Recipe: Grilled Pheasant and Brie Sandwiches

Pheasant grilled cheese

Sometimes the most satisfying meals are born out of chaos.  My friend Jim and his daughter were deer hunting with my son and I a couple of weekends ago.  The snow was deep and  by mid-morning both kids were dragging and, truth be told, so were the adults.  We had planned on hunting the entire day but decided to take a few hours off for lunch and pulled into the house for a bite.

The house was in a shambles as unknown to me (or more likely forgotten) my father in law and wife were installing a drop ceiling in the basement. So it was noisy and dusty with a decidedly frosty climate that was evident in the looks I received from my wife who for some strange reason felt that my priorities were a little askew.  Despite 15 years of marriage to a hunter, she still occasionally thinks that scheduling home reno projects during that precious three month window from September 1 to November 30 is a good idea.  Now she knew I wouldn’t be helping yet there were still palpable waves of disapproval emanating from the matron of the family.  Any man who has ever sat around watching the game while their wife has been doing laundry or washing floors will know what I’m talking about.

Due to the hostile environment and imminent marital storm clouds, lunch needed to be quick.  Since I had guests I also wanted it to be good.  I scanned the fridge and spied a bag of pheasant breasts that I had defrosted for another purpose.  There was a red onion on the counter, a small wheel of Brie cheese in the dairy bin and a day old loaf of French bread in the pantry.

The result was a pheasant grilled cheese that was surprisingly good served with a little Sriacha hot sauce for dipping.  The unique flavor of the pheasant is complemented by the bite of the onion and the funkiness of the Brie (or Camembert) while the buttery crunch of the bread brings back memories of childhood comfort food.  The Sriacha makes for a very grown-up ketchup for this grown-up grilled cheese. I see an ice cold lager or pilsner as the only acceptable beverages to accompany this sandwich.

Ruffed grouse would work very well in this too and (sigh) chicken is the obvious domestic substitute though spending more on a farm raised pheasant or guinea fowl would make for a much more interesting meal than would chicken – the tofu of the meat world.  If I had to use chicken I would probably use boneless and skinless thighs.

In the pensive atmosphere we ate quickly and made our escape for the deer fields.  Unfortunately,  the wifely wrath was only delayed and ultimately exacerbated by the fact that I hadn’t given her a taste of the sandwich.

Oh well.  I have all of December  to try and get off the couch and back into the bedroom.

Grilled Pheasant and Brie Sandwiches

Prep Time:  10 minutes

Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 4 pheasant breast fillets (breasts of 2 pheasants)
  • 8 slices French bread
  • 1 small red onion thinly sliced
  • 10-12 ounces Brie cheese (or other soft cheese)
  • butter
  • salt and pepper
  • Sriacha (optional)

Directions:

  1. Take each pheasant breast and lay it between two sheets of plastic wrap.  Using the smooth end of a meat tenderizer (flat frying pan or even a bottle) pound the meat gently to flatten it out and make it roughly uniform in its thickness. You should be aiming to make each breast slightly larger in area than the bread it will be lying on.
  2. Season the pheasant breasts liberally with salt and pepper and let sit while you heat a large cast iron pan on med-high heat for a couple of minutes.  Add a table spoon of butter to the pan and once it has finished frothing add in the breasts, keeping them well separated from each other.  Saute on one side for 2-3 minutes until well browned and then flip them and cook for a further 2 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, slice your onion and the cheese.
  4. Once the pheasant breasts have cooked through, assemble the sandwich by putting a layer of cheese on the bread , topping that with a layer of sliced onion and topping that with the hot pheasant breast. Place the other bread slice on that and spread a layer of butter on the outside of the sandwiches and fry them in a dry non-stick pan over med heat until the bread is crisp and brown, gently flipping it as needed to get the other side done as well.
  5. Take off the heat and slide onto a plate with a small dollop of Sriacha on the side.

Recipe: Venison Tartare

 

Venison tartare with fried toast.

Venison tartare with fried toast.

One of the most common sins in meat cookery in general is the overcooking of meats of all types.  With wild game, in particular, there seems to be a legion of cooks that believe that wild meat is somehow more dangerous to the eater than domestic and therefore must be incinerated to a uniform gray in order to be safe for eating. That wild harvested game is probably safer than a lot of the meat already in the domestic food supply is lost on many hunters who have had their culinary techniques passed onto them through the generations from an era where refrigeration was seasonal at best and meat often did “go off” and needed to be cooked well done in order to be safe for consumption.

Properly handled, the prime cuts of wild venison and waterfowl can and should be eaten cooked no more than medium rare (the shoulders, neck and shanks of game require long slow cooking).  In fact, one of my favorite ways to eat a freshly killed deer is as a tartare — raw minced meat, onions and spices.

Lying inside the carcass along either side of the backbone, the tenderloins of a deer are actually a little on the chewy and stringy side if removed from the carcass right away, yet they dry out and discolor if left to hang with the rest of the animal.  My solution has been to remove them while field dressing and then eat as a tartare the next day.

Tartare does not taste like raw meat. Or rather, it DOES taste like raw meat but it does not taste like one would think raw meat would taste like.  It tastes fresh and clean with the pickles, onions, mustard and salt adding layers of sour, sweet, and salty to the umami flavor of the meat.  The egg yolk adds silkiness to the dish.  I my case, the yolk came from one of my own chickens and was laid a few hours before so if you make this at home get the freshest eggs you can.  You could also hard-boil the egg and sprinkle the chopped yolk on top of the tartare or simply forgo the egg all together (though that would be a shame). Other variations add Worcestershire sauce, jalapenos, Tabasco, and lemon — all are good.  One of my favorite variations is as a kibbeh — raw minced meat with Mediterranean spices and served with pickled vegetables, good olive oil and pita bread.

Could you cook a tartare?  Yes, but then it would just be a burger with too much crap mixed in.  A good burger has its condiments on the OUTSIDE while a good tartare mixes them in. Take the plunge and try a home-made tartare — it is both refined and primal in nature and good food is all about the contrasts.

***A caveat — do NOT try this recipe if the animal has been shot in the gut since this could contaminate the tenderloins which reside inside the abdominal cavity. Only animals that have been cleanly killed with a shot in front of the diaphragm (the “donor” of the tartare pictured above was killed by a headshot so no worries on that regard) should be considered for a tenderloin tartare. Backstrap or sirloin makes a more than suitable substitute for the tenderloins if they happen to be damaged or contaminated. Most other big game would also make a great tartare but avoid wild pigs, and predators like bears and cougars as they have been known to carry trichinosis.  A domestic substitute is naturally beef, though lamb would come closer in flavor to venison in my opinion.

Venison Tartare (serves 1 as a meal and 2 as an appetizer)

Total time: 1 hour       Prep Time: 20 minutes

  • 1/2 lb. Venison tenderloin (backstrap will also suffice)
  • 1 teaspoon capers – chopped roughly
  • 2-3 gherkins — finely chopped
  • 1 shallot — finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley — finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 raw egg yolk
  • 4 slices of thinly sliced white bread
  • butter
  • Maldon sea salt or fleur de sel for finishing

1. Place the venison in the freezer for about a half hour while you prep the remaining ingredients.

2. Remove the venison from the freezer and slice into thin (about the width of a pencil) strips lengthwise with the grain. Slice each strip lengthwise again so that you have fairly uniform, long, pencil thick strips.  Stack the strips together and now slice across the grain so that you make many tiny cubes. They should be about the size of a pencil eraser but if you want to go finer, make thinner strips.

3. Place the meat in a bowl and add a good pinch of salt and a healthy grinding of pepper. Stir this into the meat mixture with the capers, gherkins, shallots, mustard, olive oil and parsley.  Place this mixture into a bowl and return to the fridge to let the flavors marry for at least twenty minutes.

4. Prior to serving, take the bread slices and butter both sides.  Fry them in a medium low frying pan, flipping occasionally until both sides are toasted and brown. (Be careful, the toast can go from golden to incinerated in a moment).

5. To serve, mold the meat mixture into a bowl or other container and invert onto the plate — tapping to make sure the meat comes away from the bowl.  Make a little well in the center of the meat mound and place the raw egg yolk in it. Finish with the salt and more pepper and parsley if you wish.

6. To eat, break the egg yolk (mine broke on adding it to the top of the mound — aesthetically disappointing but still tasty) and stir into the tartare. Place small forkfuls on the toast and enjoy with a good red wine, hoppy beer, or even champagne.

 

Pheasants: The Beginners Game

PheasantcropDespite the title, until I moved to Alberta just over 16 years ago I had never been much of a pheasant hunter.  In fact, until coming to Alberta I had shot exactly one pheasant in my life – a hen released on a game bird preserve that had to be kicked into the air by my buddy because it refused to flush otherwise.  I don’t even recall how I cooked it, though I am quite sure I ate it and liked it enough to want to shoot more.  Sadly, Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) did not have a pheasant season (and still doesn’t) so the only venue available for pheasant hunting was the local pheasant preserve and it cost more than a university student could regularly afford.  Thus most of my hunting efforts on the Island were directed to ruffed grouse, hares and waterfowl (no big game on P.E.I. either).

Despite 35 years of hunting experience, my first wild rooster was shot in Alberta just seven years ago. That hunt was facilitated by some friends from neighboring British Columbia who make an annual pilgrimage to the south-eastern corner of my province to spend a month or so chasing their German Wirehairs as the dogs chase the roosters.  It has become somewhat of an annual event for me and for the past two years I have traveled with my 14 year old son, Aidan, to Taber, Alberta for the Novice Pheasant Hunt where novice and first-time hunters are educated on firearms safety, clay target shooting and pheasant biology.  The young hunters are then given the opportunity to hunt with a mentor and shoot released birds on the training site.  After the novice hunt, we normally pair up with the B.C. crew for another couple of days chasing wild roosters.

aidanhaley hunt

Two young hunters showing off their Novice Hunt success.

The pheasant along with the Hungarian partridge and chukar partridge is one of our few “benign” imported bird species.  While other imported species of birds such as domestic pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows could best be called “invasive” in that they have displaced or negatively competed with native bird species, the pheasant has exploited a niche that was previously unoccupied in North America.  In Alberta, we are at the northern limit of the pheasant’s range and it is only in the that thin strip of Alberta that adjoins the Montana border that reasonably good numbers of wild pheasants can be found.  Thus, many of the pheasants shot in the rest of Alberta are released birds — birds hatched in captivity and raised in large flight pens that allow them to fly but keep them confined until it is time to release them.

The ease of raising pheasants in captivity while still allowing them to retain many of their wild characteristics is one of the prime reasons that pheasants are a great introductory species for new hunters.  Released birds hold tighter and run less than their wild brethren allowing for close shots (sometimes too close) and multiple opportunities for inexperienced hunters.  Wild birds run like rabbits and will often flush wildly out of range.

The most memorable hunt this season took place on a quarter section (160 acres) of land possessed of a long meandering, brush choked irrigation canal bordered on both sides by waist high sagebrush.  We had two groups of three hunters.  My son Aidan was in my group and another 14 year old novice, Haley, with her father, Jim, were in the other group. Each party worked with a German wirehair (to locate and point birds) and a Labrador retriever (to flush and retrieve them) as the canine components of the team.

The author and Labrador on an earlier hunt before "Poacher" was retired from service.

The author and his Labrador on an earlier hunt before “Poacher” was retired from service.

Pheasants would rather run than fly and the thick sagebrush offered plenty of concealment.  Our strategy was to have the wirehair and one hunter work the canal edges while the other two hunters and the Lab would work the sage brush ahead of, and to the side of the wirehair.  This funneled pheasants towards the canal where they would then be forced to flush or run along the edge of the canal.  Periodically and as the terrain dictated, the hunter/Labrador team would cut across a bend in the canal to act as blockers for the wirehair team still hugging close to the bank.  The pheasants, now pushed from two sides and with only one avenue for escape would flush in an explosion of flapping.  Notice I did not say cackling.  Wild roosters rarely cackle when flushing, unlike their pen raised counterparts.

We flushed and shot three roosters and flushed another two hens, yelling “rooster” or “hen” to let everyone in the party know whether it was a legal rooster or verboten hen that was clattering into the sky.  At one point we flushed a pheasant that looked like a hen on the wing.  This “hen” however, betrayed itself — bursting forth with a cacophony of cackles as it flew away — and I brought up my shotgun and dumped the young rooster (hens don’t cackle) neatly into the canal.  Warden, my two-year-old, male, Yellow Lab promptly splashed down for the retrieve (a good thing since we discovered that the young Wirehair refused to swim) and brought back the bedraggled and pinfeathery immature rooster.  Not pretty to look at but tasty and as tender as a wild bird can ever be.

We were now had three birds out of a three man limit of six and continued to work the canal toward the other hunting party.  As we approached an oxbow in the canal both dogs began gyrating with excitement, noses to the ground, tails (or remnants thereof on the part of the wirehair) thrashing.  A large hen got up and I yelled “Hen!” to restrain my son Aidan who was bringing his gun to bear. He stopped to look at me and an instant later the world around us exploded in pheasants as nearly three dozen birds began rocketing off in all directions.  It was every man for himself as we each tried to pick out the roosters from the hens.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Aidan drop his second bird of the day.

It was then that I experienced a first for me.  I missed a pheasant.  Now while I consider myself to be a good wingshot, I do miss other birds regularly enough to keep me humble but to this point in my hunting career I had never missed a pheasant (only having shot at less than forty of them mind you).  Despite all the flapping, sometimes squawking, and visual clutter of wings and tails reaching for the sky that accompanies a pheasant flush, they are not particularly fast flyers on their own (though with a 60 km/hr tailwind they can really move). The reason most people miss a flushing pheasant is that they shoot too soon while the bird is too close and the pattern of the shotgun is too tight.  Good thing too.  If you do happen to hit a bird ten yards from the muzzle of your gun you are apt to create some very unappetizing pheasant confetti.  This however, is part of what makes them a great bird for first time hunters because their relatively large size and slow flight often gives novices the opportunity to bring a gun to bear and fire before the birds are out of range.

In this case, distracted by the chaos, I shot too soon and over the rooster bearing straight away from me.  A moment later I was offered redemption as another burst from the cover near my feet. This time, determined to allow the bird some room, I silently counted “one, two, three” and fired on three.  My second bird of the day folded neatly and disappeared into the thick willows lining the canal.

This is an area in which a dog is essential.  Though colored like clowns, male pheasants can blend into their surroundings amazingly well and dead ones seem to find every little contour and depression in the ground to roll into.  A wounded pheasant that can run is nearly always a lost bird to the dogless hunter.  Even with the dogs, it took a good 10 minutes to find the three roosters we downed at the oxbow – despite all three being dead in the air.

We met up with the other party of three in the quarter’s center to find we had a total of eleven birds – one shy of a 6 man limit. The other party picked up their final bird on  the return trip to the vehicles and we were done hunting an hour after our day started.

Young hunters with the evidence of the day's success.

Young hunters with the evidence of the day’s success.

Flavor-wise pheasant is the most “chickeny” of  gamebirds.  It is a great bird for introducing novices to the joys of eating wild game because it tastes so familiar to what the chicken-eaters of the world are used to yet has a tangy undercurrent that lets you know it is not exactly chicken.  A free-range organic chicken would be most similar in its flavor profile.

Immediately after the bird is in the hand should be the time that the hunter/cook decides how and when the bird will be dressed and prepared.  Young pheasants will exhibit both shorter tails and spurs than older birds  and be more tender but they may also have more pinfeathers making them more difficult to pluck than a mature specimen.  My rule of thumb generally is to examine the bird for shot and dog damage.  Birds that exhibit excessive amounts of either are skinned, gutted and disjointed that day for use in stews, stir-fries and braises. The rest are hung and plucked.

I often hang pheasants and other gamebirds that are lightly hit and in good condition (wings and legs mostly intact and unbroken – no shot holes around the intestinal cavity) in a cool breezy place (0⁰- 4⁰ C) for up to a week.  Hung fully feathered and ungutted, the process is much like dry aging beef in that it allows the flavors to concentrate and the tissues to relax, improving tenderness, especially in older birds.

Hanging pheasants in the late fall sometimes only requires some convenient nails under the eaves.

Hanging pheasants in the late fall sometimes only requires some convenient nails under the eaves.

Once dry plucked and gutted the birds are washed thoroughly and are ready for cooking and/or packaging.

Pheasant ready for cooking.

Pheasant ready for cooking.

I usually cut down either side of the backbone when cleaning birds. It makes them easier to gut and subsequently stuff and leaves me with some tough yet meaty backbones to make pheasant stock from (the most recent batch produced a serendipitous mistake that I will highlight in another post).

backs pheasant

Pheasant necks with backs attached ready for the stock pot.

Any recipe suitable for chicken will work with pheasant though be warned that pheasant does dry out more quickly than chicken and as such cooking times normally can be reduced by as much as a third. Pheasants can be purchased frozen in many grocery stores and are quite costly when compared to chicken yet are unique enough to justify the occasional splurge for that special meal.  At about two pounds dressed, one pheasant will feed two people when served with accompaniments and side dishes.

In the coming weeks and months I will be highlighting some of the recipes and meals made from pheasants and other game.  Some will be extremely simplistic — almost caveman-like in their ruggedness — while others involve the use of long preparation times and multiple techniques. Where appropriate, domestic meat alternatives will be given.  Some game has no domestic equivalent so I won’t even bother trying but will instead encourage readers to source their own — either through friends who hunt or through their own hunting.