Alternative Takes on Cooking Birds

I've killed enough birds to develop reliable, repeatable techniques when I get those birds to the kitchen

By Rob Breeding

My English setter Doll is 9 years old. She hunted with Jack, my first setter, four seasons before he died when he was 10.

Fortunately, I’m not about to share a tear jerker story about a dog in her declining days. Jack was a great bird dog, but was a healthcare train wreck. Doll, nearing 10, is still going strong.

This is actually a math exercise. Sorting out the age of my dogs helps calculate what I consider my serious bird-hunting years. I hunted a bit in the years before Jack, but always over someone else’s bird dog. There were also years when I ran a Lab, but waterfowl was the focus then — though that dog loved to flush quail and pheasant.

But once I had Jack, things got serious. I could head out on a hunt over a pointing dog whenever I wanted, or at least when my busy family schedule allowed.

The math tells me it’s been 15 years.

I don’t know how many birds I’ve killed in that time. It’s not a huge number as there were some pretty lean years mixed in, but it’s been enough for me to develop reliable, repeatable techniques when I get those birds to the kitchen.

I’m solid roasting pheasant. Brining, oven temperature control and a meat thermometer always at the ready, means I consistently pull juicy, GBD birds — golden, brown and delicious — from the oven.

Smaller birds such as chukar and quail are pretty straightforward as well. Again, brining is my crutch. It increases the margin for error when it comes to overcooking, and the resulting dry, cottony breast meat.

My other crutch is my sous vide cooker. Brine a quail, vacuum seal it and put it in a 165-degree water bath for a few hours. The bird will be perfectly cooked: moist and tender. What it won’t be is GBD. The Maillard reaction, which creates the tasty brown crust on a loaf of bread or one of those roasted pheasants, requires about 300 degrees. Birds cooked in the sous vide need to be dried thoroughly, then browned in a hot skillet or with a culinary torch such as a Searzall.

There’s another solution to the gray, unappetizing appearance of meat that emerges from the sous vide: cover it up with a tasty sauce. The breasts of the first birds I kill this fall I will cook to perfect doneness in the sous vide. Then I’ll hide their grayness under a blanket of poblano cream sauce.

Poblanos are a mild chili common in Mexican cuisine. The sauce usually adorns chicken so it will be a good match for pheasant and chukar, or even the darker, more intensely flavored breasts of sharp tailed grouse. Sprinkle some toasted pumpkin seeds over the sauce and spoon black beans and cilantro rice on the side and you’re up to your eyeballs in some fine dining.

By the way, canned beans are always a handy shortcut providing respectable taste. But if you’ve got the time, starting with dried black beans is worth the effort. You’ll get even better texture and taste, and the taste will be amplified even further if you include dried avocado leaves in the cooking liquid. The leaves will perfume the beans with a delicate anise flavor. You need to either remove the leaves, or blend them thoroughly, before eating. Avocado leaves are a lot like bay leaves in this regard, only sturdier.

If you blend them, make sure your motor has plenty of horsepower. And you’ll probably still need to strain the results to remove the heavier stems and leaf veins.

The other sous vide helper sauce I intend to introduce to my game birds this fall is mole. Oaxacan mole, with chocolate and peppers, is classically poured over turkey, but pheasant, again, is the perfect wild substitute.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.