Meat Sheet no.18 Pheasant

Harvest is in, the clocks have changed and salads, picnics and outdoor dining are over for the year. With imports and freezers, few things are truly seasonal but the seasons for game are about as close as we come. I’m not sure whether, historically they’re for the benefit of the birds or the toffs who shoot them. The pheasant season runs from October 1st to February 1st but it really kicks in in November when the birds are big enough to be worth eating.

“Up gets a guinea, bang goes a penny-halfpenny and down comes half a crown” pretty much sums up the economics of pheasant shooting but it would be even worse without the half crown so we might as well eat them. With the growth of formal, large scale recreational shooting with beaters and drives, pheasant has become as much the food of the masses as the squirarchy. Hugh FW might lament the fact that they’re not truly wild and tend to be given a bit of grain throughout the autumn but I see them miles from any feeders picking away at whatever they can find, so they must be getting a fairly varied diet…and, they are about as free range as they can be.

It might be easily affordable but pheasant is one of the hardest meats to cook. Even plump, young birds will have put in a lot of leg work and, unlike chickens and turkeys, they actually do fly so even the breast can be dry when roasted. Generally, it’s either very slow or very fast (breasts only) but get it right and roast pheasant can be pretty good; especially with bread sauce. As usual, hens make better eating than cocks and pick birds with a good covering of yellow fat.

I didn’t cook a pheasant for years until I tried cooking overnight, sous vide (in a bag) at 54°C. I cut the breast fillets and legs away from the carcasses and finished in a medium oven – legs first (for 25 minutes) and breasts, skin side up, for the last ten minutes. Even though I say it myself, it was a bit of a triumph.

But it was a labour of love and once I’d re-convinced myself that pheasant was, in fact, worth eating, I set about finding a simpler way of removing the lottery factor. With legs taking longer to cook than breast they either need to be cooked separately  or, somehow, subjected to different methods. Poaching the legs in liquid whilst the breast gently steams is the way to go but first you need to prep the bird. Drumsticks are always going to be so stringy with tendons that it’s best to cut them off, with the hocks, before you start. Then you can cut down between the breast and thigh, pushing the thigh down so it’s horizontal and easily covered with liquid (as in the recipe below).

Braised pheasant with cabbage and Montbeliard sausage ~

(an old Simon Hopkinson recipe given the extra embellishment of a few smoked BFS Montbeliard sausages)

25 g butter

4 thick slices of fat, streaky bacon, cut into squares

salt and pepper

1 dressed pheasant

2 smoked Montbeliard sausages, cut into 1 cm slices

10 large cloves of garlic, peeled

2 large shallots, finely chopped

75 ml white wine

100 ml good chicken stock

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 medium savoy cabbage, outer leaves removed and cut into wedges – core trimmed off

Preheat the oven to 125°C/ gas mark 1/2

Heat the butter in a large pan and add the bacon. Fry over low/medium heat until the bacon has given off a fair bit of fat. Transfer to a medium lidded casserole or Le Cruset pan. Season the pheasant with salt and pepper and brown all over in the pan. Transfer to the casserole. Deglaze the pan, add the wine and stock and bring to the simmer. Quickly soften the cabbage in the wine and stock and transfer to the casserole. Tip in the liquids and add the thyme. The liquid should just cover the pheasant thighs. Bring to the simmer , cover with a cartouche of baking parchment ( it’s definitely worth it) lid and cook in the oven for 2 – 2.5 hours. Remove the bird with tongs or fork and cut down on either side of the breast bone to separate the breast and thigh from the carcass. Serve with plain boiled potatoes.

If there is any left, add some pearly barley and chicken stock for a satisfying broth the next day.