When we moved to the country, the first outbuilding that Mom and Dad bought was a chicken coop. It was about ten feet square with a sloping roof. Dad and the farmer he bought it from somehow loaded it on a hay wagon and moved it to the corner of what later became our back yard. Dad had cut down three or four trees and brushed out a spot for the coop.
I’m not sure, but I think that he had laid a foundation of old railroad ties that they slid the coop onto. The roof and sidewalls were covered with roll roofing. There was a south-facing window to catch the winter sun and a sturdy door to keep out foxes, weasels, skunks and other threats to the chickens. Inside were a half dozen laying boxes and a roost made of poles.
The coop was big enough to house thirty hens and a rooster. Mom decided that we needed a chicken yard, so I helped my father set posts and staple the chicken wire to them. I was eight years old, so my contribution was mainly carrying a can of staples and the hammer. He used some old hinges to mount a gate on the wall of the coop, so it was easy to go into the yard in the morning to open the little door that we propped up with a stick to let the chickens into the yard.
All of us kids thought it was a pretty nice chicken yard. Dad had left a small oak tree in it, so the chickens had some shade, and the yard was big enough to get some exercise running around in it as the rooster chased the hens. As I recall, our first chickens were Plymouth rocks. The fence was six feet high and kept the chickens in so Mom could stop worrying and counting the chickens every evening before she shut the doors to the coop.
A year or two later, Mom got the idea of buying a hundred leghorn chicks and raising them for meat. That spring she ordered a hundred leghorn chicks from Sears, and the mailman delivered two cartons in a few days. It was too cold outside for the chicks at night, so from sunset to well after sunrise, they were housed in cardboard boxes covered with old blankets in the house. She rigged up some lights to keep the boxes nice and warm.
A hundred chicks can make quite a racket, but they do finally go to sleep. When the chicks got big enough, they were introduced to the chicken coop and its veteran residents. All went well until the leghorns learned to fly. A six foot fence was enough to keep the Plymouth rocks in the chicken yard, but after the first leghorn “flew the coop” the rest caught on real fast.
After a couple of chickens were killed crossing the road, Mom thought we should make the fence higher, but Dad refused. Instead, we opened the gate to let all the chickens out to roam the yard. My two sisters and I were hired (at no extra pay above our dime a week allowances) to chase the chickens into the back yard. As chicken wranglers we did pretty good, losing only a handful of birds before they went to that great dining table in the sky.
After we kids moved out, Mom and Dad didn’t need or want so many chickens. In northern Wisconsin a coop needs to be sized for the number of chickens overwintering, so Dad built a smaller coop for what became Mom’s pets. She loved her chickens and kept them only for their eggs. She got into exotic hens with pink, green, gray and light brown eggs to contrast with the white ones.
She and my father still ate lots of chicken, but they bought it from the market rather than butcher one of their hens. Most of us have similar sentiments, which a cartoonist captured a few years ago. A rooster is in bed looking miserable and his wife, a portly hen, is handing him a bowl of chicken soup and saying, “It’s good for you, and besides, it’s nobody we know.”
Here is a chicken recipe that makes a delicious main dish. I especially like it because it sounds exotic but is really just chicken breasts cooked on top of the stove in a sauce of marsala wine and broth. Marsala wine is produced near Marsala, Italy on the west coast of Sicily. You can find inexpensive but very drinkable marsala wines which are excellent for cooking everything from chicken to pork chops, vegetables and that heavenly Italian dessert, tiramisu.
Here is how to turn a couple of ordinary chicken breasts into a special dinner.
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
8 oz. mushrooms
1/8 tsp. powdered garlic
3/4 cup marsala wine
1 cup chicken broth
parsley for garnish
If you want to make traditional chicken marsala, cut the breasts in half and pound each piece thin. It is hard to do this without making a mess. You can put each piece between two sheets of wax paper and pound it with your hand or the flat side of a meat tenderizer. Another way is to put each piece in a plastic bag and twist the end closed before you pound the meat. You can also skip this step and still end up with a pretty good chicken marsala.
Clean and cut the mushrooms into thick slices. Sauté the mushrooms in a tablespoon of butter in a skillet over medium heat until they turn golden. Remove them from the skillet and set them aside. Add the second tablespoon of butter and two tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet.
Mix the flour, salt and pepper together and dredge each piece of chicken in the flour mixture, making sure that each piece is well floured. Fry the chicken until the pieces are lightly browned on both sides.
Add the wine, broth and garlic to the chicken in the skillet. Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes. Return the mushrooms to the pan and simmer for another five minutes. If you have not flattened the breast pieces, simmer for an extra five minutes to make sure the meat is cooked properly.
Taste and adjust the seasoning. Transfer the chicken and sauce to a serving dish and garnish with some chopped parsley.
Chicken marsala is bests served with a pasta of your choice, but it is also good with rice.
NOTE: You can use a little more butter to sauté the mushrooms if necessary, but don’t overdo it.