Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Hen that Keeps on Giving

Guinea Hen Ragu with Gnocchetti

Looking for something special to cook for Sunday night dinner, I wandered into Dickson’s Farmstand at Chelsea Market to see what meaty delight would pique my interest.  Dickson’s, good for the classics from thick center cut pork chops to dry aged steaks, is also good for the occasional out-of-the box selection, like pork cheeks. Eyes trained on the poultry section, I found what I was looking for: guinea hen.

Guinea hen is not so common in America. This bird is an African native, originally brought to Europe by the Portuguese, named after the former West African colony of the same name.

After consulting a few recipes I decided on a simple Sunday roast, rubbing down the body of the hen including its springy, muscular legs with some reserved rendered duck fat and stuffing the cavity with lemon and herbs.  In addition to a richer, meatier flavor than chicken, guinea hen benefits from a shorter cooking time and the advantage of being able to serve a bit pink.  Forty-five minutes at 400°F and the juices were running clear.  A quick pan sauce with some white wine and tarragon later, dinner was served with a side of roasted potatoes.

Guinea Hen Running through our Campsite, Namibia
One guinea hen (mine was a little over three pounds) is more than enough for two people for dinner.  We had quite a bit of meat leftover plus a carcass just begging to become stock.  I reserved the neck and the meaty wings which were a bit too difficult to eat and threw it all in the pot with the leftover guinea carcass, reserving the meat for another use.  Just like making chicken stock, into the pot went carrot, onion, celery, garlic cloves, thyme, black pepper corns, and bay leaf with just enough water to cover.  About an hour of simmering later I strained off the liquid, filling several quart containers with stock that will last me through a few fall soups too come.

But I was not done with the hen and the hen was not done with me.  Diced onion, carrot, celery and garlic with the reserved shredded guinea meat formed the based for a quick ragu a few nights later.  Diced tomatoes, red wine, stock, and some chopped herbs simmered away for 45 minutes as the meat tenderized, flavors married, and liquid reduced.  Tossed with some cooked gnocchetti, Guinea Hen 3.0 was a richly satisfying meal, entirely different than the roast hen or stock that had come before. 

It is good to remember with Thanksgiving around the corner that one bird can do so much feeding.  One does not have to wait for the once-a-year Thanksgiving bacchanal to cook up poultry that stretches far.  A good butcher that stocks guinea hen, a friend who hunts pheasant, or even your standard grocery store whole chicken are all sources for many meals built into one humble bird.

Gnocchetti with Quinea Hen Ragu
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 2-3 servings

2 T. olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, small dice
1 medium carrot, peeled, small dice
2 garlic cloves
1 sprig thyme
1 T. chopped rosemary
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 ½ cup shredded guinea hen meat (can substitute pheasant, goose, or even chicken)
½ cup red wine
1 cup guinea hen or chicken stock
½ lb. gnocchetti or other pasta
2 T. heavy cream (optional)
Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil over medium in a large heavy saucepan.  Add onion, celery, and carrot and sauté for about 5 minutes while vegetables soften.  Mince garlic and stir into the pot with the other veggies.  Add thyme, rosemary, chopped tomatoes, shredded meat, wine, and stock.  Add a bit of salt and pepper.  Stir ingredients for the ragu and bring to a boil.  Reduce pot to a simmer and cover with a lid left ajar.  Simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until meat is very tender and liquid has greatly reduced.  While ragu is cooking bring a pot of water to a boil.  Salt the boiling water and add pasta.  Cook pasta till 2 minutes shy of being done.  Drain pasta and reserve some pasta water.  Remove and discard thyme sprig from ragu.  Stir pasta into finished ragu adding some of the reserved pasta water if the sauce needs liquid.  Cook for another couple of minutes until pasta is done and integrated with sauce.  Stir in heavy cream if desired.  Taste and add additional salt and pepper if necessary.  Serve with grate Parmesan cheese. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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