Whether you’re reading this before or after Thanksgiving doesn’t matter, but if it is before, and you don’t need a turkey, this should be your plan.
It begins someplace filled, ideally with rarely hunted pheasants. Such places are rare in western Montana, so you may need to drive over the mountains.
The key is to find a nice bird and shoot it, but not too hard. Headshots are best for holiday birds, but if you’re a killer like me, any shot that manages to put a bird on the ground is a minor miracle.
I bounce between big Thanksgiving bashes with all the family in California and smaller gatherings with my vegetarian daughters. A pheasant, a chukar or two, or a mess of quail are perfect for this sort of gathering, when I may be the only one eating meat.
This is a holiday bird so after you’ve picked the least shot-up carcass it’s time to pluck. While it’s easier to skin a bird, these are the holidays and you’re going to roast it whole. I skin out shot-up birds or those I plan to cut up for soup or stew, but a roasted bird requires that thin shield of epidermal protection.
Roast a skinned bird and the browned meat will be dry and stringy.
Take the time to pluck any bird you plan to serve whole. Cook it right and the skin browns up nicely. It’s not always as crisp as the skin of domestic birds since wild birds don’t have much subcutaneous fat, which helps skin crisp. But it does shield the meat from direct heat and helps it stay moist.
Once plucked and cleaned, decide if you intend to brine. I usually wet brine whole roasters. Wet brining has its critics as it may leave domestic poultry a little watery, but it’s my preferred method for flavorful wild birds. I’ve used Kenji Lopez-Alt’s poultry brine formula for years: 6% salt by weight and I get good results. Make your brine ahead of time by diluting 450 grams of salt in 2 gallons of water (7.6 liters) on the stove, heating it just enough to dissolve the salt. Store it in the fridge so you have cold brine when you need it.
You can add herbs if you like. Rosemary lends a nice piney aroma as it cooks, but herbs in brine don’t impart much flavor. Make a pan sauce with finely chopped fresh rosemary if flavor’s your goal.
I usually bag pheasants in a brine bath before I go to bed, then drain them when I wake. Six to 8 hours seems about right. Quail get about two hours in the brine bath. Four is good for chukars.
Place brined birds on a wire rack in the fridge and let the skin dry before cooking. All day helps. Overnight is better.
If you killed your holiday bird the morning you intend to cook it you can skip the brine. Pluck, clean and do your best to dry the skin with paper towels.
I like to pull the bird from the chill chest a half hour or so before roasting so it can warm to room temperature. I also brush the bird with olive oil. Diced herbs in the basting oil adds flavor you’ll notice.
For roasting, I follow Hank Shaw’s method. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. I truss the bird which helps it cook evenly. Pheasant get 15 minutes, then remove the bird from the oven and lower the heat to 350. Roast another 30 minutes. I use a thermometer to keep an eye on the temp, pulling the bird when the thickest part of the thigh is 160 degrees. The juices may run pink, but if you rest it under tented foil, it will cook through without being overdone.
Fifteen minutes is enough for quail. Chukars take a little longer.
Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.
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