Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Grilled Grouse at Bide-A-Wee
When I wound up with a grouse and a woodcock thanks to Lily’s miraculous pointing breakthrough and some fortunate shooting on my part, I started imagining a wild-inspired feast. I know some very capable hunters, expert gun and dog handlers, for whom ruffed grouse is basically a chicken substitute during the season. They take a limit of five birds almost every time out, fill the freezer by season’s end. Forget about pork—for folks like this, partridge is the other white meat.
This is not a situation that I can even begin to imagine. I feel fortunate to harvest a few game birds each year, and so each bird in the bag is an opportunity to experience unique flavors. Wanting to make the most of this precious meat places a certain amount of pressure on the ambitious cook. As I started planning how these first birds of the season would be prepared, I thought, nice as it would be to have them at Bide-A-Wee, in the midst of the landscape from which they came, I would be better off cooking them in my Saint Paul kitchen, where there’s an oven, hot and cold running water, lights, and all the other modern conveniences.
And then I thought: the hell with that. Cooking at Bide-A-Wee has its challenges, but Bide-A-Wee is where these birds belong, and that’s where we’ll cook them. There’s a temptation to get all gourmet and elaborate with “special” meat like game birds, but I managed to overcome that, too. I simply grilled both birds. The grouse was flavored with nothing but salt, pepper, a smear of butter, and smoke; the woodcock had nice deposits of fat stored up for its anticipated, interrupted, migration, so I eschewed the butter, but finished it with a glaze of birch syrup. I’ve been thinking of grilled woodcock glazed with birch syrup ever since we made the syrup last spring.
My original idea for a side dish to accompany the grouse was a bubbly, brown gratin of homegrown potatoes, cream, and chanterelles. With no oven
at Bide-A-Wee, we would have to Plan B that idea. It turns out that, while it wouldn’t have the nice brown crust of a gratin, a pot of potatoes simmered in stock and cream until the potatoes are tender and the liquid is nicely reduced is a gorgeous thing in its own right. I’d call it stovetop scalloped potatoes. To start I sautéed some sliced leek in butter, then added the sliced potatoes, maybe a cup of stock and a half cup of cream, sprig of thyme. That simmered very gently for quite a while. About halfway through (whenever that was) I added chanterelles that had been oven-blanched and frozen last summer. Salt and pepper and a bit of butter rounded it out; a slosh more cream toward the end.
For vegetable, sweet buttered cabbage—the recipe’s in the cookbook. It’s a simple preparation, but illustrative: in the past we would often just sauté shredded cabbage in butter or olive oil, perhaps with a bit of onion, leek, or garlic, add water and steam until tender. But while I was writing the cookbook I decided to make more of a “recipe” out of the dish—I blanched the cabbage first; used shallot and garlic to flavor the dish; tossed in a bit of sugar and a splash of white wine. Now that page in the book (page 190, as a matter of fact) is one of the most visited in our copy.
I’m not sure how to describe the taste of ruffed grouse. I will tell you that I just got shivers remembering the flavor of this one (either it was supremely delicious, or the woodstove needs stoking; probably a bit of each). The breast meat is the main event, and there’s a lot of it—we find that one grouse feeds two people easily. The breast meat is as white as chicken, finer grained, juicy when cooked properly, and variable according to what the bird has been eating, though it usually has a slight, appetizing tang to it. “Cooked properly” means as little as possible; you don’t want any of the meat to be flabby and pink, but if you can catch it just past that point, that’s perfect. When I first started cooking grouse I was absolutely paranoid about overcooking it, and so occasionally cut into grouse breast that had to go back to the stove for a refresher course. Don’t go away and forget about grouse cooking on the stove, grill, or in the oven, but don’t fret too much, either. Think about cooking it to medium, how a lot of us prefer our pork chops now that the fear of trichinosis is largely a thing of the past.
And cooking it on the bone is the way to go; unless you want an elegant preparation of slices of grouse breast fanned on the plate and bathed in a sauce made by reducing the superb stock obtained from simmering the carcass with a bit of white wine and lots of aromatic vegetables. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Well, our first game dinner of this autumn was a triumph, if I say so myself. These local flavors combined so beautifully on the plate. The grouse was cooked to a golden turn and flavored with oaky smoke. The potatoes were velvety comfort infused with the aroma of chanterelles. A very nice red burgundy wine was quite, quite suitable.
With ingredients like this, the “Eat Local Challenge” is one we’re happy to meet, any day of the year.
Next time, ode to a timberdoodle.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw