Bird hunting may still be a ways off, but it’s never far from mind. My mind at least. That’s especially so during the high-water mud season, when river fishing is a no go. Lakes provide distraction, yet still the mind wanders.
While watching a cooking show my mind wandered to the freezer where a few leftover chukar remain from fall. They were brined and vacuum sealed so they remain in good shape. If I wanted to pop them in a 160-degree water bath to cook whole, they’d hold up.
Still, this time of year I lean toward the smoker. Actually, it’s a kettle grill, but for small birds like chukar or quail, it smokes just fine. I light a small pile of briquettes on one side of the grill and put the birds on the other. I add some soaked wood chips, or fresh cuttings from a fruit tree, put the lid on, and orient the vent over the birds so the smoke will visit them as it escapes.
Be careful not to put too much fuel to your fire. You’re smoking here, not grilling. If you’re concerned the birds haven’t cooked all the way through, give them a poke with a knife, testing for clear juices.
You can also put the birds in a covered pot in a low oven to finish after they’ve picked up that kiss of smoke. You’ll lose the glossy sheen of any pellicle that formed, but the security of knowing your birds are cooked through may be worth the trade off.
By the way, this is also a great method for bigger chunks of meat like pork butts or game roasts. Let the meat spend an hour or so in the smoke, then give it the same covered-pot, low-and-slow heat treatment, for three or four hours. I like to add a braising liquid, either beer or chili sauce or both, depending on the meat’s eventual destination.
You can crisp up the bark by removing the lid for the last half hour or so in the oven.
After the birds cool and the meat is pulled from the carcass, your imagination is the only limitation. You’ll eat plenty right off the bone. Frankly, a pile of smoked chukar breast and cold beer may be the perfect snack for an NBA playoff viewing party.
The cooking show that got my mind wandering in the first place featured a dish that may be America’s greatest contribution to world cuisine: fried chicken and waffles. Only in this case, the chicken wasn’t chicken, but a whole quail perched atop the waffle. I’ve fried whole turkey before, but deep-fried quail remains an unattained, culinary holy grail.
Since I eat most of my quail in hunt camp, it’s hard to get too fancy. Someday I may add a portable deep fryer to my camp box, but for now, I stew most of them in mushroom gravy with a bit of cognac added for fun (bourbon works just fine in a pinch).
What my camp box really needs is proper brining gear. I love white-meated game birds such as pheasant, chukar and quail, but they are tricky to cook, especially away from the convenience of a home kitchen. Brining gives you a buffer against dry meat.
After a winter like the one we just survived, rivers will run high and brown for at least another month. Probably longer. That will allow plenty of time to put my wandering mind to work. I just need an assortment of Cambro containers, a big jug of brine, an insane amount of oil and a big pot. Oh, and a heat source. Sounds like a hunt camp bonfire may be in order.
The deep-fried birds will be delicious, assuming I don’t burn the woods down.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news in Montana.
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