December 22, 2011

"If you can cook a duck..."

"...then you can cook pheasant."

I'm a big fan of game. Living in Montana it is hard not to be, and I have been lucky enough to learn how to cook meat from elk, deer, bison and duck. Last night I was offered a chance to cook a whole pheasant for the first time. I thought to myself, "OK - it can't be that much different then cooking a duck...?" and started thinking about the last time I cooked duck. It has been quite a while and I can't remember any time I had cook it whole or in the oven. Although I was going to be venturing into new territory I felt up to the challenge and started doing some online research and asking co-workers for advice.

If you are unfamiliar with game let me fill you in on some key things. Wild game is significantly leaner then farm raised or domestic animals. The best example that I can come up with is turkey. If you have ever eaten a turkey that someone actually went out and shot (vs ordering from a grocery) you might have noticed a slightly different taste to the meat. The meat from the game turkey probably was denser and tougher. The reason is fairly obvious, wild birds are built to survive, domestic birds are built to eat and... well.. be eaten. Domestic turkeys are also bread to have large, soft muscled breasts and less sinuous legs. For these reasons, domestic turkeys provide more meat that is less filling.

Same idea for bison meat vs cattle meat. Even though most bison that you can purchase in a store was farm-raised, they have not been domesticated long enough for their meat to change significantly. Bison is leaner, by about a 1/3, then cow, while most game birds are 1/2 as lean as their domestic counterparts. Wild game has lower levels of all the bad stuff (fat, cholesterol, calories) while being big on taste and flavor.

So what does knowing about game and domestic meat have to do with cooking it? Everything! Understanding how lean your meat will directly effect how you cook it. Game birds will dry out if you just look at them wrong, let alone putting them in/on/under direct heat for enough time to cook it through. There are a variety of ways to keep the bird moist, the most popular being aggressive basting, cooking it in a baking dish with a good lid, cooking it in liquid as a stew, or a combination of the three. Last night I went with basting the bird while it sat in a pan with liquid in the bottom and a tinfoil cover.

As always, I started making dinner by gathering my ingredients. I wanted the bird to shine last night so I opted out of major seasoning and decided to use lemons and oranges as supporting characters to the meat of the bird. I washed and picked over the bird to make sure there were no stray feathers or whatnot left behind and silently thanked the hunter for doing such a good job at cleaning out the pheasant.

I put the pheasant in a glass baking dish and drizzled melted butter and minced garlic all over the bird, inside and out, and then squeezed a lemon over the top as well. I then made my bath with the juice of 2 oranges, 1/2 a cup of chicken broth and 1/4 cup white wine (Pinot Gris to be exact) and poured in in the dish under the bird. Lastly I sliced up the squeezed oranges and stuffed the cavity with them. Tinfoil over the top and in the oven it went.

After about 10 min, I pulled the bird out and basted it again with the garlic butter and put it back in for another 10 and basted again. Another 10 went by and the meat was just about done so I pulled the tinfoil off and brushed it with... wait for it... my green hot sauce. I thought that it would make a nice contrast to the sweet oranges and tart lemon. I also figured that it would act as a carmalizing crisper for the skin. The skin did need to crisp up a bit so I turned the broiler on low and moved the bird down to the lowest rack for a final 5 minutes.

Time to carve up the bird! I will admit, I am terrible at carving birds. I always viewed it as a Dad job and without him around I was left to my own devices. I did my hack job on the breasts and pulled the legs off and was pleasantly surprised that the bird wasn't dry. The breasts were actually really juicy and a perfect color. The legs were tougher, but I expected that. It was a very lean bird so I was expecting the legs to be inedible, but they were good, gamey but good.

I served up my plate with a small baked potato and salad with green peppers. Time to eat!

Dinner was perfect. The skin had a nice texture to it and the breast meat was perfectly done. The fruit really enhanced the taste of the pheasant without overpowering it and the hot sauce gave a nice extra something to the taste. The best thing though had to be the lack of shot in the meat. Nothing ruins dinner like a chipped tooth.

Next time I can get my hands on some pheasant I think I would like to use just the breasts in a dish and the legs for some other purpose. But who knows when that will be. Until then, I will brag about my first pheasant experience and how perfectly it went. :)

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