Many years ago I bought Joseph Keller’s The French Laundry cookbook, a massive, five pound coffee table book with gorgeous photos of fabulous food I would never make. Mr. Keller’s methods are seldom very simple or easy, and I have to imagine that ‘very good’ doesn’t do his cuisine justice. But I learned a lot from reading the book, in particular the chapter, The Importance of Rabbits.
In this chapter Mr. Keller talks about his belief that it was important for him, as a chef, to have the ability to kill an animal if he was going to serve them. He tells of his struggle to learn swift and humane methods, of his failure and final success.
I clutched at the first rabbit. I had a hard time killing it, it screamed. Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly. Then it broke its leg trying to get away. It was terrible.
The next ten rabbits didn’t scream, and I was quick with the kill, but the first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste. Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them. I would use all my powers as a chef to ensure those rabbits were beautiful. It is very easy to go a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overlook it and throw it away. A cook sauteing a rabbit loin, working on the line on a Saturday night, a million pans going, plates going out the door, who took that loin a little too far, doesn’t hesitate, just dumps it in the garbage and fires another. Would that cook, I wonder, let his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself? No. Should a cook squander anything, ever?
It was a simple lesson.
Likely at home, we don’t throw out a piece of meat because we slighty overcooked it, but blithely discarding the skin of a chicken is common practice. After I read Mr. Keller’s book I started keeping all my scraps to make a broth for myself or my pets, but it was many years before I had an opportunituy to honor my conviction, that if I was going to eat meat I should experience what it meant to kill an animal.
Felipe and I have a deal; he kills and plucks, I gut and cook. I hid behind the equanimity of this agreement as long as I could, though I knew someday it would be necessary for me to face my phobia of slaughtering which was born from a unsuccessful mercy killing when I was a child. I will spare you the unpleasantness of this event, but I was traumatized by what I felt was my part in causing an animal greater suffering, when it was my intention to put it out of its misery.
I encountered the turning point of this problem, in the form of a receta muy casera(home-cooking recipe), Caldo de Pollo con Salchicha de Garganta(Chicken Soup with Blood Sausage). It is a fantastic meal generally made for guests, by my sister-in-law Chucha. One of its merits is that it yields an appetizer and a main course. I knew that I must have it for my book, Humble Pie, and that when Chucha taught me to make it I would also ask her to teach me how to kill a chicken. I felt Chucha would be a good teacher for such a task because I had once witnessed her commit an act of incredible bravery.
When we first moved to Mexico we lived with Chucha for five months as our house was being built. One morning one of her dogs came home with a horrible machete wound on its tail. Someone had cruelly, and unsuccessfully tried to cut it off. I was horror stricken and frantically tried to get the dog into the car to take it to a vet. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was a very impractical action. Six years ago, finding a vet near La Tigra that worked on dogs and would even think to use a painkiller was near to impossible. While I floundered with the logistics, Chucha acted. She tied the dog up and sharpened a knife. She then swiftly removed the rest of its tail and gave it an injection to ward off infection. She was worried I would think she had been abusive; I assured her I admired her courage. Mocha( pronounced moe-cha, which means, missing a part)the dog, now lives with us, her tail healed beautifully. She is an amazon.
Due to this experience,I knew that when it came time to learn to kill a chicken I had no-nonsense competant and humane teacher. This is what she taught me.
Heat a large pot of water to a high simmer.
Tie the legs of the chicken and hold it upside down by the legs. Grasp the chicken by the head placing the second knuckle of your thumb at the base of the back of its skull. With a quick solid movement snap the head back to break its neck. It is important that you do not use too much force or you can pull the head off and you need it intact for the sausage casing. Hold the chicken until it is still. About 30 seconds. (The entire process including catching the bird that was walking around in her outdoor kitchen took less that three minutes. I then, following Chucha’s example, was able to dispatch my chicken quickly and with very little drama.)
Immerse the chicken in the hot water for a few seconds, remove and rapidly pull out all the feathers, re-immerse if needed.
Singe the small feathers that remain. Chucha does this by setting a piece of newspaper alight and passing the chicken through the flame, you can also use a gas stove burner, just run it over the flame until all the little feathers are gone. There will likely be a little more detailing at this point, clean the whole animal thoroughly of feathers. Remove the thin yellow sheath of skin on its feet and the chop off the toenails.
Carefully slice around the base of the neck and slide the skin up the neck,(gather all coagulated blood) until it is bunched at the base of the head, pull the windpipe out of the head and remove the head from the spine, keep the skin of the neck intact and attached to the head. Cut off the beak and wash thoroughly. This is your sausage casing. Proceed to butcher the chicken (this link is most detailed explanation of chicken butchery, ever, it is a 9 part series).
The Sausage Recipe
1 T. rice soaked in warm water
1T. finely chopped onion, green chile and mint(each)
1 clove garlic minced
The chicken’s liver coarsely chopped
the coagulated blood
Mix these ingredients with salt to taste and spoon into the skin of the neck, tie the open end with kitchen string.
Chicken parts including feet
2 quarts water
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 clove of garlic,
Bring the water to a simmer, place the chicken parts in the simmering water including the neck sausage, feet and giblets.
Mash garlic and cumin with salt in a mortar and pestle and add to broth
Simmer the chicken parts until cooked through about 30 mins, add 2 T. chopped mint. Test the sausage for doneness. It should feel firm all the way around. Remove it from the broth, let it cool then slice it. You can remove the head and discard it if you wish.
I like the sausage served with some Dijon mustard and bread and butter. But tortillas would be more authentic.
Serve the caldo with finely minced raw onion, green chili and lime wedges. Mexican chicken caldo(soup) is served with whole pieces on the bone, skin on, and of course warm corn tortillas.