Cooking with Meat

By Beacon Staff

I went on a carnivore’s rampage toward the end of winter. I found myself with a glut of locally harvested protein. Well, some was local. The birds came primarily from the Sweet Grass Hills, which is local only by Montana standards.

Montanans have a different perception of distance compared to folks who live in more urban areas. I recall a friend once telling me how he’d driven from Gardiner up to White Sulphur Springs to pick up a friend so they could enjoy a few refreshing beverages together on a Friday night. He drove his pal home the next morning and spoke of the trip with a nonchalance that suggested he considered the two-and-a-half-hour commute barely out of the way.

By those standards the Sweet Grass Hills are local. A four-hour drive is nothing if the reward is a mess of birds to occupy my English setters. It’s mostly native sharp-tailed grouse at the Hills, though introduced Huns and pheasants keep it interesting. A few successful trips last fall filled the freezer and I’m still working my way to the bottom.

Sharpies don’t have the greatest reputation as table fare, but I like them. When I kill young birds I sear them in a hot-as-the-sun skillet until medium rare, deglaze with some bourbon and make a cream sauce. As with most game meat, overcooking has a lot to do with bad reputations. Sharptail are no exception. If you go past medium rare the bird is burnt. The muscle tightens up and gets dry, and that all seems to accentuate the less-desirable gamey flavors found in the dark meat of even domestic turkey.

Error on the side of caution, going so far as to pull the bird while it’s still a little bloody. Rest it while you’re making the sauce and the meat should finish. If not, you can always cook it a little more.

Old birds get the low-and-slow treatment. That’s what I was feasting on in March. I like to confit the bombers, covering the legs and breasts in olive oil and gently poaching them in an oven set at its lowest temperature for five or six hours. The slow cook method leaves the meat tender and moist. Chopped up and mixed with mayo, celery and onion it makes a great salad to go on whole wheat bread.

The meat is heavily salted for a few hours, then rinsed before cooking. Salting is a reminder that trendy-with-foodies confit — duck confit especially — was originally a preservation technique. I suppose I could go lighter on the salt as my confit always resides in the chill chest, but then it really wouldn’t taste like confit.