots when they were halfway done.  While that cooked I took the chicken meat off the bones and tore it all into bite-sized pieces.  When the knefles were finished cooking I added the shredded chicken meat, some frozen peas and chopped parsley to the pot and let those ingredients just heat through.  This was all served up in a thoroughly non-photogenic mess.  What can I say?  The light in my kitchen sucks.  But the mess went down very nicely, very tastily indeed.  Since my childhood didn't equip me with nostalgia for chicken'n dumplings, I have to say that old hen'n knefles is a superior dish in my book.  This definitely counts as a harvest meal for us.  On our sub-acre lot we produced the hen, chicken stock, eggs, carrots, and all the herbs that went into the dish.  I happened to use purchased onions for the dish, but it could just as easily have been made with homegrown leeks.

An illicit glee invariably accompanies the preparation and consumption of a dish so comfortingly barbaric.  At least for me.  We always have the ingredients on hand, so it's sort of surprising that we don't indulge in them more often.  Knefles are about as cheap as anything you could possibly prepare at home.  Even a single batch makes more than two adults will eat as a side dish.  I sometimes save half the dough in the refrigerator and make the rest the next day.  The dough won't keep much longer than that, though surplus cooked knefles can be held in the fridge for a few days.  Put a little oil or melted butter on extras while they're still hot if you want to hold them; it will prevent them sticking to each other.  Cooked knefles can be pan-fried, but if you've refrigerated them try to bring them to room temperature first and cook them slowly and gently so they heat through without burning.  If you want to pan-fry freshly cooked knefles, spread them out to air dry for a few minutes so they'll brown a bit better.

If you make any similar sort of dumpling-y, comforting dish from flour, potatoes, or other starchy ingredients, I'd love to hear about it.  In detail, of course.


Sarah in Indiana said...

One of my go to dishes this summer was these ricotta dumplings: I've been using cottage cheese from the local dairy rather than ricotta, and they are delicious as well as super quick and easy. I haven't done the chevre and herb topping. I top with veggies and more cottage cheese. I've done a wide array of veggies, whatever is available that week, sometimes leftovers, grilled, sauteed, roasted, etc. All have been delicious, but I think my favorite was chard and shiitakes. I'll have to try your knefles.

denimflyz said...

Thank you for sharing your recipe. This is very similar to my grandmother's recipes for a hybrid pasta/dumpling she made. My grandparents were Amish. So the cooking was heavy Penn-Dutch and Amish farm cooking. I do a lot of comfort dishes with dumplings or a type of sheperd's pie with veggies.
Did you pressure cook your dumplings with the chicken? Or use a crock pot. Just curious, as I am a pressure cooker fan now. Also, did you pressure your chicken and for how long?
Thanks so much again for sharing.

Homemade Alaska said...

Thanks for posting this, I'll have to give it a try. We make a similar dumpling, think it came from our Mennonite ancestors. Love it! I've recently been writing on my blog with cooking older hens. I stewed mine, VERY slowly, but I was really happy with the results.

Phoebe said...

I regularly make a 'scone' dough (we call them scones in Australia, but I think scones in the US are different?), by just rubbing butter and salt into self raising flour until a crumb consistency and add milk to a soft rough dough. I also chop though herbs like parsley and rosemary for beef stews. Before serving the stew or soupy concoction I spoon blobs of the dough into the stew pot and either bake in an oven for 10 to 15 mins or cover with a lid and steam. I think this is a fairly standard recipe but its a winner none the less.

Kate said...

Sarah, those sound delicious! My husband has fond recollections of his Lithuanian grandmother's cheese dumplings. I've bookmarked the recipe you link to and will keep it in mind anytime we have extra ricotta or cottage cheese hanging around. Thanks!

Denimflyz, you're welcome. I did pressure cook the hen, but not the knefles. (See 3rd paragraph of the post for details.) Knefles were cooked in a mixture of chicken stock and white wine.

Homemade Alaska, interesting to get descendants of both Amish and Mennonites in this comment section. Will check out your posts on cooking old hens. Thanks for letting me know.

Phoebe, I'm not sure self-rising flour is easy to find over here, though it's possible I just don't look for it and therefore don't notice it. It seems far more commonly used in Australia than here. What you describe sounds a lot like the dumplings in the chicken and dumplings of the American south. No one here would call them scones, even though the ingredients are pretty much the same. Scones in the US are usually breakfasty-brunchy things, often sweet or at least with some fruit in them. We took the British concept and sweetened it, basically, in typical American fashion.

foodpixie said...

I just found your blog because it was mentioned in a comment from a blog of a friend of mine. My husband and I are small scale, sustainable farmers in Kentucky and we are always looking for good recipes for what to do with our old laying hens. I am also German by heritage and I can't wait to try this recipe. I was wondering if it would be alright if I re-post your blog entry on our website If so, email me.