With American Thanksgiving next Thursday, malls already decked out for Christmas, and grocers gearing up for the festive season, thoughts once again turn to turkey. But if you'd rather not see another big bird until next October, there are plenty of delicious options.
What you need is a good game bird–but not the type Dan Savage talks about elsewhere in these pages. Duck and goose are reasonable options, the latter a northern European Yuletide specialty. Yet they're very fatty, and the effort can be off-putting: you have to regularly drain the liquid fat from the roasting dish while they're in the oven. Instead, take a walk on the wild side and hunt down some quail, pheasant, or even partridge at a butcher's shop. They'll be lean and local, too; most of the game birds available are raised in captivity in the Fraser Valley. The taste is, well, gamier, and all "have a lot more flavour than chicken, on par with duck. Even the little quail has great flavour," says chef Jeff van Geest on the phone from the busy kitchen at Aurora Bistro (2420 Main Street). "Farmed game birds are less full-flavoured than wild ones, for sure, and quail has a finer texture to it. When you get to the colour of the meat, they're all darker than chicken."
Quail are a good size for one person, whereas a decent-sized grouse, usually about a kilogram, is good for two. "Pheasant at $11 a pound, that's in stock all the time," says Geoff Jackson, on the line from Jackson's on Granville (2717 Granville Street). "Ninety-nine percent of the time, they're frozen.
"There's partridge available, but it's going to be quite pricey," he continues. "Partridge is going to be as close as you can get to a grouse.”¦probably in the neighbourhood of $20 a pound. That knocks a lot of people out."
According to the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, each year the province produces approximately 350,000 quail, 15,000 pheasants, and 19,000 partridges for consumption. Unlike in Europe, however, only farmed birds are available at meat counters. It's an infuriating situation for local restaurateurs and home gourmets.
"We have different laws over here regarding wild game," says David Hawksworth, executive chef at West (2881 Granville Street), in a telephone interview. "You can't serve wild game in restaurants. You can serve it in your own home. But because it doesn't go through a federally regulated plant, you can't serve it in restaurants. It's a real tragedy, because we have loads of grouse round here."
However, Hawksworth does have a suggestion for domestic cooks: "Quail I'd do as a starter as spatchcock–you take the backbone out and put two skewers in, at one end and across, and then you simply grill that after rubbing it with lots of fresh herbs, garlic, olive oil, black pepper for a quick three minutes. Serve that with an arugula salad."
Another big fan of game birds is Andrea Carlson, executive chef at Bishop's Restaurant (2183 West 4th Avenue), who says a good rule is to serve game birds medium rare. "Anything with a darker meat's good, as long as you're not overcooking it. Unfortunately, that's what people do," she said in a telephone interview with the Straight.
"For cooking a pheasant, take the legs off, because the legs on game birds tend to be a bit tougher," she adds. "Confit them like you would with a duck leg. That would be cooking it very slowly in fat just below the point where it's simmering, until it's tender and the meat starts to come away from the bone in the centre. For the breast, if you've got time, brine [cure] it for six hours. And then pan-sear it, roast it in a hot oven, but then make sure to let it rest."
At Windsor Packing Co. Ltd. (4110 Main Street), pheasant ranges from $8 to $9 a pound, and goose is $5.50. Owner Rick Freeman says that Christmastime brings a demand for more exotic birds, such as pheasants, noting: "We used to shoot them out down by the forest out in PoCo [Port Coquitlam] a few years ago," for personal use.
According to Myke Chutter, bird specialist for the B.C. Ministry of Environment, pheasants are not native to B.C. "They were introduced from China many years ago, and at some point they expanded because there was a lot of rural expansion," he says on the line from his Victoria office. "You can imagine that Richmond and the outerlying areas of Vancouver was great pheasant-hunting when they were first introduced and now is absolutely useless as things became developed."
But don't let urban sprawl put you off your hunt; be adventurous, and bag yourself some great tastes.