Last summer I was in Las Vegas for a tradeshow and had dinner with one of Wayfair’s business partners, Good Ideas. The Good Ideas guys know how to do a tradeshow dinner (amongst other things like innovative composters and chicken coops) and we enjoyed a couple hours of wine and massive amounts of Italian food. During the course of the dinner I discovered Greg, the owner, has a sprawling ranch in South Dakota where he avidly hunts along with the Cary, Mike, and various other folks from the company. I in turn babbled about my love of game meat and my complete lack of the necessary intestinal fortitude to hunt. We found a yin and yang relationship there, and Greg agreed to send me a bunch of pheasants next time he went hunting as long as I came up with a good recipe for them.
Now, my teeth were stained purple and we’d all been on our feet for 12 hours, so I wasn’t exactly sure whether our agreement would come to fruition. Then, a few months later, I got an email that I would be receiving a big box of birds in a few days. Well then.
A box of three gallon-sized bags with multiple frozen pheasants in each. The pheasants were fully cleaned and skinned aside from one feather-covered wing that they like to keep on for identification purposes. Definitely added to the slightly macabre scene and the general rage of my wife, though. Since it was mid-December and we were planning to be out of town the next few weekends, I moved all three bags to the chest freezer in the basement.
In the following weeks, there weren’t many days that went by that I didn’t think about what the hell I was going to do with these things. I originally wanted to make sausage but with how lean the meat was, I would need to probably go with a 1:2 ratio of pheasant to pork fat to make an enjoyable sausage. So, it sat and I sat, and the weeks passed without me making a move.
Nemo got me housebound and antsy, so I thawed out a package and went with my original idea: fully prepared pheasant coq au vin, removed from the bones, ground, and formed into a patty. Had no idea how it would work out, but what else is new. Let’s start with some mirepoix.
I chopped everything shown on the cutting board and placed in a bowl to wait their turn, then pulled the birds out of the bag and laid them on the cutting board.
The birds smelled clean and poultry-like, but not like the occasionally farty smell of thawed grocery store sweatshop chicken. I was immediately struck by how much the body looked like rabbit, particularly the thighs. The wing was an odd sight, but it was easy to remove which left me to try and figure out how to break the pheasants down.
Since I was planning to braise bone-in, I wanted to break each bird down into two breast and two thigh portions. I started by cutting perpendicular to the backbone and separating the thighs from the breast portion. For the thighs, one cut through the center of the backbone was all I needed, but since the chest had to be cut on both sides, the breast bone was a little trickier. The bones were thin and east to cut through with a little pressure, but I still felt like a I was mauling these things. Eventually each bird ended up like this.
It was around this time that I recognized the small tears in the flesh were likely due to the birdshot that brought the pheasant down. I inspected each piece thoroughly but didn’t find any shot during the breaking down process aside from one small piece. Made me a little wary about my teeth surviving the consumption of the finished product.
After breaking down the second bird, I had this pile of meat.
With the ingredients all prepped, I heated up a few tablespoons of bacon grease in ‘Lil Blue. After a good seasoning of salt and pepper, the pheasant went into the hot grease to brown in two waves.
Once the meat had some decent color, I removed it from the pot and dumped in the mirepoix with a lot of dried herbs de provence. After a few minutes of cooking they started to brown slightly around the edges and were pretty fragrant.
At this point I added a few bay leaves, a bottle of red wine (#3BuckChuckMerlot) and turned up the heat until the liquid started bubbling. After lowering the heat a little, I let the wine and veggies simmer for 15 minutes to reduce the liquid a bit. Then the browned pheasant pieces headed back in.
After topping off with a little chicken broth to fully cover the meat, the lid went on and the heat went down to low for 60 minutes. Leaving me with this:
I pulled the pot off of the heat and let it rest for a few minutes before transferring the meat to a cutting board. While the meat cooled, I removed the mirepoix from the pot using a slotted spoon and into a bowl lined with cheese cloth.
After a few minutes of cooling, I twisted up the cheesecloth tight while holding it over the bowl and started to press some of the excess liquid out of the vegetables. Press, tighten the cheesecloth, press some more, tighten, etc. Eventually, I was content with the amount of excess moisture I’d pressed out.
The pressed liquid went into the braising pot with the reserved cooking broth and set over low heat to reduce for the next few hours. Which brings me back to the braised pheasant.
With the meat cooled, I went through the relatively annoying process of pulling the meat off of the bones and trying to fish out any small bones and bird shot. Although there are less gnarly tendon-y pieces than on a bigger bird like chicken or turkey, I couldn’t believe all of the tiny pinbones around and in the thigh meat. After some lightly burned fingers and frustration, I had this bowl:
With this stage complete, I moved the meat and vegetables into the freezer for 30 minutes to chill to an easier grinding temperature. While that cooled, I put together the attachments for our Kitchenaid mixer that makes it into a relatively easy to use meat grinder.
Finally, it was time to grind. I loaded a handful of the shredded pheasant and pressed mirepoix into the grinder, continuing by alternating handfuls of both.
With the meat and vegetables fully ground the mixture looked a bit like sand, which had me concerned about how dry it would be. So, I added some broken homemade mayo.
Quick sidenote: my lovehandles have lovehandles these days, so I’ve been dabbling in a few different types of cooking and/or diets. Making homemade mayo isn’t healthy, but it’s healthier since it uses better oil and no preservatives. It’s also extremely frustrating and doesn’t work (correct term: emulsify) 50% of the times I’ve done it. In those cases, you end up with lots of broken mayo; essentially olive oil, egg yolks, lemon juice, vinegar and some seasonings coexisting unpeacefully in a small space. Seemed like the perfect item to fatten up and bind my ground meat mixture.
After a few minutes in the mixer, the ground mixture looked like this:
The ground mixture went into the fridge for an hour long “gettin to know ya” sesh which I was hoping would bring the flavors together and firm it up a bit.
All the while, the braising liquid simmered.
Once I felt the ground meat was ready for cooking (read: I was hungry), I heated up a round bottom pot on the stovetop and made a couple tablespoons of roux. Once the flour had cooked for a few minutes and the roux had a little color, I whisked in the reduced braising liquid to make a poor man’s demi glace.
With the sauce over low heat, I heated up a little olive oil in a pan and formed the ground pheasant meat into a patty.
Flip, fry, then smother with sauce. That’s right, a burger post with no bun. It was a friggin’ blizzard for cripes sake! Trains weren’t running! It felt like end of days outside and there was no chance I was hiking to 7-11 to engage in a knife fight over the last pack of hamburger buns.
Anyhoo, would have been a hell of a burger but,as it was, we had Salisbury steak.
To get a key point out of the way, that sauce was absurd. You could put it on pretty much anything and it would be delicious. The burger also had great flavor, with the (slightly) gamey poultry and red wine cooked vegetables both clearly coming through in each bite. Combined with the sauce, the flavors were rich and pretty awesome.
The only reason this wasn’t a complete victory were some texture problems. The primary issue was that using a the broken homemade mayo threw off the egg to added fat balance a bit. While the may was likely 3 parts olive oil, 1 part egg yolk, it should have been a half and half ratio to properly bind the burger and keep some density. As it was, the texture was most similar to a crab cake, which probably would have been less of a big deal in a bun. The secondary issue was that I missed some small bones and a few little ground pieces of them made it through. Not a ton of pieces, but enough that you didn’t want to bite down too hard while chewing just in case you had one.
Oh well, all in all still a pretty successful experiment. Thanks to Greg, Cary, and Mike for killing stuff and sending it to me.
Another weekend at home. I have ideas.