I don’t consider myself a squeamish omnivore. I know that the meat and seafood I eat comes from mammals, fish and fowl that died to be my dinner. I understand honoring the lives of those animals and the effort made by local farmers who raise them and the fishermen who harvest them sustainably requires that I use as many parts of the animal as I can in the kitchen. I must use off-cuts in stews, offal in pâté, rendered fat in sautés and bones in stock.

I can handle all that. But the first time I cooked with chicken feet, I was taken aback by both how much they resemble human hands and the fact that chickens have toenails.

I didn’t expect the gut-wrenching reaction when I ordered 2 pounds of chicken feet from Common Wealth Poultry Co. in Gardiner. I was merely hoping to use them to make a gelatinous stock – chicken Jell-O, if you will – to include in my first home-made attempt at the Shanghai-style soup dumplings like the ones I’ve had in Asian restaurants like Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Empire Chinese in Portland. Xiaolongbao, tang bao, or “soupy buns” are steamed dumplings filled with seasoned meat and spoonful of hot, flavorful broth. The filling (traditionally pork-based) gets enveloped in a thin wrapper with a glob of cold, semi-solid broth (also traditionally pork-based), steamed and dipped into Chinese black vinegar before providing the eater one warming bite with three distinct textures.

Alongside myriad dumplings served at Chinese dim sum brunches, chicken feet are deep-fried, brined and then braised in a variety of regional sauces that include soy sauce, rice wine, chilies and ginger. The frying puffs out the skin so the feet can better absorb the flavors of the brine they are soaked in as well as the sauce they are braised in, which softens the tendons. Eaters suck off the flavorful skin of the bones and chew the tendons.

I am told by those who love this delicacy, often called Phoenix Claws, they are fabulous. I cannot go that far, but I can tell you that if you power through the chicken feet prep, you will be rewarded with a flavor-busting stock that, when cold, sticks to your spoon and when hot, coats your mouth with savory silkiness.

Chicken feet may induce squeamishness among some American cooks, but they make lovely stock, and if we are going to eat animals, shouldn’t we eat every part of them? Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The chicken feet from Common Wealth Poultry Co. – as well as others available from local sources like Tide Mill Organic Farm in Edmunds, Sunnyside Family Farm in Linneus and Timber Frame Farm in Unity – come very clean. The first step of the process – scalding and shocking the feet in ice water and then pulling off the tough yellow membrane – has been done for you.

I followed the stock instructions laid out in a recipe by chef John Ash in his book “Culinary Birds.” You bring a stockpot of water to a rolling boil, drop in the feet, simmer for 5 minutes, skim the scum from the top with a spoon, and drain and rinse them with cold water. I used kitchen shears to cut away any rough patches in the claw pads and clip of the toes, as instructed. The thought here, explains Ash, is this last step will help release the gelatin from the feet to thicken the stock. But as my thoughts hearkened back to my fear of chopping off the tips of my babies’ fingers when I cut their finger nails, I had to step outside for a breath of fresh air.

Fortified by the air and the mantra “you can’t eat it if you can’t bear to cook it,” I placed the trimmed feet in a clean pot, covered them with a gallon of cold water, and added 2 coarsely chopped carrots and celery stalks, a quartered onion, half a bunch of parsley and a bay leaf. I simmered the mixture for 8 hours, strained the liquid through cheese cloth, and set the resulting 4 cups of stock aside to cool while I slept. When I woke, I could cut the result with a knife. So chicken-based soup dumplings will indeed be coming out of my kitchen my kitchen as soon as I master dumpling dough.

Just a note, though, if you want to give make soupy dumplings without braving this chicken feet process, cookbook author Deborah Krasner in “Good Meat” says dissolving one packet of unflavored gelatin into one cup of highly flavored stock of any type will produce a similar textural result.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Pasta, Bean & Vegetable Soup made with chicken feet stock. The soup is the perfect receptacle for end-of-summer and early fall vegetables. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Chicken Broth with Beans, Pasta and Vegetables
As the fall weather comes, use whatever summer vegetables you still have around to bulk up my version of the Italian classic, Pasta e Fagioli. If you don’t have chicken feet stock, you can use whatever chicken stock you have on hand.
Serves 4

½ pound dried pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
¼ cup chopped onion
¼ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped carrots
½ cup chopped tomatoes
½ cup chopped green beans
Salt and pepper
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups cooked dried beans
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Cook the pasta in salted water according to the times directions on the packet. Drain when the pasta is cooked al dente. Reserve.

In a 3-quart pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until the slices are just starting to turn brown around the edges, about 2 minutes. Add the onions and celery and cook until the onions start to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots, tomatoes and green beans. Stir to coat with fat. Season with ½ teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Add the stock and the beans. Simmer until the carrots are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the cooked pasta, taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

Ladle the soup into warm bowls, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and thyme leaves. Serve hot.


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