I make no apologies for the simplicity of this recipe. All the hard work has come before, in finding and preparing the bird. For more information about sourcing your pheasant, see my article http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2010/11/good-game . For those who have a bird in the feather and would like to hang and pluck it themselves – good for you! Some notes to help follow the recipe.
Whilst pheasants are at their best I follow the general principle of roasting them on the bone. After Christmas, when they are a bit older and I’ve had my fill of them this way, they are jointed and served in a variety of dishes. There is a slight deviation from this, for the first pheasants of the season. These are hung for a minimal period (about 3 days), then plucked and drawn before taking them to the local smokehouse to be lightly cold smoked. They will still be roasted in the method described below, but these I use for salad starter, where one pheasant will serve 6 people. The only reason that I do this with the first brace of the season is that if I leave it any longer the smokehouse is too busy smoking salmon for Christmas. Most smoked pheasant you are ever likely to have tasted has been hot-smoked (so no further cooking is required) and usually just the breasts have been smoked, off the bone. This is far too severe for pheasant as they have no fat to protect them.
There is only one secret to roasting a pheasant perfectly – use a terracotta brick. I know chicken bricks are terribly old fashioned, in fact it is quite hard to find one nowadays. They were relevant in the days when chicken too were truly free range with very little fat. Do invest in one if you intend to roast game regularly. In the absence of a terracotta brick, a roasting bag provides a rough approximation of the method, but it is not really as effective. In a roasting bag, you would cook in an oven which had been pre-heated to 200˚C for about 45 minutes. A chicken brick needs to be soaked in cold water first and placed in a cold oven. The exact cooking time does depend on how quickly your oven heats up, for this reason I use my smaller oven for this recipe, and the bird is cooked in just under an hour. In addition to keeping the bird moist, the chicken brick has another advantage over open roasting – all of the juices are retained for delicious gravy.
PERFECT ROAST PHEASANT
3 slices of good smoked streaky bacon or pancetta
Clay baking pot
Soak the clay pot in cold water for at least 30 minutes.
Truss the pheasant and cover the breasts with the smoked bacon or pancetta. Put the pheasant in the soaked clay pot and place this in a cold oven. Set the temperature to 220C/Gas Mark 7 and roast for just under an hour, or until the juices run clear then you insert a knife into the thickest part of the leg. Rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Serve with bread sauce (recipe below).
Partridge can be cooked in exactly the same way but will take only half to three quarters of the time.
1 small onion
½ pint milk
2 oz fresh white breadcrumbs
½ oz butter
salt and pepper
Cut the onion in half and press the cloves into it. Place in a saucepan and cover with the milk. Heat the milk to just below boiling point, then remove from the heat, cover and leave for an hour.
Strain the milk and return to the rinsed out saucepan together with the breadcrumbs and butter. Heat and let the sauce simmer for 2 minutes. Season to taste.
This sauce can be frozen, so I often make a larger batch.
HANGING AND DRAWING A BIRD
Tales of game hung until crawling with maggots have done much to put people off game and certainly the notion of hanging it themselves. I have heard more than one TV chef say that game doesn’t need hanging. True, this stage is often omitted in hotter climes. However, allowing rigor mortis to set in and then pass will relax the meat and make the bird tender. If birds are roughly handled after death, this can prevent rigor mortis setting in. The Code of Good Shooting Practise has included guidelines covering this and ensuring that game is hung as quickly as possible, rather than being left in a heap in a truck all day.
Unless you have a professional game storage larder, the time needed for hanging will depend on weather conditions. In October, if the weather is warm, I might leave them for just three days. By December/January, if there is a frosty snap, they can be left for 10 days or more without coming to any harm. Start at the lower end of this period and then gradually experiment to find out your preferred hanging time. Partridge need less time (3-5 days). Game birds are usually hung as a brace, from string tied around the neck. Ensure that air can circulate around them.
Plucking….. If it is your first time I would start with partridge – they are smaller and the skin is less inclined to tear. Hang the birds over an open bin bag to catch all the feathers and do the job outdoors or in the garage unless you want to be chasing feathers around the house for days!
Start plucking the bird on the breast – holding the skin taut and plucking against this will help prevent tearing. Remove the feathers up to half way along the neck and as far along the wings as you wish to eat (on small birds you may decide not to bother with the wings).
If removing the wings cut the skin around the joint and then sever with a sharp knife. Cut the head off where you have stopped plucking – half way along the neck. Remove the lower leg joint by cutting, bending the leg upwards to dislocate the joint so that it can be cut through.
Dressing…Turn the bird onto its breast and pinch the skin around the neck at the front so that it is taut at the back. Cut along the neck bone that should now be visible and then cut off the neck as far down into the body as possible. Use your fingers to gently ease the crop away from the body trying to keep it intact.
Turn the bird over onto its back and point the neck end away from you. Make a slit in the hollow at the tail end a short way above the vent and then cut down to just above the vent. You are aiming to create a slit large enough to insert a couple of fingers into whilst not cutting into the intestines. Once you can insert your fingers, carefully slide them up into the body cavity as far as you can keeping close to the bone and proceeding very gently to avoid cutting yourself on any broken ribs. Try to feel for the heart and then pull this and the rest of the innards out through the hole away from the bird until you can sever the intestinal pipes from the body. Wash the bird now to get rid of excess blood and debris and then feel around the cavity to remove lungs from the rib cage and anything else that has been left.
A diagram would help illustrate this, and I would recommend trying to find the excellent but out of print Game book from the Time Life Good Cook series.