One of the great things about being an outdoorsman of some moderate skill level is that now and then I manage to gather some healthy protein. I love to cook, especially when I’ve got great ingredients to work with.
Most falls I manage to kill at least a handful of pheasant. The bird makes my top three list of tasty critters I’ve killed and eaten, along with Gambel’s quail and elk backstraps. Which meat tops the list varies depending on what I’m putting in my mouth at the time.
Pheasants, while delicious, pose some particular culinary challenges in their journey to the plate. I’ve had some success grinding the bird into sausage, but when it comes to meat in tube form I prefer pig. I’ve also cut the meat into chunks to make curries or simmered it with green chilies to make a stew that works great on its own and is even better poured over wet burritos.
I also roast the birds whole, kind of. I spatchcock the pheasant, meaning I cut out the backbone (reserve to make stock) and press the birds flat. You can leave the skin on, or, if you’re working with a skinned bird pat it dry and cover the breast and legs with pancetta or American bacon. Put the bird, breast side down, pressed to a hot cast iron skillet by a couple of equally hot, foil-wrapped bricks. Brown it quickly and then transfer to a hot oven for 15 minutes or so. Keep an eye on the bird checking for doneness and pull it from the oven while the breast meat is still slightly pink.
Don’t be queasy if the bird looks a little medium rare as it will finish cooking as it rests on the counter for 15 minutes or so while you finish the mashed potatoes and roasted green beans.
I’ve never written this recipe down and prepare it a little differently each time. The key is keeping a close eye on the bird so you don’t burn the bacon or over cook the pheasant. Pull it early and pink. You can always put it back on the heat if your rested bird still seems a little underdone. But once you burn it you just have to chew your way through.
Recently I’ve concluded that the best technique for gamey old roosters is the classic French dish, coq au vin. This peasant dish was a favorite of the smartest TV chef of all time, Julia Child, and was developed to tame the tough, gaminess of barnyard roosters. It’s perfect for pheasant.
You do need to plan ahead. The coq (rooster) has to marinate in vin (wine) over night before you slowly braise the bird to fall-off-the-bone tenderness. The red wine braising liquid forms a luscious sauce that works perfectly with flavorful birds such as pheasant.
A word on wine. Coq au vin comes from the Burgundy region, and so is appropriately made with burgundy wine. Burgundy is made with pinot noir grapes so that’s the route I go. For men of a certain age who have seen the movie “Sideways,” pinot noir holds a special place. I’m always pleased to pick a bottle off the shelf.
They say you should only cook with wines that you’ll drink. That’s true, mostly. The problem with coq au vin is that I like to drink Oregon pinots as the best U.S, versions come from the Willamette Valley, where the vines grow in soil laid down by floods from Glacial Lake Missoula. But a nice bottle of Oregon pinot will set you back about $20, and you’ll need at least two. I usually substitute less expensive California pinot for the braising liquid, and save the good Oregon hooch to drink with dinner.
So if you’ve still got a rooster from last fall gathering freezer burn, thaw it and give it a soak in pinot. Or practice now on a capon or stewing chicken from the market so your skills will be sharp in the fall.
Julia Child’s recipe is the classic. I also like Alton Brown’s version. Both can be found with a quick Google search.
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