"Chicken is so lousy, it doesn't taste any more," says Julee Rosso, co-owner and co-author with Sheila Lukins of Manhattan's Silver Palate food shop and its cookbook. The conclusion she draws is that people are going to turn increasingly to game.
Lukins, not surprisingly, concurs, adding, "It's just as easy to do a pheasant as to do a capon; it's not a formidable thing."
In other words, game today has what meat had yesterday: more flavor, strong character, less fat and more chew to it. And game today is also more available; it can be bought in butcher shops rather than necessarily hunted in the wild, and when bought in butcher shops is not only dressed and cut, but already hung. Thus cooks no longer need to be afraid to deal with it.
And diners need not be afraid to eat it, she adds, because commercially sold game is likely to be more tender and less gamey tasting than what hunters bring home because legally it must have been farmed rather than shot in the wild. And game that has roamed the forest not only eats foods that are likely to impart more gaminess but gets more exercise, which toughens it.
Whether game is hunted or purchased, though, the cooking is the same. And often the mistakes in cooking are the same. "The biggest mistake people can make is to overcook it," says Francois Chevallier of the Georgetown Boucherie, whose experience with game goes back to years on a chateau in France's prime hunting grounds. "They think because it is wild it is going to be tough so they have the tendency to overcook it."
Rather, the tender cuts of venison -- loin and leg -- need special care to avoid overcooking. In their case, the point is not to tenderize them by cooking but to preserve their tenderness by careful cooking. In "Jean Anderson Cooks" the author cautions, "Naturally tender cuts such as the rack (ribs) and the saddle (loin and leg) can never be made more tender than they are in the raw state." While tough cuts must be cooked long and slowly to convert their sinew to gelatin, tender cuts must be seared quickly so the natural juices are not lost.
Chevallier admits that venison hunted in the wild has more flavor, but adds, "The [farm-raised] deer that is sold here is very, very good and very tender." He, too, warns that when overcooked the tender cuts become dry; they should just be quickly saute'ed and sauced with the deglazed juices from the pan.
"I like it rare myself," explains Chevallier. "When we eat with chefs, with good friends, we just saute' it natural." The shoulder and neck, though, are another matter. They are tougher and thus take to slow stewing, after marinating in red wine, perhaps with mushrooms, carrots and bay leaves. In this case the cooks' most common mistake is using "the cheapest wine they can get," warns Chevallier. "To get a good thing you have to use good things," he declares, though the wine need not be expensive to be good.
"American game is very good," agrees Madeleine Kamman, French-born cooking teacher and author of the new "In Madeleine's Kitchen," "if you shoot it yourself and know how to age it."
Good game should never be marinated, according to Kamman. But if the game is not flavorful enough -- as with domesticated game -- she marinates it to make it taste more gamey (whereas hunters often marinate game to make it taste less gamey). In fact, says Kamman, "I take the regular meats and make them taste like game." She does that by marinating lamb or beef in those flavors -- wine, juniper berries, pepper, garlic, onions -- one associates with game.
Lukins marinates game when it needs tenderizing or when she wants a less gamey taste. "Marinating tends to make it a little more palatable to people who are turned off by a gamey taste," she says.
Rosso recommends stewing tough cuts, while for tender cuts -- the breast of game birds or steaks of venison -- she favors very quick searing to seal the juices inside. For longer cooking, such as roasting, game should be wrapped in fat since it is so lean.
That leanness is an advantage in such fatty birds as geese and ducks, she says, as there is less fat to drain off. But these wild birds cook more quickly and the leanest birds such as turkey and pheasant need to be wrapped in fat to protect them from drying out.
Chevallier uses fresh fatback to cover the breast of pheasant and to wrap quail in for cooking; bacon flavors the bird too strongly, he feels, though some cooks blanch the bacon to remove the salt and smokiness. As for wild ducks, the problem with them is that sometimes they taste of the fish they have eaten. What do you do about that? Says Chevallier, "Try to catch one better."
Lukins emphasizes that game is a terrific seasonal food. "The colors are wonderful because you can do orange vegetables and dark purple vegetables." She seasons squab with ginger, red wine and pears, and serves pheasant with pecan and leek stuffing, accompanied by squash, potatoes, carrots and bright salads. With game she particularly likes to serve gingerbread.
Here are the Silver Palate's recipes for pheasant and venison stew, along with recipes from local chefs for venison smoked, saute'ed and stuffed, and for wild duck in case you find one that hasn't gone fishing. THE SILVER PALATE'S PHEASANT WITH LEEK AND PECAN STUFFING
We think pheasant is one of the most delicious of the domestically raised game birds available to us. It is rich and meaty, with a firm texture no longer found in chicken. If care is taken during roasting, the meat is moist and succulent. 2 young pheasants, about 4 pounds each, thoroughly defrosted if frozen 1 tablespoon olive oil 1/2 cup yellow onion, finely chopped 1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon dried marjoram 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme 1 bay leaf 6 sprigs Italian parsley 3 cups chicken stock Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) sweet butter 10 medium-size leeks, white part only, well cleaned and thinly sliced 6 cups crumbs from good-quality white bread 2 cups toasted pecans 1 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped 4 slices pancetta, 1 ounce each (substitute bacon or country ham)
1/2 cup whipping cream
Rinse the pheasants thoroughly inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. Chop the neck, heart and gizzard (save the liver for another use).
Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan. Brown neck and giblets well in the oil, turning frequently. Add the onion, carrot and 1 teaspoon of the marjoram. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes.
Uncover, add the thyme, bay leaf, parsley and the stock, and season with a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Canned broth and pancetta are both quite salty; do not salt the sauce again until just before serving.) Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes. Strain the stock, discarding the solids, and reserve.
Melt the butter in a skillet. Stir in the sliced leeks and cook, covered, over low heat for 30 minutes, or until leeks are very tender.
Toss leeks, including their butter, with bread crumbs, pecans, chopped parsley, and remaining 2 tablespoons of marjoram. Season lightly with salt and generously with pepper. Toss again; if the stuffing seems dry, moisten it with 1/4 cup or so of the reserved broth.
Stuff the pheasants loosely and drape the breasts with the pancetta. Tie it in place with kitchen twine and set the pheasants in a shallow roasting pan.
Set roasting pan in the middle of a 375-degree oven and bake for about 1 hour, basting the pheasants occasionally with the fat and juices that accumulate. Pheasants are done when the thighs, pricked with a fork at their thickest, dribble clear yellow juices. Remove the pheasants from the pan, cover with foil, and keep warm.
Pour excess fat out of roasting pan. Pour reserved stock and the whipping cream into pan and set over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring and scraping up any browned bits, until sauce is reduced by about one third. Taste and correct seasoning.
Carve the pheasants and arrange the meat on a platter. Mound the stuffing in the center and drizzle meat and stuffing with a few spoonfuls of the sauce. Serve immediately, passing remaining sauce in a boat.
From "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Michael McLaughlin, Workman Publishing. THE SILVER PALATE'S VENISON STEW
This rich, complex stew is worthy of your most important holiday celebration. Venison is no longer difficult to come by (we have even seen it cut into stewing pieces and frozen) and for stewing, if you have a choice of cuts, use the chuck or rump -- it's the most tender.
FOR THE MARINADE: 2 cups dry red wine Juice 1 lemon Juice 2 limes 2 large bay leaves 2 whole cloves 1 large yellow onion, peeled and sliced 3 carrots, peeled and chopped Top leaves of 2 celery ribs 1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon Pinch of dried thyme 6 whole black peppercorns, crushed 1 juniper berry, crushed 1/2 teaspoon salt
TO COMPLETE THE STEW: 3 pounds lean venison, cut in 1-inch cubes 8 tablespoons (1 stick) sweet butter (slightly more if needed) 2 tablespoons gin 3 tablespoons lean salt pork, cut into 1/4-inch dice 1/4 pound fresh mushrooms, as small as possible Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 12 to 18 tiny pearl onions 6 chicken livers
Combine marinade ingredients in a large glass bowl and stir well. Add venison, cover, and refrigerate for 1 day. Turn meat 1 or 2 times in the marinade.
Remove meat from marinade and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Reserve marinade.
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a heavy skillet. Brown the cubed venison a few pieces at a time, and with a slotted spoon transfer them to a bowl. Add additional butter to pan as needed.
Transfer all the venison to a flameproof casserole. In a small saucepan, warm the gin, then pour it over the venison and ignite. Shake the casserole slightly until flames die out.
Saute' the diced salt pork in a small skillet until golden. With a slotted spoon transfer pork to the casserole.
Remove mushroom stems and save for another use or discard. Wipe mushroom caps with a damp paper towel. Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a small skillet. Add mushroom caps and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer mushrooms and cooking liquid to the casserole.
Bring 1 quart salted water to a boil. Drop in the pearl onions and boil for 1 minute. Transfer onions to a bowl of ice water; when cool, peel them and add to the casserole.
Strain the marinade and add it to the casserole; stir well. Set casserole over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small skillet and cook the chicken livers until they are firm but still pink inside, about 5 minutes. Cut into large dice.
When venison is tender, add livers to the casserole. Taste, correct seasoning, and serve immediately.
From "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Michael McLaughlin, Workman Publishing. JACQUES HAERINGER'S SMOKED VENISON
(6 to 8 servings) 6-pound venison roast, bone in 1 cup honey, approximately, for coating roast Salt Cracked black peppercorns 2-3 bay leaves 2-3 cloves 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns 2 strips bacon
Trim the roast, removing silver skin if any. (Bone may be left in or taken out, but remember that cooking time will vary accordingly.) Coat the roast with generous amount of honey. Salt it and add a coating of cracked peppercorns. Season a smoker tray filled with water by adding 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, bay leaves, cloves, 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns and bacon to the liquid. Place tray with water and the grill with seasoned meat in the smoker.
Note: Haeringer uses a Smoke-in-Pit with either hickory chips or green applewood. When testing we used the same smoker with a full pan of hickory-oak charcoal, topped off with one cup of soaked hickory chips. The roast cooked, covered, for 3-4 hours. However, after two hours we refilled the coal pan and let the roast continue cooking. The meat was at a very rare (140 degrees) at 3 hours total cooking. At 4 hours the reading was midway between rare and medium. It is important to remember that the timing depends upon the temperature outdoors. Keep the grill closed as much as possible while the meat cooks. Use a meat thermometer if desired. (Meat should be about 140 degrees in center for rare.) JEAN LOUIS' VENISON STUFFED WITH WILD MUSHROOMS WITH FRESH CHESTNUT MOUSSE
(4 to 6 servings) 2-pound venison loin 2 pounds wild or cultivated mushrooms, finely chopped 4 tablespoons peanut oil Salt and pepper to taste 3 chopped shallots 3/4 cup veal or chicken stock 1/4 cup port Fresh chestnut pure'e (recipe follows)
Take approximately 2 pounds of venison loin and slice it through the middle to form a pocket without cutting the edges.
Take 2 pounds of wild or cultivated mushrooms, clean them thoroughly and saute' them with 2 tablespoons peanut oil. Add some salt and pepper and 3 chopped shallots. When done, deglaze the pan with 1/4 cup stock and let the mushrooms cook an additional 3 minutes. Strain the mushrooms, retaining the juice. Stuff the loin, which has been previously salted and peppered, with the mushrooms.
Roast the loin in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes, turning after 5 minutes; or saute' in a heavy, oiled pan on top of the stove over high heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Turn the loin regularly to ensure an even golden color. Remove the loin from the pan and wrap it in plastic wrap in order to squeeze the mushrooms. Pour off the remaining oil in the pan and deglaze it with 1/4 cup port wine, the remaining mushroom juice and remaining 1/2 cup stock. Let it reduce by half and pass through a strainer. Unwrap the venison, take the juice that has collected in the plastic wrap and add this to the sauce. Cut the venison into slices about 3/4 inch thick and pass the hot sauce through a sieve over the slices. Serve on warmed plates with fresh chestnut pure'e. JEAN LOUIS' FRESH CHESTNUT MOUSSE 2 pounds fresh chestnuts Salt and pepper to taste 4 tablespoons butter 1 cup milk 1 cup whipping cream
Score tops of fresh chestnuts with a knife. Simmer them in some salted water for about 1 hour. Once they are tender, peel them and pass them through a drum sieve with a spatula and with your hand. Once passed through, put the pure'e into a large mixing bowl with butter, milk and cream. Whip thoroughly. Check the seasoning, and put into a pastry bag. Pipe the mousse' onto the plate with the venison. ROAST MALLARD DUCK WITH OLIVE SAUCE AND APPLE AND SAGE DRESSING
(6 servings) 3 mallard ducks Salt and pepper 3 bay leaves 6 tablespoons sage 3 apples, sliced 1 onion
FOR THE OLIVE SAUCE: 2 tablespoons duck drippings 1 cup green olives 1/2 sweet onion 2 teaspoons flour 1 quart duck stock (recipe follows)
FOR APPLE-SAGE DRESSING: 4 apples, diced Small stalk celery, chopped 1 medium onion 2 tablespoon butter 1 pound white bread crumbs 1 tablespoon sage 16 ounces apple juice 2 eggs
To prepare the ducks, rub each bird with salt and pepper. Stuff each bird with 1 bay leaf, 2 tablespoons sage, 1 apple and 1/3 onion. Roast the birds in a 375-degree oven, allowing 12 to 15 minutes a pound. After cooking, remove all items from cavity of ducks.
To prepare the olive sauce, heat duck drippings in a saucepan. Add green olives and sweet onion and dust with flour until golden. Add duck stock and reduce by 1/3.
To make the stuffing, saute' apples, celery and onions lightly in butter. Take off heat and cool. Add bread crumbs, sage, apple juice and eggs and mix well. Put in a casserole and bake at 350 degrees until firm (about 30 minutes). DUCK STOCK
(Makes about 1 quart)
Trimmings from ducks: as many as possible, including necks, wing tips, feet, giblets (do not include livers) 1 celery 1 carrot 1 onion, cut in half 2 cloves 1 bay leaf 1 teaspoon dried thyme 6 cups water
Put all ingredients in a heavy bottomed pot. Bring to simmer and cook 1 hour. Let cool. Strain. Reserve broth. FAISANS DU BE'GUINAGE (The Sister's Pheasants)
The presentation given here of cutlets cut out of the breasts of the pheasants and the cutlets called pojarskis prepared out of the legs, takes into consideration the fact that these running birds have tough muscles. Proceed over 2 days.
FOR THE MARINADE: 3 pheasants, if possible mature rather than young 1/4 cup port 1/4 cup madeira 2 tablespoons calvados or applejack 24 juniper berries, crushed 1/3 teaspoon dried savory 1/2 teaspoon quatre-epices* 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 quart veal stock (or substitute chicken broth) 3 ounces bacon, blanched and diced 2 eggs 1 1/3 cups fresh bread crumbs Quatre-epices* 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature 2 tablespoons flour 1 teaspoon oil 1 teaspoon water Salt Pepper from the mill 1/2 cup medoc or cabernet sauvignon 1 1/2 cups dry cider (imported French or English) 2 shallots, finely chopped 1 teaspoon dried savory 12 juniper berries 1 pheasant liver 1/2 cup clarified butter 6 slices of apple, peeled, cored and cut into rounds 18 cooked chestnuts 1 1/2 tablespoons chives, chopped
On the first day cut two of the pheasants into 2 breasts and 2 legs each. Remove the skin and bones from the legs and lift all the meat away, removing all sinews and nerves. Bone the breasts, keeping the breast meat whole and attached to the first joint of the wing. Reserve the wing tips and the bones.
Mix the port, madeira and calvados with the juniper berries, savory and quatre-epices. Brush some of this marinade on each side of the 6 breasts. Toss the leg meat with the remainder of the marinade. Store in a glass baking dish, covered with plastic wrap. Punch small holes in the plastic and marinate for 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Brown the wing tips of all 3 pheasants and the bones of 1 whole pheasant in olive oil. Discard the browning oil. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and reduce to a glaze. Add another cup of the stock and reduce again. Repeat with the remaining 2 cups of the stock; you should obtain approximately 2/3 cup excellent pheasant essence. Strain and store in the refrigerator.
On the second day remove the 24 crushed juniper berries from the marinated meats. Place the leg meat only, the blanched bacon, 1 egg, 1/3 cup of the fresh bread crumbs, a dash of quatre-epices, 2 tablespoons of the butter and any remaining marinade in the food processor and process into a smooth forcemeat. Correct the seasoning well. Shape into 6 cutlets. Flour the cutlets, brush them with a mixture of the remaining egg, the oil, and the water seasoned lightly with salt and pepper and coat them with the remaining cup of the bread crumbs. Dry on a rack.
To prepare the second part of the sauce, mix the red wine and cider, add the shallots, savory and 12 juniper berries, and put the mixture in a saucepan. Reduce slowly to 2/3 cup solids and liquids. Reheat the essence of pheasant, strain the reduction into it, and simmer together for 10-15 minutes. Place 1/2 a pheasant liver and 5 tablespoons of the butter in the blender. Start the blender. Pour the sauce into it and blend well. Strain back into the saucepan. Let stand until ready to serve.
Heat the clarified butter in 2 large saute' pans. Brown the breaded cutlets on both sides until golden brown, about 5 minutes each side. Gently cook the breasts, turning them often until they do not give under finger pressure anymore, about 5 minutes each side.
Serve a breast and a breaded cutlet, topping these with 1 slice of apple browned in the remaining tablespoon of butter and 3 chestnuts. Reheat the sauce without boiling it and spoon it over the pheasant. Sprinkle with chopped chives.
*Quatre-epices is made by combining 5 tablespoons white pepper, a heaping 3/4 teaspoon cloves, 2 teaspoons ginger and 1 tablespoon nutmeg. Store in a jar with a tight fitting lid.
From "In Madeleine's Kitchen," by Madeleine Kamman.