Like any good athlete, I prefer to warm up for the big game rather than walk into it cold. So rather than risk disaster and humiliation on Turducken Day, I decided to have a smaller-scale practice run over the weekend. Hence: Project Chick-Hen.
A Chick-Hen is a chicken stuffed with stuffing and a Cornish game hen, also stuffed. Since it would be my first time deboning anything, I ordered a very large chicken — 8 pounds — and asked for the biggest game hen the butcher had.
The night before the dinner, I deboned both birds, starting with the chicken. A good, sharp knife made it not terribly difficult, but I did get lost a few times in all that fat and flesh. To get my bearings, I occasionally had to tilt my head sideways and imagine what the bird looked like before it was decapitated and de-feathered. This was mildly upsetting, as I like almost anything with feathers or fur.
Prying the rib cage off the bird was not difficult, nor was scraping the meat off the thigh and upper-wing bones and sliding them out. But the directions I used for deboning were a little confusing.
One set of directions called for removing the "funny bone" near the wing. I had no idea what the funny bone was, nor did I have the patience to clean myself off, run to the computer and Google it.
Another set of directions, from Chef Paul Prudhomme, said to remove all the leg bones. I found this to be something of a mistake, which I'll get into later. Also, I ended up needing a hammer to break the bones off the foot joint. Ever seen raw chicken marrow before? Prepare to gag.
In all, the deboning took about 40 minutes to an hour. The Cornish game hen went a lot easier, but was more disturbing because it was so darn little and cute.
When it was over, my hands were a greasy, pulpy mess. The bits of translucent pink flesh covering my fingers reminded me of "Poltergeist," when Carol Anne and her mother come out from the other side smothered in what can only be described as meat jelly. Apparently, the one thing the dead love as much as a good haunting is Jell-O wrestling.
After cleaning myself off, I wrapped each bird individually and stuck them in the fridge overnight, saving the neck bones and giblets for gravy.
The next morning, I made stuffing — just one kind, because the game hen was too small to merit its own dressing. I used country bacon, sweet Italian sausage, fennel, celery, carrots, onions, garlic, butter, white wine, thyme, tarragon and cubed, dry sourdough bread.
Once the stuffing was ready, I reserved half to be baked separately — everyone loves stuffing! — and half for the birds. First I laid out the chicken, skin-side down, and rubbed it with a mixture of sea salt, fresh ground pepper and paprika, which I also rubbed on the game hen and later on the Chick-Hen's breast. I spread the stuffing all over the meat, packing it into the empty legs and wings. Turns out I should have made smaller bread cubes; I'll be sure to do so on Turducken Day.
I laid the game hen breast-side down over the stuffing. I stuffed the hen and closed it, then pulled the sides of the chicken over the hen.
The next step was the least fun, panic-inducing part of the whole ordeal. I tied butcher's twine to a carpet needle (which I tracked down at a place that offers sewing classes) and began threading the chicken shut from the tail. Chicken flesh is very jiggly and soft, and about half the time the twine sliced right through it, leaving me to seek out a denser part of the meat to thread.
Holding the Chick-Hen together and fending off a curious cat while sewing it shut were no small feats, either. I should have accepted those offers of help.
Once I'd finished sewing up the Chick-Hen, I had to "truss" it. I put "truss" in quotes because that is not what I ended up doing. The stuffed legs and upper wings were too floppy to truss properly; the bird just looked fat and star-shaped, like Maggie on "The Simpsons." I tied up the wings as best I could, and pretty much left the legs alone. Next time, I will leave the bottom-third bones in.
I flipped the Chick-Hen over so that the breast side was up, and put it in a roasting pan, along with some quartered onions and big chunks of carrot and the neck bones and giblets. I slid some herbed butter (I use fresh rosemary, chopped garlic and salt) under the breast skin, then shoved it in an oven pre-heated at 375 degrees.
The Chick-Hen cooked for about two hours, until the thickest part of the meat read 160 degrees. The herbed butter helped the breast skin brown nicely, and I basted the Chick-Hen every 15 minutes or so.
The result was an incredibly moist, flavorful Chick-Hen that didn't even require the gravy I made from the drippings. One guest called it "remarkably savory," adding that "the two birds blend together seamlessly and create an almost buttery texture. The stuffing compliments the combination and lends an herbal aftertaste that is not too bitter but cuts right through any oiliness."
Another guest said, "The Chick-Hen oozed with juice and flavor," but later chided me with: "Wish you hadn't dropped the neck bone." I know there is a lot of flavor in the neck bone, but does anyone else also consider it a delicacy? I'm curious.
Back to the Chick-Hen: I found two layers of succulent poultry skin to be a bit much for my blood. No one else seemed to mind it, but if I were to prepare Chick-Hen on a regular basis, I might consider skinning the game hen. Since Turducken involves a plump, fatty duck, the thought of how rich that dish will be has me feeling full already.
Quite a few readers asked me for a Turducken recipe. I will be formulating my own in my head over the next few days, and I never use measuring cups or spoons, a habit I picked up from my mother. But if you want Chef Paul's, here it is. You can also find a few recipes tried and tested by non-pros at sites like AllRecipes.
A few readers wrote in to say that they, too, possessed crooked fingers. Photos can be found here and here; thanks to Carol B. from Mission Viejo, Calif., and Lora R. from Boston, respectively. This one belongs to colleague Catherine Donaldson-Evans.
A suspiciously large number of readers directed me to Hebert's Specialty Meats, which is famous for shipping out thousands of stuffed birds every holiday season. And after I went on and on about doing it myself! But I decided to squash my cynical New Yorker and give Hebert's a shout-out anyway, if only in the hope that they will send me some of their famous Boudin sausage.
A number of readers wrote in to dispute Chef Paul's claim that he created the Turducken. I am aware that stuffed animals of the savory variety date back to the time of kings, but I really have no dog in this fight. It's like the question of who first invented pasta; while the story about that 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles was pretty neat, it's like, who cares? I wanna eat.
Surprisingly, just one reader (I was expecting a flood) wrote in to accuse me of being an effete Northeasterner. Ken T. advised me to get an instructional video from Chris' Specialty Meats in Baton Rouge, and added the following note of encouragement: "Perhaps even an East Coast sophisticate like yourself could learn a thing or two." Ouch, Ken!
Ken also threw in this description of the video: "The Cajun accent isn't to [sic] thick as to disturb your sensitive ears." Well, Ken. Clearly, you have yet to brave the great city of Philadelphia, where one can cross himself with Holy wooder before kneeling at the feet of the Virgin Murray.
Speaking of miracles — GOOOOOOO EAGLES.
Coming soon: I learn from a pro. E-mail me if you are not a Cowboys fan at firstname.lastname@example.org.