Pheasant, Two Ways

I haven’t hunted a whole lot in my life. I don’t get any of the adrenaline that people describe after killing their first buck or wild turkey. I instead feel only a deep sense of sadness that something like this had to be done in order at some level, for us to survive. I am not squeamish about the act; it just makes me terribly aware of what must be done in order for us to eat. Which is, I think, a good thing and something that everyone should perhaps be aware of. It would certainly make scarfing down a cheeseburger a bit more personal if you knew the cow from which it came. But that would not in and of itself make you care more about the cow and how it is treated and what it is fed before you eat it? I certainly wouldn’t feed my chickens their own offal mixed with leftover dog food and rejected candy products! With all this in mind, I’ve vowed to hunt more.

For me, hunting more is just simply going. I bought a fine Remington 12-gauge shotgun, forewent the requisite camouflage jacket for my normal heavy flannel one and went upland bird hunting with my wife’s father and her brother. Where they don’t refer to themselves as hunters, really, they do hunt and they are quite good at it. They are also well aware of the safety hazards, especially in upland bird hunting, and I can see that in their eyes the morning we are leaving. Her brother mutters something about Dick Cheney and laughs, but it is stressful to hunt with someone about whose gun skills you really know nothing.

I feel a bit the same way. My dad ingrained gun safety into us from a very early age; the hardest whipping I ever had in my life was for pointing a gun at my sister. Whew. I never did that again. But when your adrenaline is up, birds are exploding into the air in all directions, mistakes can and do happen.

The dogs are working hard and they are hot. It is far warmer than usual and a beautiful cloudless day on the eastern shore of Maryland. We are hunting a farmer’s field that had been recently partially cleared, which left perfect habitat for the Pheasant that had been released. The dog locks in a tuft of hay near the perimeter of the field. A perfect point. We move in for the flush and three pheasant’s beat the air with their wings, exploding out of the field into the sky. I track the one I’m after and out of the perimeter of my vision I see Mike, who looks a bit panicky. I lower the barrel and grin at him. We all feel better.

It’s a successful hunt and we all reconvene at our Laura’s parents’ house like the proud hunters we are. Much ado is made over our haul and we depart for home with two pheasants. Which I managed to overcook.

So, I suffered from a bit of trepidation when two dear friends of ours and fellow foodies showed up last Saturday with their mystery ingredient for our cook off. Pheasant! Honestly, I’m a bit unsure of what to do at first since I’ve never had it cooked properly – the last time I had it in a restaurant it was overcooked and they are the professionals! This is no ordinary pheasant, either. This has been harvested from the wild by Stephanie’s dad and so these guys demand to be cooked properly. They even smell amazing – clean, woody with a pleasant oak undertone. I must treat these with respect.

I begin by chopping an onion, garlic, shallots, scallions, pancetta and apples. I heat the oven to 375 and start melting butter. I sauté the onions over low heat until they are translucent, then add the pancetta garlic, shallots and scallions. I pour in half a bottle of good red wine and reduce, add heavy cream and reduce. When it coats the back of my spoon, I add the pheasant, turn once and place in the oven, uncovered, for ten minutes.

At the same time, Stevie and I are preparing potato cakes with garlic and scallions and they can feel my hesitation. Your food knows when you are scared. The first two fall apart. I take a deep breath and crank up the stove. The next eight are perfect. Stevie seasons his birds with truffle salt, pepper and Italian dressing. He then dredges them in egg wash and seasoned panko crumbs. He slaps them on a hot griddle with no fanfare and flips them once – cooking time, eight minutes.

Our wives are pretending its iron chef and are counting down the imaginary clock. Stevie and I are actually getting into it, dancing around one another in the kitchen as if we had done this before. Nobody got burned, no food items were burned and everyone’s fingers were intact but the kitchen looked like it blew up. We plate up for the judges and we are all astonished by how wonderfully complex, juicy and tender the pheasant was. It may have been better with the apples, but our wives ate them all.

Never fear your food. Or leave apples within reach of two women who are drinking wine, eating cheese and watching their men cook.

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