What to Do With a Wild Pheasant
State laws prohibit restaurants from serving real wild game, and all the avians and other animals that masquerade as such in restaurants are usually farm-raised. Oxymoronic, isn't it? That wild boar ragu on the menu is made with tame wild boar, and that roast quail wasn't shot by some hunter in the Catskills. Real game is, well, gamy, and tough. It's been been working out--using its muscles to search for food and evade predators.
So when I recently had a chance to get a real, field-shot wild pheasant, I jumped at the chance.
My friend Howard Brandston is an avid hunter, and when I visited his house in Columbia County a few weeks ago, he yanked a frozen pheasant he'd shot out of the freezer and handed it to me. "Not as easy to cook as you might imagine," he cautioned me. But I was excited to taste some certified real game, after the pallid examples I'd eaten recently.
I began by frying a quarter pound of bacon, then removing the strips so that only the fat remained in the bottom of the pot. Next I dumped a bottle of red wine in the pot with the fat, and immersed the bird carcass (which had already been bled and gutted when I got it). The red wine/bird/bacon fat was brought slowly to a boil as I threw in half a dozen garlic cloves and many sprigs of rosemary. After several hours of covered braising on the stove top, I turned off the flame and let the thing cool.
When the bird and thick broth had cooled down, I pulled out the carcass, removed the skin and discarded it, then pulled the meat away in strips, piling it in a bowl. Meanwhile, I hydrated some Italian dried porcinis in water. Nothing like a local bird with imported mushrooms, I thought. In a big deep skillet I next sauteed some guanciale and onions, then dumped in a can of crushed tomatoes. Finally, I poured the broth, filtered of its solid parts, along with the porcinis and their soaking liquid into the tomato mixture and cooked it down. Somewhat later I tossed in the pulled pheasant, which was something like a cross between turkey and duck, but with no fat whatsoever. Just before serving, I mixed in some minced garlic chives that I'd gathered by the West Side Highway to give it that authentic New York City flavor.
The ragu turned out swell, and I'm feeding it to friends this evening poured over penne, with garlic toasts and a salad on the side. Oh, and I'll sprinkle grated grana all over the top of the pasta and sauce. The flavor of the ragu turned out deep and rich, and about half of the pieces of pheasant might have been chicken, so successful the ragu had been in absorbing the gamy flavors. As for the other half of the pieces, they were darker and stringier, and more forest-y tasting.
Next time you get a chance to eat some real wild game, I heartily recommend it.