Instant Pot ‘Spent Hen’
(aka Stewing Hen for Soup & Tacos)
Tacos y Sopa de Pollo Gastado
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Sometimes it’s hard to come up with a title – not because you can’t think of one, but because you can’t stop thinking of alternatives. This is one of those times. I’ve already overdone it with that bilingual trio of titles above, but even still I can’t quite encapsulate everything this recipe (and this post) is all about. So I hope you’ll read on.
I recently learned about the interesting linguistic concept of fossil words. Essentially, these are words have become functionally extinct, but continue to soldier on in common usage solely because they’re tied to an expression or idiom that remains part of our language. Take the expression ‘to and fro’ – I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had any cause to use the word ‘fro’ in my daily life. I’m not even sure how I’d go about using it… I mean, I assume it basically means ‘over there’ in a generic sense, but the word has clearly exited the common parlance. Funny enough, the word ‘thither’ (as in hither and thither, which is itself an increasingly uncommon idiom), yon, and yonder all basically means the same thing. I guess the English language has a thing for ditching words meant for generically refering to other places.
I’ve made no secrets about my love for linguistics and I find that the subject frequently (and fascinatingly) tends to intersect with food. In this case, I can’t help but wonder if certain food words are only hanging on by the barest of threads thanks to the cultural significance of certain dishes. Case in point: coq au vin. Now I am admittedly blurring the lines by bringing French to the table, but a) English is loaded with French words anyway, b) English food language is especially loaded with French terms, and c) I’m Canadian so I’ve got a built in excuse. Ça suffit. In any case, coq au vin literally means cock (rooster) with wine. As in rooster, not hen. Even if you’ve never had coq au vin, you’re probably well aware of the fact that it’s supposed to be made with chicken, but have you ever thought about that whole ‘rooster’ part of the equation? I mean, who eats rooster, right? Well that’s just the thing – the answer to that question was once ‘anybody who needs to get rid of a rooster.’ Meat has become a rather specific and narrowly defined commodity in much of the world. When it comes to chicken, consumer demand is for mild-tasting, tender meat, which is the kind of meat that you get from young hens. So that’s what the chicken industry produces. But this is, by necessity, a biologically contrived process. Chickens, like dogs or pigeons, are only moderately differentiated from their wild ancestor (in this case, the Red Junglefowl, Gallus gallus). There are some pretty strange and fancy varieties to be found, but on the whole their domestication is the result of a fairly short and relatively recent bit of artificial selection. Domestic chickens naturally live a life very similar to their wild counterparts (in fact, domestic chickens can and do easily become ‘wild’ when released into appropriate environments). In the typical polygynous harem-like setting, the aggressive and boldly coloured males vie for the attention of multiple females, who in turn raise large broods of relatively independent chicks. The roosters ensure their odds of siring loads of fluffy little offspring by remaining ever-ready to do battle against any interlopers (including the odd unfortunate human). This system has been emulated with varying degrees of modification by farmers over millennia, but the basic idea has been maintained: keep lots of hens and only one (or a few) roosters. The 20th century saw increasing industrialization and a decreased role for roosters in the system. Of course they’re still necessary when it comes to producing new chickens (can’t work around that bit of biology yet…), but they’re all but out of the picture when it comes to the production of eggs for eating. In fact, the 50:50 sex ratio of male and female chickens is a something of a biological burden; when you’re producing hens for laying or for meat,1 you’ve got to raise eggs, figure out which chicks are female and which ones are male, then get rid of the extras (i.e., the males). The process is unceremoniously blunt and designed to be as quick as possible, but suffice it to say that male chicks live a short life with a rather sudden end. This has, understandably, been one of the more controversial and unpleasant aspects of the industry for a long time, but advances in the world of chicken production are actually starting to address one of the long-standing issues related to males, that of unwanted male chicks. New technology being developed could allow processors to identify the gender of an egg before it’s hatched or even mature, allowing males to be eliminated from the system as eggs, rather than chicks. It’s good for the industry’s image (those fluffy baby chicks fall into that category of cuteness that evokes some pretty strong responses from consumers), and it’s good for the bottom line. No need to expend effort or funds raising half of your eggs only to destroy the chicks. That being said, it’s a long way from implementation at the moment, and would need to be streamlined and made cost-effective before seeing application.
1. A reader kindly pointed out that the system is a bit different in Canada, where both male and female chickens are raised for meat production, meaning that male culling is a significantly less common activity in the Canadian poultry industry.
Regardless of any advances in chicken rearing, the prototypical rooster isn’t going anywhere in our minds (or our language). They are, after all, firmly embedded in our culture. But culinarily? That’s an entirely different story.
In smaller, more traditional farming systems roosters are an absolute necessity. Waste is to be abhorred in the farming world, so when a rooster had aged past his prime, the solution was simple: into the pot. The same holds for old laying hens who no longer produce eggs (or enough eggs). Waste not want not, and off to the dinner table with you. But when it comes down to the actual cooking, these old chickens are rather far removed from their younger, milder counterparts. They are far more richly-flavoured, generally leaner, and considerably a bit tougher. Coq au vin does not exist simply because it’s nice to cook chicken with wine – it exists because rooster, with it’s bolder flavour and tougher meat, braises very well. There has historically been an entire range of chickens available for eating, with varying flavours and characteristics. Roosters, spent laying hens, capons (castrated and fattened roosters), poulardes, pullets – as far as cooks have been concerned, the myriad ages and stages of the common fowl all have a place on the plate.
But the situation has changed drastically in North America – and perhaps it will change again. The North American diet of the 20th century pushed the idea of attainable luxury, favouring the choicest, tenderest, and (in the case of chickens), mildest of meats. The idea of stewing a stringy old bird all day fell out of favour, along with other waste-not-want-not foods like offal. But the change in consumer demand did not, of course, alter the realities of biology. Spent hens (the eponymous pollo gastado of this recipe) are still a part of our food supply. Given the shift in popularity, you’d be forgiven for thinking that sourcing one out would be difficult, but not everyone has forgotten about these flavourful and inexpensive birds. The strong flavour of older hens is highly prized by Chinese cooks, and the significant Chinese diaspora in my little corner of Canada means that demand remains relatively strong. I picked up the chicken for this recipe from the freezer section of a large local grocery store. It cost about 6 bucks (head and all), and it was raised about 50 km from me by a farm that specializes in providing these birds for the Chinese-Canadian market. Cheap, local, sustainable, and delicious.
As North America, and indeed the world becomes increasingly multicultural, we’re seeing the re-diversification of our grocery store shelves. Immigrant populations drive demand for the fruits, vegetables, spices and meats that are essential to the cuisines of their homelands. This increases availability, in some cases spilling over into other markets and enticing other communities. Before you know it, people are discovering (or rediscovering) foods that had been unknown to them only a generation earlier. And while we can be guilty of jumping on the food-trend-du-jour, this process can and does lead to real change; the esteemed Jane Grigson wrote about bell peppers (capsicums) in her Vegetable Book, noting that they were essentially unknown in the UK before the 1980s, despite being rather popular in the Mediterranean. Populations shifted, exposure grew, and now it’s nearly impossible to imagine even the most basic of produce sections without a stoplight-hued selection of peppers.
You don’t need to spend long on Diversivore for it to become abundantly clear that I’ve got a pretty big interest in some of the stranger and rarer food items out there, but even if your tastes run toward the commoner and more acceptable, everyone’s a winner when we diversify our food supply. Diversity means greater ecosystem function, increased opportunities for farmers, decreased food waste, decreased vulnerability to climate change, and so much more. It also gives us access to new, variable, and interesting flavours – a factor that might mean more to consumers than anything else.
We’re in a unique position in the 21st century. Our access to old-fashioned biodiversity, global tastes (and economies), and modern science, mean that we have the potential to completely revitalize our approach to food. I for one hope that we all see, cook, and eat more food like this.
This simple, adaptable recipe is designed for the Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker, but it can easily be adapted for a slow cooker or stove top. See the notes below for more on this.
If you skipped ahead to this point and somehow missed the earlier clues, this recipe is all about the under-appreciated and inexpensive spent laying hens (also called stewing hens). These birds have leaner bodies and tough meat, but a ton of flavour. That combination means that they’re perfect for pressure-cooking. You can often find them at Chinese grocery stores, and you may find them in the freezer section of well-stocked conventional grocery stores. You can also try getting in touch with local chicken and egg farmers to see if they have a source or can supply chicken of their own. You could also substitute rooster, if you happen to have access to that.
If you can’t find spent hen, you can use a regular chicken too, though I would recommend two quick changes to the recipe. First, if you have any extra chicken bones, add them along with the chicken for a boost in flavour. If you don’t have bones, you could replace 1-2 cups of water with an equivalent amount of chicken or vegetable stock. Second, reduce the cook time to 30 minutes instead of 40 (press “Soup” on the Instant Pot once, or set it manually). You should still get a great soup, though some of the cost savings that go along with using a spent hen are certainly lost. You’ll also end up with more shredded chicken, which is fine of course.
Pretty much everything used to make the chicken is easily found with the exception of epazote. This herb is very common and popular in Mexican cooking, but it can be quite tricky to find in the USA and Canada. You can leave it out of the recipe and still end up with a great meal, so don’t worry too much. If you can track it down though, it adds a fascinating and delicious element to the soup.
Epazote is an herb related to the ubiquitous weed known as lamb’s quarters. While it doesn’t taste much like lamb’s quarters, it does share a propensity for growing easily in a variety of climates. If you’re really eager to explore epazote, see if you can find seeds to grow yourself. Failing that, I’ve found the best luck by sourcing it from herb growers at farmer’s markets. Buy a generous bundle and dry the excess for future use.
Note: Accurate nutritional info is difficult to work out here, as the recipe effectively makes two meals with variable add-ons. To simplify it, I’ve given information for the soup and chicken ONLY. Keep that in mind for tacos, added toppings, etc.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
- 1 spent hen or rooster about 1.2 kg (see note)
- 3 stalks celery plus any leaves you might have
- 4-5 stalks parsley
- 3 roma tomatoes halved
- 3 medium carrots (~250 g) diced
- 1 medium onion quartered
- 3 cloves garlic lightly smashed and peeled
- 1/2 tsp marjoram
- 1/2 tsp thyme
- 1/2 tsp epazote (optional - see note)
- 1/4 tsp oregano preferably Mexican
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp salt plus more to taste, if necessary
- 1.5 L water (~6 cups)
- corn tortillas
- red onion
- pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)
- cotija cheese or other firm, relatively mild cheese
- cooked white rice
- Inspect the spent/stewing hen. Odd are good that it came with the feet and head still attached. Leave these on (unless you're particularly squeamish about this). The body cavity is usually clean, but check to make sure that there isn't a package with any organ meat inside (like you'd find with turkey). If there is, you can actually include (or exclude) any parts that you might like in the soup, but remove any packaging.
- Combine the chicken and all of the other basic ingredients in the Instant Pot (or other electric pressure cooker). You can tie the parsley in a little bundle to make it easier to remove, but this is optional.
- Seal the lid and cook by pushing the Instant Pot soup button twice for a longer cook time, or by using a 40 minute manual setting. Once the time has elapsed, allow the pressure cooker to release naturally (or, if you're pressed for time, let it stand for 10 minutes and then release manually).
- Carefully remove the chicken from the pot and set it aside. Strain the rest of the soup to yield a clear broth. You can pick out the carrots or onions if you like, but I tend to discard them as they've given up most of their flavour to the soup at this point. Salt to taste, and season with pepper if you like.
- Pick the meat off of the chicken and keep it for tacos, serving with the soup, or any other meal you might like.
- Toast corn tortillas in a frying pan or comal. Keep toasted tortillas in a small basket or on a plate and cover with a small hand towel.
- Fill tacos with shredded chicken, avocado, onion, tomatoes, cilantro, pepitas, cotija (or any other cheese you like, or skip the cheese) and/or any other toppings you think would be good. Serve with a fresh squeeze of lime.
- The clear broth can be eaten as-is (a popular option when you're fighting a cold). To dress it up a bit and make for a more substantial meal, fill individual serving bowls with about 1/3 cup cooked white rice (per person), pour the soup over this, and top with diced avocado and cilantro. Serve hot, with fresh lime wedges so that diners can add juice to taste.
Spent hens (aka stewing hens) are old laying chickens that have passed their egg-laying prime. They are something of a specialty item, but their stronger flavour is highly prized in a variety of communities. I find them most easily in Chinese grocery stores, where they're sold frozen with the head and legs still attached. They're also very affordable, and much cheaper that young roasting chickens. If you can't find spent hen, you can use regular chicken, though I would add a few extra chicken bones to the pot if you have them and replace 1 cup of water with 1 cup of stock to strengthen the flavour.
Epazote is a Mexican herb with a distinctive flavour, popularly used when preparing beans. It can be difficult to come by (especially fresh), and can be omitted. If you can find it fresh, do note that it dries easily for future use. It's also easy to grow and works well in a variety of Mexican recipes, so don't be afraid to try it out in your garden!
Serving - You'll end up with the broth and a fair bit of shredded chicken from this recipe. I've presented it here as tacos and a finished soup, but you can do any number of things with it. The chicken could easily be served over rice, in quesadillas, etc.