It’s that time of year again — the season of traditions: family, football and, of course, Grandma’s cookbook.
But before slaving away over your standard Butterball dinner, consider having a Throwback Thursday this Thanksgiving by going really old-school and hunting your own bird. (After all, the pilgrims weren’t eating store-bought.)
With bird hunting season upon us, outdoor expert, chef and author Georgia Pellegrini says, “There’s nothing I like more than a wild bird at the dinner table, especially during the holidays.”
Pellegrini teaches practical outdoors skills from the perspective of a classically trained chef.
“It’s about tapping into those instincts that my grandmother’s generation had — getting dirt underneath your fingernails. That’s the most visceral and inspiring way to live.”
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Are You Game?
No matter what your inner hunter is craving — pheasant, quail, wild turkey, or chukar, to name a few — most local game reserves offer introductory courses for neophytes. Just sign up, or better yet, sign the whole family up. It’s a great way to create memories, and even if hunting turns out not to be your thing, you’ll walk away with a better appreciation of today’s conveniences, like the supermarket.
Before refrigeration, people learned to enjoy their meats aged — sometimes green — out of sheer necessity. Pellegrini points out that after the advent of refrigeration in the 20th century, people’s taste buds changed. Palates today are generally not suited for “high” meat (read, rotten-tasting). But, she said, certain game birds do taste better if aged at least for a period of time, compared to eating them fresh.
“Aging is a change in the activity of muscle enzymes. At death, the enzymes begin to deteriorate cell molecules indiscriminately. Large flavorless molecules become smaller, flavorful segments; proteins become savory amino acids; glycogen becomes sweet glucose; fats become aromatic … creat(ing) intense flavor, which improves further upon cooking,” Pellegrini writes in her book, “Girl Hunter.”
While techniques vary, Pellegrini suggests aging pheasants three to seven days (three to four for smaller birds; five to seven days for larger or older birds).
If not badly damaged by the shot, age your bird by hanging it whole by its neck or feet, keeping everything — the feathers, skin, and guts — intact. The temperature where you hang your bird should be between 50 and 55 degrees.
If badly damaged, pluck and gut as soon as possible and place the bird on a wire rack over a pan in the fridge. To prevent drying, cover with a wet cloth.
Pheasants are best eaten as soon as the aging is completed.
Fast Food: Convenience Versus Flavor
For those looking for game without the loaded gun, Pellegrini says butcher shops, high-end grocery stores and websites like Broken Arrow Ranch offer a variety of “wild” game for purchase and delivery. Keep in mind, though, that anything you purchase is farm-raised. For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has strictly prohibited the selling of true wild game meat, so nothing you buy has actually been hunted.
Buyer beware, though. Domesticated, farm-raised animals mean milder flavor compared to their wild counterparts. Often described as “gamy,” the flavors of cooked wild game are rich and unique, nuanced by individual diet, environment, and age.
Once you’ve aged your bird, it’s time to pluck ‘n’ prep.
Remove the Feet and Wings
To remove the feet, cut the legs at their natural bend with a sharp knife. It may take some twisting and pulling to completely remove. Remove the wings by stretching them out and cutting at the joint closest to the body. Again, some twisting may be required.
Start from the breast and work toward the neck, pulling the feathers in the direction they grow. Continue plucking, removing the leg and tail feathers.
Skinning (Less Mess Alternative)
Part feathers along the back of the bird, and cut the skin along the bird’s length. Lift and pull skin, including feathers, off. Note: This step is not recommended for roasting. The skinless bird would require coating with fat or bacon to prevent drying out.
Remove the Head and Neck
Place the bird on its back and cut along the neck where it joins the body. Remove the head and neck and strip out the gullet, crop, and windpipe.
Remove the Innards
Using a pair of scissors, cut the skin right under the breast bone, right under the “V.” Insert your fingers into the body cavity and draw out the innards. Wash and dry the body cavity. Prep the bird for your preferred method of cooking.
Looking for a yummy pheasant hors d’oeuvre ? Here’s one from Pellegrini’s cookbook:
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