A bird in the hand…

Pheasants are not the sort of thing most people keep in their freezers and we wouldn’t have them either if it weren’t for Steve’s Dad’s love of hunting and his generosity. He’s given us more game meat than we know what to do with and we may need to purchase a larger freezer next year when he retires. Of course, we also need to invite more of our friends to dinner so they can help us get through our frozen cave of meat. It sounds like it’s time to plan a dinner party!

Pheasants are not the easiest birds to cook with. In fact, wild pheasant is a pain in the ass to prepare well. They’re wild birds with very lean meat, lots of bones and leg meat that is virtually impossible to separate from the dozens of tiny tendons holding the bird’s drumstick together. Steve took most of the meat he could get off the bones and put it in the food processor along with a variety of herbs and spices. He chopped the mixture into a course, fresh sausage and browned it in olive oil. The large cooked crumbles of “sausage” dotted the pizza crust accompanied by thin slices of fennel, chopped kale and a generous scattering of goat cheese.

The next day, Jason took what was left of the pheasant meat and bones and made a nice pressure-cooked stock. We read the Cook’s Illustrated suggestion of finely chopping the vegetables in a food processor, and also grinding the meat, before making stock. Modernist Cuisine, the new six-volume cookbook by Nathan Myhrvold, suggests using a similar method of pressure-cooking stock. It was time to give it a try. So, after chopping the vegetables and then grinding up the pheasant meat, Jason browned the bones in the pressure cooker with a little olive oil, tossed in the meat to cook a little, then added the vegetables and enough water to cover everything. He sealed the lid and for the next 45 minutes, that familiar little ssssss from the pressure cooker was music to his ears. After cooking was complete, he turned it off and let the whole thing cool down before unsealing it. The stock was clear and beautiful. A very nice consommé.

Preparing to make the stock.

He also tried this method with the left over veggie clippings we keep in the freezer, and the carcass of a rotisserie chicken from a recent dinner out. We had the pleasure of dinning with our good friend Kathy the other night while she was in town and took her to Limon Rotisserie, one of our favorite restaurants in the city. Not only is the restaurant’s food excellent, the staff of hot guys serving would make any gay man, or straight woman, blush and flirt, but we digress. Anyway, asking to keep the bones from the chicken carcass isn’t a common request at the restaurant. We usually only keep them when we get take out. The owner, who was waiting on us, looked a little perplexed by our request to box up the bones until Jason mentioned that we make a great chicken stock with them. With all the herbs and spices rubbed on the chicken before roasting, it would be a waste to just throw the bones away without getting all that flavor from them.
The Limon chicken stock turned out very nicely in the pressure cooker too, and it took a lot less time than boiling everything for hours. The stock was a little cloudy though and we think the vegetable clippings absorbed a lot of the water. We didn’t finely chop the veggies before adding them to the pot. No matter, the stock has a lot of great flavor and we have a rich stock for the next great soup or sauce.

Pizza Dough

Pheasant Sausage

Leftovers are just as good.

1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
1 lb pheasant meat
3 tbsp olive oil

Heat a small sauté pan over medium flame, add dry spices and carefully toast until fragrant. Do not let them brown. Remove from heat and pour into a mortar. Add salt and grind mixture into a fine powder.

Add pheasant and spice mixture to the bowl of a food processor and process with the chopping blade until ground into a fine mince.

Heat a skillet over medium flame and add olive oil. Once oil has heated, add pheasant “sausage” to the pan and cook while breaking the mixture into small pieces. Cook, stirring frequently, until pieces begin to brown. Remove from heat and set aside to use or to cool before refrigerating.

Assemble Pizza

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, rough chop
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced with a mandolin
1 small bunch kale, any variety
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled into large pieces

In a small sauté pan gently heat the olive oil and garlic until starting to sizzle. Remove from the heat to cool.

After stretching the dough to fit onto a baking sheet, brush with the garlic infused olive oil. Equally distribute the fennel slices, topped by the kale, then the pheasant sausage and goat cheese. Bake in a 450-degree oven for 12-15 minutes or until lightly browned on top and bottom.

Pheasant stock

2 pheasants, bones and leg meat
1 medium onion
1 large carrot
1 large celery rib
1 bay leaf
½ tablespoon whole black pepper corns
¼ teaspoon salt

Remove as much meat from the bones and pulse in a food processor until the consistency of ground meat. In a pressure cooker add the oil and heat the pan. Add the bones and brown. Add the ground meat and cook stirring constantly, until browned. In the food processor add the onion, carrot and celery. Pulse until finely chopped. Add to the pan along with the bay leaf, pepper corns, salt, and enough water to cover. Place the lid on the pressure cooker and under low pressure cook for 45 minutes. Allow the to cool before removing the lid. Strain the stock and refrigerate for up to 1 week, or freeze for two months.

Chicken & Veggie Carcass Stock

4-6 cups chicken bones and/or veggie scraps
bay leaves
whole peppercorns

We’ll collect chicken carcasses and veggie clippings in the freezer until the container is overflowing. Once the container is full, about four-six cups of whatever items you have, add to the pressure cooker and cover with water. Add a large pinch of salt, a small palm full of black peppercorns, and a few dried bay leaves. Cook with low pressure for 45 minutes and than let cool without releasing the pressure. Strain the stock and refrigerate for up to 1 week, or freeze for two months.

Wild Pheasant

“But over all … [wild fowl], the pheasant takes precedence; yet few are the mortals who know how to extract perfection from the bird.” – Brillat-Savarin

We rarely think to buy “exotic” varieties of meat from the market. Our freezer is full of grass fed beef and a few odd packages of wild meat from Idaho – elk, deer, trout and pheasant. We even had a couple of packages of wild moose steaks at one point a number of years ago, compliments of Steve’s Uncle Tom. We shared them with friends while on a camping trip. But these are not things we would typically buy from the market. We live, like most people, on staples like beef, pork and chicken and think of wild meat as a rare treat.

Farm raised “wild” animals taste different because their feed is controlled and their flesh is nurtured to appeal to domesticated tastes. Truly wild animals taste of the things they forage on to survive and their free roaming nature means the muscle will be stronger, leaner and full of rich, complex flavor.

Cooking wild game requires much greater care than the average farm raised animal because its flesh is very lean and quick to toughen on heat. Elk and deer steaks, for example, must be cooked at very high heat for just a moment and then quickly taken off the heat to rest for a few minutes. It’s only edible in very rare form.

Pheasant 5

Wild Ringneck Pheasants

I suspect the Sara’s Ranch Baby Pheasant on offer at Big 4 is a might more tender than the wild roosters we shoot in southern Idaho. The gamey birds in our freezer were “harvested” the old fashioned way – with a shotgun and a bird dog – on the edge of Blackfoot, Idaho. We dressed them quickly and froze them for the trip to California where they went right into the freezer.

Tradition calls for leaving the birds to “age” until they begin to decompose, allegedly sweetening in the process. We’re not that adventurous and I wouldn’t recommend aging poultry at home. Few of us have enough experience with meat to know when to stop the aging process before the whole thing spoils. But given our experience with tough wild bird meat, I can see the wisdom in letting time break down muscle fiber to soften the meat for eating.

Alas, we’ve settled on long, slow cooking methods to get the most out of the wild pheasant we have on hand. The results don’t come close to the “perfection” Brillat-Savarin describes in his elaborate recitation of a complex roasted pheasant dish worthy of a king. But our take on slow cooked meat sauces here makes for a tasty pheasant ragù, perfect for dressing big pappardelle noodles and accompanied by a nice bottle of wine (Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc or a dry French rose).

Mighty Hunter 2

Steve and Jack w/ Pheasants

Not all of us are hunters. We’re lucky in San Francisco to have access to a bounty of exquisite and unusual meats. Our butcher shops sit in neighborhoods filled with thankful foodies who understand the differences between industrialized meat production practices and the thoughtful, ethical ranching practices of local farmers. The better specialty retailers will have plenty of unusual things to try and if they don’t have what you’re looking for, most have solid relationships with good suppliers who can get whatever you’re looking for quickly.

Of course, farm raised anything is going to cost you plenty (we aren’t going to talk about how much it cost for Steve to buy a non-resident hunting license in Idaho, ahem!). But since most folks no longer hunt game birds, farmed pheasant is worth tracking down. These San Francisco purveyors should be able to source farm raised pheasants for the curious home cook: Drewes Bros. in Noe Valley, Bryan’s Quality Meats in Laurel Heights, Avedano’s Holly Park Market in Bernal Heights, Golden Gate Meat Company and Prather Ranch in the Ferry Building and Guerra Quality Meats in the Sunset. Each offers terrific access to quality meat products at premium prices. You might check MacFarlane Pheasants out if you’re looking for a large, national supplier.

This is our take on a wild pheasant sugo. Making sauce from these birds seems the best way to cook the meat long enough to make it tender. We didn’t, but you might try sprinkling toasted walnuts over the plated dish. A little fresh lemon zest on top wouldn’t hurt either. We have another batch cooked and waiting in the freezer for our own future experimentation.

Wild Pheasant Sugo

2 pheasants, completely de-boned, cut into half-inch pieces*

4 slices thick bacon, diced

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

1 large stalk of celery, coarsely chopped

1 large carrot, coarsely chopped

Bouquet garni of fresh thyme, parsley and bay leaves

1/4 cup dry vermouth

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil


Salt and pepper to season

*Note: the “drumstick” of the pheasant is particularly sinewy. The older the bird, the harder the tendons. The hardest, sharpest pieces won’t soften no matter how long you cook the meat. The tendons are almost bone-like and should be trimmed or removed before cooking.

Start by heating a heavy 12″ skillet over medium high heat and add bacon. Cook bacon until crisp, 10 – 12 minutes, and remove from the pan to dry on paper towels. Pour off all but a couple of tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat and return the pan to the heat.

Add pheasant meat and brown on all sides, approximately 5 minutes. Remove the meat from the pan and set it aside. Return pan to the heat and add olive oil.

Add diced onion, celery and carrot and saute on medium low until they’ve soften and begun to caramelize, approximately 15 minutes. Return meat to the pan with the vegetables and deglaze the pan with the vermouth, scraping up any brown bits. Add enough water to cover the meat and add the bouquet garni. Finally, add salt and pepper to taste, but be careful you don’t over salt the braising liquid. It will grow saltier as it reduces. Cover and bring to a simmer.

The pan should stay on heat at a low simmer for at least an hour and a half. The pan will want to go dry from time to time so be sure to add water as necessary until the meat is falling apart and the sauce has become fairly thick. You can always thin it later with pasta water to suit your taste. Be sure to remove the bouquet garni before serving or storing the sauce.

Toss sauce with pappardelle and finish with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes, fresh ground black pepper and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil!

Cheers, Steve & Jason