Well, we're in December and hasn't 2018 flown by? It seems only a few weeks ago we were basking in the heat of a record breaking summer. Now we're scraping the ice off the cars and wondering why we didn't have the boiler serviced back in October.
This is probably the last post before 2019 so a quick thank you to everyone who is still reading the blog and to everyone who has bought a copy of the book. It really is exciting seeing it on bookshop shelves but even more thrilling to hear from people who are cooking from it and taking inspiration from it throughout the year. And to those of you who haven’t yet laid hands on a copy, there’s still time for that last minute Christmas present!
As a family we’re thinking what we should eat this Christmas. There will only be four of us for the big day itself and so turkey isn’t really an option and chicken seems a bit ordinary. We’ve settled on a couple of pheasants, which gives me the perfect opportunity to try one of our December recipes.
Across the British countryside, the familiar croak of pheasants in late summer signals the release of birds into the wild and the imminent start of the game season. Feathered game is one of the most traditionally seasonal elements of the British diet. The very fact that game can only be shot at particular times of the year means it is strictly (and legally) a seasonal treat.
We saw the partridge and duck season begin at the start of September and pheasants join them on the menu from 1 October. Early-season birds can be a little underweight so I usually prefer to wait until they have filled out after a few more weeks of feeding and flying in the field. There is a tongue-in-cheek Victorian saying that reflects the economics of shooting – ‘Up goes a guinea, bang goes sixpence and down comes half a crown.’ Although the currency may have changed, the broad principles remain the same. Shooters, referred to as ‘guns’ will pay considerable sums to shoot pheasant, but the shoot will then sell an entire bird in the feather to a game dealer for well under a pound (sometimes they are simply given away). That means that, even once gutted and plucked, you rarely need to pay more than a fiver for a bird large enough to feed two people (and make a decent stock from the carcass). Prices drop even further midseason as shoots across the country produce a glut of birds, and all of that puts December bang in the middle of great value and taste.
Pot-roasted pheasant with cider and apple
As with most game, pheasant it is very lean, though, and care needs to be taken with the cooking to keep the flesh moist. Most game birds are better cooked a touch pink to keep them from drying out and, whilst the accuracy of the cooking is important, it’s always better to aim for under rather than over. Pot-roasting is a great technique for smallish birds such as pheasant as the meat cooks gently in the steam and is flavoured by the aromatic liquids and the caramelization from the initial sear in a pan. Fat from good streaky bacon also helps and, as with any meat cookery, the final stage of resting is absolutely vital.
Serves 4 as a main course
2 pheasant crowns
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 onion, peeled and cut into 8 wedges
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
200ml chicken or pheasant stock
4 slices smoked, streaky bacon, stretched with the back of a knife and cut in half
2 Braeburn apples, peeled, cored and cut into 8 wedges
75ml double cream
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp cornflour slaked in 1 tbsp cold water
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 160˚C.
2. Rub the pheasant skin with 1 tsp of oil and season well. Heat a heavy-based frying pan and very quickly seal the pheasants on the skin side. Remove the pheasants and use the same pan to soften the onions in the remaining oil, adding a pinch of salt.
3. Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes longer. Pour in the cider and reduce completely. Add the stock and bring to a simmer.
4. Tip the onion mix into a large casserole which will hold the pheasants fairly tightly. Place the sealed pheasants in the casserole, cover the birds with the strips of bacon, scatter the apple around and seal with a tight-fitting lid. Cook in the oven for 25–30 minutes.
5. Remove the pheasant to rest in a warm place. Take off the bacon and crisp under a hot grill. Drain the liquid from the casserole into a pan, add the cream and mustard and place over a high heat to reduce slightly. Thicken with the cornflour, adding gradually as you may not need it all – a thick double-cream consistency is what you are looking for. Adjust the seasoning and add the sauce back to the apple and onion mix.
6. Carve the breasts from the pheasant, checking for shot as you do so. Divide the sauce with the apple and onion between the plates, top with the pheasant and finish with the bacon.
7. Serve with creamy mash and some buttered greens.