Bird Hunting in America

Nothing ruins game meat faster than overcooking

By Rob Breeding

There’s a pheasant leg in my fridge, a leftover from last week’s gamebird feast. When I ate one of the breasts I shared a bite or two with the Elk Hunter (she loves pheasant but wasn’t hungry). It was moist and delicious, but as we neared the bone we noticed some of the meat was still a bit reddish and undercooked.

That was enough to put off the Elk Hunter, but I was OK with it. Undercooked poultry, especially white meat, is generally a culinary no-no, though chicken sashimi is common enough in Japan that I once watched as Anthony Bourdain ate some on one of his travel/foodie shows.

White meat needs to be cooked just through for me to enjoy. Dark meat birds such as duck and grouse are best medium rare, but the chicken sashimi Bourdain was wolfing down gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Still, I was fine with the undercooked pheasant breast since that explained why the rest of the meat remained juicy and tender. The undercooked meat along the bone demonstrates the main advantage of not filleting out the breasts of gamebirds. While a bone-in breast is harder to cook as it doesn’t lay flat in the pan, that bone serves as an insulator to protect the flesh from overcooking. Filleting the meat off the bone leaves you less margin of error between cooked just right, and burnt.

Once I got through the properly cooked stuff to the still red meat I just stopped eating. I picked of a few undercooked chunks for the dog, but the breast meat was mostly gone at that point anyway.

What the bone doesn’t do, despite the common myth, is add flavor. That pheasant got a quick sear in my cast iron skillet, followed by a short roast in a medium oven. You may imagine perceptible flavor will somehow migrate from bone to flesh in 15 minutes or so, but that’s just your imagination.

What isn’t your imagination is that the bone-in breast tastes better than the fillet which gets back to the insulation factor. Nothing ruins game meat faster than overcooking, but that’s harder to do when the bones are in place.

Skin serves the same function on the other side of the breast, shielding the meat from too much heat. Still, I usually skin, rather than pluck, most gamebirds.

Chicken skin cooked crisp is a tasty, albeit unhealthy treat. But the gamebird skin I’ve eaten is usually either tasteless, or slightly off putting. Gamebirds don’t have the layer of fat just under the skin that domestically raised birds produce, so the skin doesn’t brown up with chicken’s tasty crackle. And since plucking can more than double the time it takes to dress a bird, I usually don’t bother.

You still need to replace the insulative function of the skin, however. I do that with prosciutto. If you pat dry the meat with paper towels the thin ham will cling nicely to the bird meat. This works especially well with breasts, but you can also wrap it around the legs.

As an added bonus, the prosciutto crisps up nicely and provides a salty accent to the meat. Even the most perfectly browned chicken skin can’t hold a candle to prosciutto crisps.

There’s not much meat on that lone pheasant limb in my fridge. I’m thinking that once diced, the leg meat will make a nice base for a pheasant-salad sandwich. I’ll toss in the prosciutto as well, then add a bit of diced celery and sweet onion. Pecans and sliced grapes are the final touch. Mix it with a dollop or two of mayonnaise and you’re in business.

Spread it on wheat bread with a handful of arugula and eat. Even if you’ve managed to overcook the bird, the food lube makes everything moist and tasty. That’s the miracle of mayonnaise.

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