"Is that its head?" wasn't the first comment I heard as I set the tawny roasted bird on the table in front of my guests.
The first comments were along the lines of "ooh," "ahh" and "isn't that beautiful." I didn't hear a peep about the guinea hen's head until I turned the roasted bird onto its side to get a better angle for carving the breast. That's when the head and its floppy little wattles and curved beak popped out from under the wing.
"Yes, that's its head," I said. "But don't worry, I don't expect you to eat it."
But don't tell Sebastien Bonneu I said that. The former chef turned full-time farmer is all about no-waste, head-to-tail harvesting and eating. Where he grew up - on a family farm in the Bordeaux region of France - none of the game birds lost their heads until it was time to eat.
"The wattles taste good," Bonneu told me on a recent morning at the downtown Austin Farmers' Market. I nodded and smiled, but I didn't admit that even though I've been buying a couple of guinea hens a month from him for more than a year, I have not yet tasted the wattle.
I have, however, learned to make pretty good use of the whole bird. In fact, I've figured out that with the addition of vegetables from my winter garden and the farmers' market, plus some dry beans and whole grains from the grocery, I can stretch one roasted guinea hen (head and all) into five fairly simple dishes that will feed two people for almost an entire week. Which pleases my frugal alter ego, the one who flinches a little every time I hand over about $20 for one of Bonneu's birds. Yeah, I know, that's a lot more than the price of an average grocery-store chicken. But I'm willing to pay that much because I'm hooked on the rich flavor and lean meaty texture of this game bird, which to me tastes sort of like a cross between a pastured heirloom chicken and a pheasant or a quail. Mmmm.
Bland boneless chicken breasts from factory-raised chickens are a distant memory in my kitchen. When I eat meat, I want it to taste just as fresh and flavorful as my homegrown vegetables. And because lately, like a lot of other folks, I'm trying to eat smaller portions of humanely raised meat and larger portions of fresh fruits and vegetables, the steep price for my new favorite protein actually works in my favor. (Note: I didn't calculate an exact cost for every meal I made during my week of guinea hen dinners, but I would estimate an average of $10 per meal for two, excluding drinks.)
Food writer and former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton calls herself a "bestavore," which she defines as someone who bases his food choices on best taste above all else - even local sourcing. "Never mind local if it is not the best," she said in an interview earlier this month with Capitol New York. I see her point, but I would take it further. I try whenever possible to have it all - best taste, best farming practices and most humane. Would that be a "want-it-all-avore"?
OK, back to guineas. Some of you, if you're of a certain age or if you've spent any time at all on a small farm, might be wondering why anyone would want to eat a guinea hen. Guinea hens are tough old farm birds who make good "watchdogs." Right? They screech and squawk when a stranger (unfamiliar human or a marauding raccoon) enters their territory. They're good at eating grasshoppers and other crop-chomping pests. And sometimes, if they're not very nice guineas, they chase you and peck at your ankles (or at least that's how my mom remembers the not-very-nice guinea fowl of her youth).
So given that that's pretty much all I knew about guineas until a couple of years ago, I was majorly curious when I first saw them for sale at the farmers market - plucked and dressed like chickens, heads intact, beaks, wattles and all. But it only took a couple of chats with Bonneu to understand that to this French farmer, young, farm-raised guineas are meant to be eaten, just like farm-raised rabbits, ducks and geese. It only took one guinea hen (stuffed with fennel and slow roasted, per Bonneu's recommendation) to make me a believer. And I'm not alone. In the course of writing this column, I found out that farm-raised guinea fowl meat is becoming quite popular all over, not just in Europe. In fact, even the feds at the Agriculture Department have taken note of the increasing interest in game meats at restaurants and home kitchens. So just when I think I'm onto to something new and different, I find out everyone's doing it. C'est la vie, I suppose.
If you're curious about the taste of guinea hen but aren't ready to commit to the whole bird, you can order it at several restaurants around town, including Wink, Siena and Aquarelle. But I don't think you'll be able to taste a guinea wattle at any of these fine dining establishments. If you're interested in that particular delicacy, you'll have to go straight to the source.
More about guinea fowl
• Guineas (aka guinea fowl), are a group of bug- and seed-eating, ground-nesting game birds that resemble pheasants. How and when the birds made their way from their native Africa to other continents is not clear, but drawings of the birds, dated from around 2400 B.C., have been found in murals on the walls of Egyptian pyramids. When exactly the birds reached Europe is a little sketchy, but it is known that guinea fowl were considered a delicacy in ancient Rome. It is thought that guineas arrived in North America sometime in the 1500s. In the French-influenced Creole cuisine of Louisiana, guinea hens are valued for the rich flavor they add to gumbo.
• Guinea meat is leaner, lower in calories, and higher in protein than chicken. (Among poultry, only turkey is lower in calories per pound.)
• Guinea meat is rich in essential fatty acids; vitamins E, B1 and B2; and magnesium, calcium and iron
• For maximum tenderness, most game meat, including guinea fowl, should be cooked slowly by braising or roasting
Sources: USDA, Poultry Science Association
Neighborhood guineas: A small flock of wild guineas can be seen parading around the streets of North Austin in the Gracywoods neighborhood. They're thought to be descendants of a guinea flock that lived on nearby Gracy Farm in the 1940s. Many of the residents consider them neighborhood pets, so don't even think about trying to nab one. Besides, they're protected by a City of Austin ordinance.
What about a Funky Guinea Coop Tour? Austin Funky Chicken Coop Tour project director Michele Hernandez says that although guinea have become quite popular with organic gardeners, we aren't likely to see any on the annual backyard poultry tour (April 23). She and her husband keep a small flock of guineas on their five-acre homestead on the outskirts of town, but she says they're so noisy that she feels certain there aren't many guineas being kept in town.
"They are too loud and obnoxious," she says.
But she likes having them around her place because they're easy to care for (their diet is mostly garden bugs and grass) and they're not as rough on her garden vegetables as her chickens are. She considers her guineas pets, but she did have to take drastic steps about a year ago to stop the disruptive antics of one "very naughty" guinea named Mr. Lonely. He couldn't get along with the other guineas or the chickens. He was always picking fights.
"No one liked him," she says, "so we got out our recipe book." Hernandez ays she and her husband found Mr. Lonely to be quite delicious.
To hear the warning cackle of a female guinea, search for "guinea fowl sounds" on the Internet, and you can get an earful.
Following are recipes for the five dinners made from one guinea hen. If you find this approach confining, just pick one or two recipes and give them a try. If you don't have a guinea, you can substitute a whole chicken or chicken stock , but you might need more stock and seasonings, unless you can get your hands on a richly flavored pastured chicken.
Day 1: Roasted Guinea Hen with Winter Vegetables
1 guinea hen (3 to 4 lb.)
5 stalks of fennel (fronds removed)
4-5 new potatoes, red or white, washed and quartered
3 fennel bulbs, core, stalks and fronds removed; quartered and sliced
8 carrots, sliced into 2-inch pieces
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2-inch cubes
1 onion, peeled and quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 Tbsps. shallots, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper
To make stock:
5 cups filtered tap water
2 cloves garlic
3 stalks fennel
1 medium carrot
11/2 cups dry white wine
1/4 medium apple, cored and seeded, peel on
Preheat oven to 360 degrees. Drizzle and spread olive oil on hen. Place hen breast side down in shallow roasting pan or glass casserole dish. Stuff two stalks of fennel in hen cavity. Place remainder of vegetables in mixing bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss with a splash of olive oil to coat. Spread vegetables around hen in a single layer. Place any remaining vegetables in a separate pan or on a baking sheet. Cook hen and vegetables for about 1 hour, or until hen is well browned and vegetables are just done.
Using tongs, turn hen over, breast side up, and continue cooking for another 45 minutes or until vegetables are soft and caramelized and hen's breast is brown and crisp. (If desired, remove vegetables as soon as they're done to your liking and continue cooking hen until juices in meatiest part of thigh run clear). Let roasted hen rest for about 10 minutes before carving. Using a sharp knife, snap and cut leg quarters away from the hen. Serve leg quarters on a platter surrounded by two portions of the roasted vegetables. Cover remainder of hen and vegetables in foil and place in the fridge.
Prep for Day 2 and 3: After dinner, roast any vegetables that didn't fit in roasting pan in a 375-degree oven for 30-45 minutes, or until lightly browned around edges and tender. Remove to a container and refrigerate. Also remove hen's head, neck, wing tips, back and tail and place in a stock pan along with drippings and brown bits from roasting pan. (Remove any internal organs from back pieces.) Add filtered tap water, garlic, carrot, onion, apple, fennel and wine. Simmer for 3-4 hours, skimming any cloudy debris that rises to top. Allow to cool and then refrigerate. Note: You can simmer the stock in two-hour intervals over two days. Just be sure to refrigerate between cooking times. As you use more of the hen in subsequent recipes, continue adding bones to stock pot.
Day 2: Cream of Guinea Hen and Roasted Vegetable Soup
Roasted guinea hen meat from back and wings, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 cups guinea hen stock, strained (see note)
1 cup roasted vegetables (carrots, butternut squash, potatoes, fennel, onion)
1/4 cup roasted green chiles (hot or mild, as desired; canned are fine if you don't have any left from your fall garden)
1/4 cup white cheese (Monterey Jack or sharp white cheddar)
Pinch of cumin
Pinch of powdered cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup cream or milk
Combine all ingredients except for milk and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add milk and, using an immersion blender, purée the soup in the pot (or purée in batches in a blender). Return to simmer and serve hot with a slice of corn bread.
Note: If stock has not cooked for at least 4 hours, continue cooking before making the cream soup. Also, before bringing cold stock back to heat, remove any fat that has solidified on top.
Advance prep for Day 3: Cover 11/2 cups dry white beans (cannellini or flageolet) with filtered tap water and soak overnight.
Day 3: Chop Salad with Guinea Hen Breast
Leftover roasted guinea hen breast, sliced
1/2 cup white cabbage, chopped
1/2 cup purple cabbage, chopped
1/4 cup kohlrabi (or broccoli stems), peeled and julienned
1/4 cup green onions, chopped
1/4 cup sunflower sprouts (optional)
1/2 apple, cored and seeded and sliced thin
1/4 cup roasted pecans (see recipe below)
Spicy peanut dressing (see recipe below)
Spicy Peanut Dressing
1/4 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 Tbsp. maple syrup or honey (or more to taste)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 tsp. minced fresh garlic
1/2 tsp. minced fresh ginger
1/2tsp. minced serrano pepper
1 Tbsp. fresh cilantro, chopped
Combine ingredients in the dressing. Taste; add salt and more sweetener if desired.
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 pat of butter
1/2 cup pecans, halves or pieces
Generous pinch of salt
In a hot skillet, combine sugar, butter and salt over low heat until sugar begins to dissolve. Stir in pecans until coated and simmer for about 5 minutes or until pecans are lightly browned. Watch closely so pecans don't burn.
To assemble: Sauté breast slices briefly in olive oil in a hot skillet to reheat meat and recrisp skin. Combine raw salad ingredients in a bowl. Top with pecans, drizzle with a portion of the dressing and toss. Serve topped with breast slices and side of remaining dressing.
Advance prep for Day 4: Add 2 cups reheated stock (strained) and 1 cup water to soaked beans and bring to slow simmer. Cook on low heat until beans are just done and remove from heat. Stir in any leftover roasted vegetables, about a cup or more.
If you don't have that much leftover roasted vegetables, roast another batch in a 375-degree oven for about 30 minutes, including the following (peeled, coarsely chopped and tossed with olive oil): 2 carrots, 1/4 onion, 1 small white potato and one small sweet potato, plus a couple of leftover raw fennel stalks (if they're tough and fibrous, leave whole so you can remove before serving soup).
Day 4: Bean Soup with Guinea Hen and Roasted Vegetables
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 tsp cayenne powder, or more to taste
2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Pot of beans and roasted vegetables prepped the previous day
Additional stock or water if needed to thin soup
1 cup spinach or swiss chard, washed, drained, and coarsely chopped
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes (Muir Glen if possible)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Stir all ingredients except greens, tomatoes and cheese into bean pot prepared on Day 3 and bring to simmer. Add spinach and tomatoes and cook for a few minutes more.
Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. Serve hot, topped with sprinkling of cheese.
Day 5: Quinoa Bake with Guinea and Greens
1 cup filtered water
1 cup guinea hen stock, plus 1/4 cup
1 1/4 cup quinoa, rinsed and strained
1/2 cup cremini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup onion, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup shallot, chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed and minced
1 tsp. serrano pepper, chopped
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup milk
1 cups spinach leaves, washed and drained
5 oz. creamy mild goat cheese
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Any leftover bits of hen meat from back, wings, neck, etc. (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bring water and 1 cup stock to simmer in sauce pan; stir in quinoa and generous pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, remove from heat, and cover until remaining liquid is absorbed.
Meanwhile, sautée mushrooms, onion, shallot, garlic, serrano and pinch of salt and pepper in a splash of olive oil until soft and lightly caramelized. Stir in remaining stock and hen bits (if using) and continue cooking until stock reduces by half. Remove from heat and pour into a mixing bowl. Whisk egg and milk and stir into sauteed vegetables.
Lightly butter or oil the bottom and sides of a shallow 2-quart glass casserole dish. Cover bottom of pan with half of quinoa. Spoon vegetable and egg mixture evenly over quinoa, followed by even layer of spinach leaves. Top leaves with goat cheese dollops, then top with remaining quinoa; press lightly and sprinkle with Parmesan.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until bottom and edges are lightly browned. Serve hot or cold.
- Renee Studebaker