Boxing Day is traditionally a welcome, extended ‘holiday’…..
but not for the majority of families’ chief cook-&-bottle-washer (AKA wife), with yet another day of marathon meal preparation ahead….so, my solution? Well; time to get out & about – & blow away some of these rapidly-accumulating kitchen cobwebs.
Thus: up early as ever; & for me the solid inevitability of the usual routine, consisting the initial early-morning cuppa (a gentle, lightly-perfumed steaming infusion of Earl Grey); followed by a healthily brisk dog-walking (alternatively described as ‘Jo-dragging’ if Nanuk is in sufficiently effervescent mood). A second, much-needed thirst-quenching cuppa is consumed (summat substantially stronger than the first, such as a smokily robust Lapsang Souchong on truly chilly mornings). Then I wander back to the foamy foreshore of the steam-laden washing up bowl, quietly waiting for the rest of the farmhouse’s occupants to surface from beneath the waves of warm, duck-feather duvets…. hopefully at least, in time for the chores to be tackled by someone other than Yours Truly. For like homesteaders everywhere at this time of year I have enough on my lovingly-concerned plate; ensuring that everyone else’s is appropriately laden with food, drinks & delicious little nibbles each & every day…. not necessarily as easy as some might assume!
On Boxing Day, my parents invariably prefer to indulge in the delicious dish of roast pheasant for lunch.
Anxious not to disappoint (& equally eager to participate!) I’d made sure I already had a beautiful brace, hanging at the ready; however - like the magnificently succulent Christmas goose we’d tucked into yesterday - Mum & Dad kindly supplied (just in case I’d inadvertently been such an eejit as to overlook this delicious dish) a perfect pair of exquisitely tender young pheasants.
Rather than the usual somewhat staid roast recipe I took a hint from friend Fiona who writes the wonderful ‘Cottage Smallholder’ Blog.
There are many delicious & cost-effective secrets stashed away in Fiona’s wonderful treasure-chest of game recipes; including several exquisite examples dedicated to wild game birds. A couple of these gems have been adapted from selected Normandy peasant-poacher recipes which are themselves peppered with traditional Romany tips - those veritable gourmands of slow-roasted, hard-fought game.
So, here we go: this wonderfully tasty recipe would grace the table as an elegant centrepiece for any winter dinner party. It involves stuffing the pheasant’s cavity with hearty chunks of cored Bramley apple then gently placing the bacon-wrapped breast onto a snowy pillow of soft, doughy bread (already liberally scattered with seasoning & tender chunks of diced apple, streaky bacon & the soft, scattered leaves of zesty fresh thyme). A generous slosh of white wine is subsequently sluiced over the bird; then after gently cooking said pheasant in a sealed casserole at around 160ºC until tender, you turn the pheasant upwards to crisp the breast during the final few minutes of cooking; after which your bird should be blessed with a cheeky little splash of brandy & then left to marinate whilst the veggies are prepped & cooked.
The true & tasty beauty of this recipe lies in the sumptuous fact that the meat juices & wine mingle tantalisingly with the bread, creating a superb sauce & a rich natural gravy to boot. And the quartered apple cooked inside the cavity of the pheasant creates a further, pleasingly tart & saucy accompaniment.
Fiona’s excellent recipe can be found at http://www.cottagesmallholder.com/?p=167. Incidentally it’s worth bearing in mind that recipes which involve the uniquely powerful piquancy of pheasant are better suited to a well-hung bird; as subtle savours will be overpowered by the gamey flavour. Conversely a powerful sauce will unfortunately decimate the delicate flavour of a younger pheasant. But crikey, how can you even estimate the age of your bird….?!
Frankly; once s/he’s been trussed, your poor-but-pleasant pheasant is almost impossible to age or even identify as male or female. Whilst still in full feather an older cock pheasant may generally be identified by his magnificent fighting spurs; although this is by no means a reliable indicator as belligerent young males may sprout formidable spurs in their first year of life. However, on closer examination & with a little more experience, you’ll see that older birds of both sexes grow a second nail on their claws; which is generally harder & scalier than those of their youth.
Further, if you gently press on the bird’s uncooked breastbone you’ll find it will be softer on a younger bird than on an older one. And if you examine the bursa (which is a small opening in the bird’s vent) in young pheasants it will be about an inch deep; whereas it closes up completely & will even form a noticeable lump, in older birds.
Generally speaking though, the majority of freshly plucked-&-drawn pheasants available from your local butcher will probably be less than a year old. Elderly birds (which are liable to be tough) must either be cooked quickly so that the flesh remains moist; or otherwise slowly simmered over a gentle heat to tenderise the meat.
Well! Back to (our) sumptuous gift….the brace of pheasants with which I was presented today were perfectly oven-ready (phew: one plucking job less!); however I subsequently had no real comprehension of how they would cook together - although thankfully the two birds were of a similar size.
Traditionally a ‘brace’ consists of a cock & a hen pheasant; however as we frankly want to eat & not breed from them it seems to me it would make more sense to pair the birds so that they are of the same sex & size - as in so doing they should cook to equal perfection.
So whilst when birds which are still feathered in such a pairing may look pretty, for the perfect meal I’d recommend simply trying to find birds of a similar size instead.
But, how to cook if you don’ t have Fiona’s tasty recipe to hand…? Well; there are numerous ‘tried & tested’ methods of roasting said pheasant(s); however cooking them on their side – or indeed upside-down – does help to prevent the breast meat from drying out into an unpalatable quasi-cardboard consistency. And being a game bird the breast meat is thinner than that on the thighs so will cook more quickly; this can be counteracted by stuffing a moist ingredient such as bacon, fruit or cream cheese just beneath the skin if you fancy something a little different.
Incidentally if you’re cooking the bird breast-side up I wouldn’t recommend covering it with rashers of bacon as once dry, these only fall off; so either lay the bacon-wrapped bird down on its breast or cook some pigs-in-blankets (small sausages wrapped in bacon) alongside it instead & baste regularly with the resultant fat: far more satisfactory (& edible!) than otherwise.
And if you prefer your pheasant so that the meat is literally falling off the bone, try braising it. If you simply extend the roasting time it will just leave you with an unpalatably dry, tasteless bird. Fiona’s Franco-Romany recipe above is the perfect marriage of two essential rustic culinary techniques; the sum of which, is an unforgettable gourmet dish – complete with gravy & sauces – to leave even the fussiest of eaters holding out their plates for more.
Served with a hearty dollop of crushed, buttery potatoes accompanied by some fresh-cooked al dente green beans & braised celery, you’ll create a Christmas combination that will set your guests’ mouths watering with every forkful’s festive recollection.
So with a simple snack of homemade chicken liver paté with an honest crust of wholemeal toast to start, we tucked into the aforementioned delicious main course; followed by a simple slice of baked apple strudel complemented by some Christmas cake & a handful of fresh-cracked hazel, chestnut & walnuts.
After the meal it was time to tackle a few of those accumulated calories with a brisk walk in the fresh air. Well wrapped up in coats, furs & wraps we all bundled into the Navara truck whilst persuading puppy Brynn into the covered rear so we could head off to the nearby beach at Tresaith.
This was Brynn’s first trip to the sea; so we were fascinated to find out what he’d make of this immense new vista. We took along his treasured Christmas gift – a bright blue frisbee – & Tony & I headed off for a cheery jog-trot along the seashore as the tide rolled ever closer whilst Mum & Dad made their way uphill to the warmth of the nearby inn, which affords a wonderful view of this beautiful little bay.
All-too-swiftly frozen by the breakers as wearing only a short-but-stout pair of boots, Tony soon headed off to the inn to order us each a much-needed mug of milky coffee; thus left alone, Brynn & I frolicked ridiculously together in the sea playing a breathlessly laughing game of ‘tag’ amongst the breakers, until the puppy’s tongue lolled sideways in a canine smile of happy exhaustion whilst I was rendered completely soaked with my jeans creaking & stiff with the waters of the wintery, salty sea.
Reluctantly, we returned home so that Tony & I could hasten our chilly way through the farm chores albeit in high spirits; whilst the lights extinguished softly in the afterglow of another, perfect, day.