Looking for an alternative to the standard turkey dinner this Thanksgiving? John Manikowski's exotic recipes deserve front and center placement on your holiday table. As chef, hunter and artist, John treats pheasant and other game birds with regal respect. His Wild Fish & Game Cookbook, was published by Artisan Press in Fall, 1997. As with this piece for the Global Gourmet, written in 1996, it is unique in its inclusion of his masterful paintings and drawings, and also contains over 100 recipes, and dozens of stories from his hunting, fishing and outdoor travels around the world—all in a large-format hardcover publication. —Kate Heyhoe
Illustrations, recipes and story by John Manikowski
Pheasant has been a favorite game bird of mine since first hunting the ring-neck, Asian beauty on the Minnesota prairies when free-range was an assumed, but unknown, word. My brother-in-law's farming family knew pheasant and they knew how to eat it! I recall brisk, fall nights around the large oval table feasting on the mounded platters of fried pheasant, the plates seemingly bottomless. Perhaps that is why I still prefer, for the most part, pheasant pan-fried—like chicken. (See the "Calvados Pheasant" and the "Pheasant with Olives and Plums" recipes.) and if the old adage means anything, yes, pheasant DOES taste like chicken. Only better.
After having two restaurants over a twelve-year period I have watched diner's preferences change; they have matured greatly in just that small amount of time. I recall the first time we served squab. Customers from the city (New York, near where our restaurants were located) would rarely order them, still clinging to images of Central Park pigeons walking around dirty streets pecking away at anything that was dropped in front of them. Now, squab, poussin, baby pheasant and similar, here-to-fore unfamiliar game are becoming commonplace on menus that, a decade ago were labeled "exotic" fare. (Heck, ostrich burgers are on a restaurant's menu nearby—and it's not even a fine-dining establishment.)
A whole roasted pheasant (see: Leeky Pheasant recipe) is not only a surprising switch at Thanksgiving, replacing the traditional turkey—just for a change—but its unique presentation, actually a little weird-looking, adds to the festivities. First, slits are made in the legs and thighs and then the skin is separated from the breast. The leeks and parsnips are then stuffed into the slits all around the legs and then under the loosened skin over the breast. After roasting, it appears a bit like it might have died of leprosy but don't let your guests razz you, it'll taste great and they'll beg for more. Yes, you may stuff the cavity with leeks too, as you would any fowl and I don't even truss the legs together. Why bother?
To slice or not? If you buy baby pheasant, under about 2 pounds each, (or any similar white-meat, small game fowl) you can merely cut the bird in two after roasting, serving one-half to each guest which looks, and is, generous. If you choose to purchase larger birds, say, 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 pounds and up, you'll want to slice it before serving. Simply slice the breast first, like turkey, and cut away the legs from the thighs. (I happen to prefer the legs and thighs on most birds, even little species such as guinea hen, partridge, grouse—even woodcock which are so small you can barely find them on the plate.)
Plan one baby pheasant (or similar-size game bird) for every two guests. A larger bird will divide comfortably among about three people. The smallest, quail for example, requires 2 whole birds per person. Of course take into consideration the eaters. Are they young teenagers with ambitious appetites or mostly elderly relatives? Think about your guest list before embarking on a shopping tour.
What goes well with game in the fall? How about fall squash, freshly dug potatoes or, my favorite, wild rice. Whatever is seasonally fresh and whatever tastes good to you, seems like a good rule of thumb to me. I've been known to "ruin" a grouse breast or venison tenderloin and serve them in chunks tossed in with a favorite pasta sauce. (A luxury, I suppose, from being able to readily fetch my own "catch.")
In the case of wild ducks, many hunters and cooks familiar with the outdoorsy flavor, prefer them cooked rare, usually blood-rare. But if you venture beyond one, bold attempt (assuming you haven't too much—like most people), experiment with various cooking times, temperatures and of course, herbs, spices and flavorings. There are few steadfast rules unless you come from some of the old school of "absolutes".
Generally, I recommend diversity and experimentation with foods and recipes; one master cook's idea does not have to be the last word. We all have our preferences for, say, an anise (licorice-based) recipe, a heavily spiced New Mexican dish, a fruit-filled tart rather than chocolate and so on.
I give cooking demonstrations once every week where I can, on any one Saturday hand out up to 1,000 samples from a new recipe of mine. and, wanna know something? of the 1,000 responses I can easily hear 1,000 differing opinions of: "too much oregano", "hmm, fennel", "blah! fennel?", "needs salt", or "you put too much salt in it, I can't eat salt","little heavy on the pepper, aren't you?", or "needs more pepper", etc., etc.. In other words, use your own tastes as a guideline after trying a new (or even old) recipe. Expand and add to the spices, hold back on the wine; replace the red wine with a sweet white, roast in the oven rather than sauté and finish on the burner, increase the temperature dramatically, roast it for two hours instead of the recommended five. You get the idea. Be brave, daring. Don't assume a recipe is chiseled in stone.
But MOST important...have fun with food. You have to eat but why not make it a pleasurable part of your day? Enjoy yourself...and your cooking.
Go Wild! A Wild Winter Feast has more recipes and tips.
This page modified October 2006
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