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Our first experience as home butchers

January 3, 2011

In early December, Jason and I butchered our first chickens. It was a surreal and intimate experience. For months now, these girls (and their one protective Rooster) waltzed around our yard, tempting Wile for a good chase, greeting us at the front door in the late morning, running up to the car as we pulled in, and leaving little presents of droppings wherever they went (we’re going to have some fertile grass in the spring!). We began by researching the most clean, humane, and efficient ways to home butcher, including the opposite but equally interesting resources of family and friends who butchered in their childhoods as well as the all-knowing YouTube. Our personal favorite video was by Zenger Farm in Portland, Oregon ( We butchered five of our largest girls, setting up at 8:30am and finishing butchering and cleaning by 12:30pm.

Lone Chicken out on D-Day as we prepare our working site in the grass

One of the interesting things was the uniqueness of each bird. All the girls are white, similar in size and look. However, as we butchered each one, we noticed unique characteristics about each one. One girl had the most amazingly fluffy down feathers—twice the fluff of the others. Another girl was full of thick, yellow fat, weighing close to two pounds when we cleaned it out later—yet she was not at all the largest bird. Each one had their own build, weight and characteristic to offer us.


Here are some photos from the experience (please be alerted that below include photos of the butchering, so if you are not comfortable with such images, scroll quickly).


Our biggest girls

Rinsing before Butchering

The operation in the yard


My grandmother, Gloria (aka Grandma Dee Dee) asked me if we felt proud to be dependent on the land and our own food source. To answer her, not only did I feel a sense of pride and success, but also a deep connection to God as a magnificent Creator. It’s strange, I didn’t expect this, but reflecting on the process from start to finish made me ponder God’s creation so much more. It made me ask a lot of questions–like why did men and women ever start to eat meat? I know there are a lot of biological/evolutionary theories for this, but it still made me question, as we did it for ourselves. It also made me deeply reverent of how life truly is cyclical, going round and round, as animals around us provide us love, food, warmth, companionship, protection, health. It made me in awe of a Creator that could imagine and allow for such an ecological and biological system, and it made me feel empty at how much we have twisted that system to remove ourselves from its awe-inspiring character to make it a factory-line process that we pretend doesn’t exist even as we fill up our plates a second time. It also made me want to seek enjoyment from the land and from accomplishments that offer life and experience and appreciation, rather than the more traditional spirit of  consumerism that is proffered as “live-enhancing” when it really disconnects us from each other and our realities. For Jason, I think it made him happy to be home and to be always moving forward in a farming lifestyle, going back in a way to the roots of small scale, family farming.

Four little chickies all in a row (one little chickie got roasted)

The day that we butchered, we roasted our first one for dinner. The experience was a very, well, specific one, because eating the chicken conjured up thoughts of people who are literally starving. This response took me off guard, because I’m aware of the fact that people are starving every day. But for some reason, while we ate our backyard chicken, it struck me deeply. Each bite of chicken reiterated the truth that we should all have the right and ability to grow our own food, contrary to how by being more productive with our food (agribusiness) we make it possible for some to eat and others not to. It made me feel farming as connected to the lives of others (I had always thought that, but the day we butchered I felt it). It was an emotional, personal, collective, intellectual, and most of all physical experience. The physicality of each step, the gentleness and care put into each phase of butchering, cleaning and dressing, impressed a value on that chicken that far outweighs a per-pound price. I think I’ll have a tough time buying chicken ever again, and wish we had the energy and ability to supply it to all our friends and family!

The first roasted 4.5 lb bird was delicious! She was a little tough in the wings and legs from all her roaming (especially the long roams over to the llamas in the barn), but DELICIOUS!  I made a big pot of soup with her  after we enjoyed our dinner with roasted turnips, potatoes, carrots and parsnips! We shared our bird with Jason’s parents that night, and had the pleasure of sharing our second girl with our good friends Katie and Troy who were in town after the holidays from New Hamburg, New York. Each time has been a celebration over food and family, and reiterates the value of food and the community that it offers.

Roasted Chicken with Parsnips, Turnips, Potatoes, Carrots, and Rosemary


Bowman Backyard Roasted Chicken

Adopted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

Sprinkle inside of chicken with sea salt and smear in two tablespoons of butter, followed by 1-3 sprigs of rosemary. Dry off top of chicken skin and rub with butter, then salt and pepper skin. Place the chicken breast up in the roasting pan (can be on a raised rack, or if you don’t have this, directly on the pan). Strew vegetables of your choice, such as parsnips, turnips, potatoes, carrots, celery around it, followed by 2 cups of chicken stock (or if unavailable, water, but preferably stock for richness, and 1/2 cup white wine) and set pan in the middle of pre-heated oven. Allow chicken to brown lightly for 15 minutes, turning it on the left side after 5 minutes, then on the right side for the last five minutes, basting it with butter and oil after each turn (rapidly so oven doesn’t cool too much).

Reduce oven to 350 degrees. Leave chicken on its side, basting every 10 minutes. If bottom of pan becomes dry, add more liquid. Halfway through estimated roasting time, lightly  salt the chicken and turn it on its other side, continuing to baste.

Fifteen minutes before end of estimated roasting time, lightly salt again and turn chicken breast up. Continue basting.

Julia’s indications that a chicken is almost done: a sudden rain of splutters in the oven (I’ve never had this), a swelling of the breast and slight puff of the skin, the drumstick is tender when pressed and can be moved in its socket. Finally, stick a fork into the thickest part of the drumstick, and if the juices run clear (not pink), it’s finished.

Personally, I think you follow your meat thermometer, and if you don’t own one, spend the few bucks at TJ Maxx–it’s so worth it.

Julia’s Roasting time at 350 degrees: 3 lb bird-1 hour and 10 to 20 minutes; 4 lb bird-1 hour and 15 to 30 minutes; 5 1/4 lb bird-1 hour and 30 to 45 minutes. Notice they’re not that far apart. What you want to look for is a meat thermometer reading of 175-180 (the French criterion of doneness, whereas the American is 190–go for the French. They’ve got their cheeses, breads and birds hands-down over the Americans).

When you are done with the chicken for the meal, take the left-overs and separate a majority of the meat from the carcass. Wrap the meat separately, as the carcass will first be boiled down to get a beautiful base for chicken soup OR chicken and dumplings, or just an excellent chicken stock. Also, save ALL accumulated juices and browned bits with the veggies to be added to the soup or stock.


Celebrating Home-raised food with Katie and Troy

Harrigan’s Chicken Soup (Basically, your grandma’s chicken soup from back in the day)

-Chicken carcass with scraps of meat left on it and ALL skin saved

-Reserved chicken meat from carcass

-One quart (4 cups) or more chicken stock

-Veggies, including carrots, parsnips, onions, parsley, spinach, kale, celery, turnips, and anything else your heart desires

-A starch of your choice par-cooked, including brown rice, pearled barley, wheatberries, egg noodles, orzo, or dumplings (dumpling recipe below)

-A fine mesh sieve or strainer

Take your chicken carcass from the previously roasted chicken and place it in a large soup pot, including the rosemary and especially all the skins. Don’t worry about fat as can skim any off later if you want. At this point, you want to reserve every part of the chicken flavor possible. Cover it with 4 cups chicken stock (Pacific Natural Foods makes a decent one) and 2-4 cups water (or all stock if you have it on hand). Add a whole onion, peeled and cut in half, a hand full of parsley sprigs, stems attached, a whole carrot with skin, broken in 2-3 pieces, a stalk of celery broken in two, a thick handful of spinach and any other veggies you might have on hand, such as a parsnip, with skin attached. I also like to add a half of a tomato for the lycopene value, but this is optional, and I don’t prefer a tomato-y flavor in a basic, rich Chicken Soup… Add as many veggies as you can think of and have on hand to deepen and layer the flavor of the stock. You don’t have to add these later, they will get strained out but will leave behind their flavor and nutrition.

Bring this pot of boney vegetable goodness to a rolling boil, then lower to a simmer and let cook for 1.5-3 hours, very slowly.

Strain all contents of the soup through a fine mesh sieve. Press on the bones, veggies and meat to get every last drop of golden goodness out of it. Bring this reduced, thick broth back to a light, rolling boil on the stove. (I often pick through the contents of the mash in the sieve for pieces of meat that can be thrown back into the strained soup broth, or for whole chunks of carrot and other veggies to enjoy over wheatberries as a snack while cooking. Also great to add to dog food with all the flavor).

Don’t throw your ball of mashed bones and veggies away!!!! Cover with 4 cups of water and sprinkle with salt–cook on low for 3-4 hours, then set in a large bowl covered in the fridge over night with all the bones, and you’ll have a lovely stock the next day (slightly re-warm to strain again). NOW you can discard your well-used bones. You have now done right by your chicken!

Now prepare your final soup from your thick, golden stock. Slice on a diagonal (or in whatever shape and size you would like) the veggies you would like to add to your final soup, such as carrots, celery, parsnips, etc. I usually use one of each of these. Put them in the strained broth along with the meat reserved from the roasted chicken. You can also add a starch, such as rice, wheatberries, barley, orzo, egg noodles, or dumplings. If making any of these starches other than dumplings, I recommend par-cooking them first, and then adding them into the soup just to finish (so you don’t risk soggy soup or hard wheatberries).

Enjoy a nutrient-rich, intensely flavored chicken soup!

Chicken and Dumplings

For chicken soup with dumplings (my FAVORITE way to eat them, like my mom used to make) I use King Arthur’s Recipe (what a generous king he must have been to share his sacred dumpling recipe).

In a bowl, mix 1 cup flour with 1/4 teaspoon salt (or a smattering of sea salt), and 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder. Whisk together, then cut/mash in 2 tablespoons butter. Slowly mix in 1/2 cup milk until sticky and all wet (don’t over-mix). 10 minutes before you are ready to eat, take two spoons and drop clumps about the size of ping pong balls of the dough onto the top of the soup. Bring to a boil uncovered, then reduce heat to low and cover and cook for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with pepper and thyme and serve immediately! This will make the soup much thicker! And it will be essentially a stew the next day!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 10:21 pm

    So funny, because I was just about to email you to ask about your secret roast chicken recipe! Thanks so much for sharing your recipes, your love of food, and your photography. Love you!

  2. January 9, 2011 8:09 pm

    What a beautiful post, Harrigan. Might seem like an odd compliment coming from a vegetarian, but… all the love and humaness you put into the process makes it a a whole new and touching thing. Thank you 🙂

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