column By: Gordon Hamersley | August, 19
Late in autumn, here in New England, many grouse hunters begin to move out of the coverts when the rifle deer season starts. Our time in the woods is long compared to theirs, and out of respect for their short number of days afield, we put the brakes on bird hunting for a couple of weeks. For us, it’s like having two seasons. The first starts during the mild, waning days of summer when leaves are still on the trees and birds are elusive and ends just before Thanksgiving. The second begins in early winter and finishes with us following grouse on snowshoes hoping for a last, long shot before it wraps up until next year. In between are Thanksgiving and my wife Fiona’s birthday. This year they fall on the same day.
The menu is almost set. The big bird, as always, will take center stage, but the side dishes are what Fiona likes best. Glazed Brussels sprouts with bacon, caramelized celery root with fresh grated horseradish, Parmesan-crusted cauliflower, creamy garlic potatoes and some variety of stuffing all are players in the traditional feast at our house.
This year I’ll combine grouse and woodcock and add it to the stuffing ingredients. It’s the perfect spot to use those neglected legs and thighs from past recipes or birds that have been shot up a bit and are not quite suitable for a pristine roast. Adding a bit of ground smoked bacon works to keep it all moist. If you don’t have a grinder at home, use a large, sharp knife and mince it as fine as possible. This works well, too.
This stuffing is designed to be cooked in a baking dish, but should you wish to spoon it into the cavity of a big pheasant or your turkey, have at it. Cut your vegetables with care in a uniform small dice, and then let them cook long enough so they are nice and tender. Sage and thyme are the herbs that enhance fall food the best. As always, season each stage as you go.
Ciabatta is the bread of choice, but any quality light, rustic bread like sourdough or even a baguette trimmed of some of its hard crusts will work well. Take the time to let the bread absorb the stock and juices by popping it in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before it goes in the oven. Cooking the stuffing covered for the first 40 minutes sets the eggs and commingles all the flavors. Removing the cover for the last 15 minutes lets the top get nice and brown. The result is stuffing that has a soft bottom layer and a crunchy, golden brown top.
I’ll likely not make a pie for dessert this year because Fiona isn’t really a pie person at heart. But what about a big French-style pavlova with cranberries and toasted walnuts? Maybe with a big spoon of freshly whipped cream on top or perhaps some ginger-infused ice cream. It won’t be very traditional but then again, neither is Fiona. Happy birthday, Fiona, and Happy Thanksgiving All!
1 loaf of ciabatta bread (approximately 14 by 5 inches) or use any good quality rustic bread of choice
3-5 tablespoons canola oil
salt and black pepper as needed
¾ pounds ground grouse and woodcock meat (or use any game bird combination on hand)
4 ounces ground smoked bacon
½ medium sweet onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced small
1 sweet potato, peeled and diced small, about a cup
2 stalks celery, peeled and diced small
3 ounces dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in 1 cup of hot water for 10 minutes and then drained, reserving the mushroom liquid, chopped
6 leaves fresh sage, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
¾ cup dry sherry
4 tablespoons butter
Set the oven to 375 degrees.
Cut the ciabatta into ½-inch cubes and place in a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of canola oil and toss to coat the cubes with the oil and sprinkle lightly with salt. Place the cubes onto a baking tray so they are in one layer. Place the tray into the oven for about 12 minutes. Let cool and reserve.
Heat the remaining canola oil in a large sauté pan and when hot, add the game bird meat mixture. Spread it out to cover the pan, season with salt and pepper and cook over medium-high heat for about 6-8 minutes until the meat is browned lightly on one side. Stir and continue to cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. Remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add enough canola oil to make 2 tablespoons in the pan.
Add the onion, carrot, sweet potato, celery and mushrooms to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender. Add the sherry and bring to a boil. Cook for 2 more minutes and let the mixture cool.
In a medium-large bowl, place the sage, thyme, eggs and the reserved mushroom liquid. Whisk lightly to combine. Add the bread cubes and vegetables/game bird mixture and combine well. Season with salt and black pepper.
Place the stuffing mixture into a 9 by 13-inch baking dish and dot with 3-4 tablespoons of butter. Cover with aluminum foil and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes and up to 3 hours to let the bread fully absorb the liquid.
Place the stuffing into the oven (375 degrees) and bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and return the dish to the oven for an additional 15 minutes to crisp the top of the stuffing. Let the stuffing sit for a few minutes before digging in.
Serve with roasted game birds and the Thanksgiving turkey.
To prepare for cooking, chefs often utilize the concept of mise en place, which means “to set into place” a recipe’s ingredients prior to starting. You can help Chef Hamersley prepare by suggesting ingredients you’d like him to set into place. Here’s how:
1. Look through your pantry to find a maximum of five “legitimate” ingredients you think might work well in a game bird recipe.
2. Send a list of those ingredients in an email with the Subject: In Place to email@example.com.
3. From time to time, Chef Hamersley will select an entry and create a dish out of some or all of the ingredients (plus add some of his own, of course).