It started with an old laying hen. She had served us well for a couple years, but was nearing the end of her laying years and it was time for her to move on. I knew old laying hens were called stewing hens for a reason, but I am not a very patient cook and the very definition of stew says, “a dish of meat and vegetables cooked slowly in liquid.” That didn’t sound promising.
Or maybe, it started with the Broccoli Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo. I love Broccoli Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo and I had discovered I could make it in under 30 minutes if I used steamed broccoli and canned chicken. The canned chicken is already well cooked so I just flake it with a fork, pour it and the broccoli into the sauce, warm it through and serve over fettuccini! Chicken in a can has a slightly metallic taste that reminds me of tuna, but I have been known to compromise flavor for speed on occasion.
There is a saying in permaculture that the problem is the solution and one day I realized my old laying hen might make wonderful canned chicken. My mother canned fruit when I was a child and I couldn’t imagine that chicken could be more difficult than the boiling, peeling, cutting and packing we used to do with peaches. Besides, canning is not cooking and is therefore exempt from my no patience for cooking policy.
I already had a pressure canner gathering dust in the shed. My mother-in-law was happy to donate some jars and lids. I dug out my canning manual and read some authoritative looking articles online. It seemed like a lot of work for one chicken, so we pulled several frozen roosters we’d been trying to decide what to do with and picked a night when I wouldn’t have to get up for work the next morning. Nights are the only times we have without the distraction of small fingers. The kids are all nestled snug in their beds.
Aiming for the flake tender chicken I was used to using in my alfredo, we decided to hot pack the chicken without bones. Shortly before bedtime, we tossed the whole chicken in the pot with some water, salt and garlic (everything is better with garlic you know) and boiled it until the meat started falling off the bones. Charles ran the jars through the dishwasher. With the kids tucked in bed, I pulled the meat off the bones and cut it across the grain into one or two inch strips before packing it in pint jars. A pint of chicken is just about perfect for most of my recipes. Charles poured stock from the pot over the top. We used a plastic knife to remove any bubbles, checked our headspace, wiped the rims and screwed on the lids. Then we took the lids off and screwed them on again. I had read that if you get them too tight, they won’t seal and if you get them too loose, they won’t seal. So I was a little paranoid.
We stacked all the jars (I think we ended up with about seven pints in that first batch) in the canner, added the recommended amount of water, and set the canner on the stove on high heat. Then we watched and waited. The canner has to vent for a few minutes before you add the pressure gauge. So I waited for steam to start escaping. Then I set the timer and waited. Then I added the pressure gauge, set the timer again and waited. I may or may not have played games on my smartphone to stay occupied while waiting.
The manual said I should adjust the temperature so that steam was not escaping constantly but that it should escape about once per minute, so when steam started escaping constantly, I turned it down. But then it didn’t seem to escape at all. So I turned it up. Soon it was steaming nonstop again! The manual warned that if I allowed too much steam to escape, my water would all boil off and I would lose pressure and the whole batch might be ruined! So I turned it down just a hair and watched the pressure gauge. Even though I couldn’t hear the steam escaping once a minute, the pressure remained constant so I decided to stop worrying. That didn’t stop me from hovering over the pressure gauge.
When the timer went off, I heaved a sigh of relief. I had been secretly worried about the exploding canner horror stories I’d heard. There was more waiting while the canner cooled and the pressure went down. When the pressure gauge finally registered zero, we removed the lid from the pressure cooker and gingerly lifted the jars out onto the counter. Even though it was two o’clock in the morning and way past my bedtime, I couldn’t make myself go to bed until I heard the satisfying ping of sealing jars that I remembered from my childhood.
Charles, the more patient cook, put the bones and some veggies back in the stock pot and simmered them for two days (24+ hours to make bone broth). The next night we canned chicken stock in quart jars, but that’s another story. And of course, we had Broccoli Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo for supper. To my surprise, home grown, home canned chicken doesn’t taste canned. There is no metallic tuna taste (which makes me wonder, what would home canned tuna taste like?) As a matter of fact, it tastes like I spent hours of loving care on it. Which I guess I did, but not necessarily when I only have 30 minutes to fix supper.