The late, great Jim Harrison wrote that bird hunters are obligated to sort through their freezer in early September, inventorying the carcasses left over from the previous fall.
The number of remaining birds is then subtracted from your allotment for the upcoming season.
Harrison’s passage is a favorite, one I’ve repeated many times. It’s a little cheeky, but also profound. Hunting isn’t mere recreation. Hunting is work, work that involves killing for food. Hunting is richly fulfilling, both for the nutritious, ecologically sustainable protein, as well as the soul-cleansing excuse it offers for wandering about in bird country.
Whatever the bird, there’s no better place to lose yourself.
Waste is a betrayal of the oath we make when we pull the trigger. I sincerely believe that, though I admit there’s nary a September since my first bird dog Jack and I prowled the quail country of Arizona that I haven’t had a bird or two left over. Fixing that has been my mission.
The first remedy was to get a vacuum sealer. Even a cheapie, like the one I bought at the now-defunct Shopko, does the trick. Vacuum-sealed, frozen birds keep far past next season’s opening day. They keep so well even roasting is an option, though I usually save that for fresh birds.
I have a few go-to options for my leftovers: coq au vin is one. I also smoke them, then grind the meat for a ragu. That’s probably my favorite, especially with chukars.
I have another answer now. Part of my inspiration came last year when I reviewed Hank Shaw’s cookbook, “Quail, Pheasant, Cottontail.” Shaw’s books are much more than a compilation of recipes. They are also jammed with tips on how to handle wild game, from field to table.
One piece of advice that now seems obvious, but I just hadn’t considered, was the suggestion that shot-up birds, or maybe the shot-up portions of birds, should be reserved for stock. These bits have an off flavor that can ruin a meal. I usually cook the bad stuff with the rest of the bird, then share the fouled meat with the dogs. They’ve earned it after all, and the taste agrees with them.
Shaw says these bits should be bagged up and frozen to be reserved for when you’ve accumulated enough to simmer into a pot of wild bird stock. I’ve long collected the bones of cooked birds for stock purposes, along with all kinds of vegetable scraps, but I never thought to set aside those unappetizing bird bits. The dogs probably won’t like this solution.
This year’s freezer inventory revealed one quail and a pair of chukars. These are my favorite birds, from both a hunting and culinary perspective. I’m surprised they survived the year, but they found their way to the bottom of the chill chest where I missed them.
I let the birds thaw, then inspected the carcasses. The clean breasts were filleted off, while the rest went into the stock pot along with the frozen veg and some fresh stuff.
I had designs on ramen for this stock, so I also added sliced ginger and citrus zest. I was shooting for a clear, chintan broth, so I poached the carcasses in a barely simmering pot. This contrasts with the broth of trendy and delicious tonkotsu ramen, which gets a hard boil to suspend solids, turning it creamy and opaque.
I poached the breasts in soy sauce, mirin, salt and sugar, to use as chashu. I skipped the soft-boiled six-minute egg — which takes about 6 1/2 minutes at my elevation — as it’s still summer and too much bird can be a little heavy in the heat.
I added noodles, green onions and a lot of slurping. It was delicious.
As I prep for the season ahead, my freezer and conscious are clear.
Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.
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