column By: Gordon Hamersley | August, 17
There is no doubt that to the uninitiated, the Scots have some colorful, offbeat descriptions for their national dishes. Add an accent that requires subtitles, and you can have some hilarious fun pronouncing the names of these delicious recipes. Turning it all into a drinking game kicks it up a notch.
But don’t be put off by these alien monikers. Most (not all) are delicious. Consider the familiar haggis, which everyone knows about but most Americans won’t try. (Anything poached in a sheep’s stomach makes most Yanks blink.) There’s Cullen skink, a truly lovely, smoky fish soup. Clootie is a dense pudding made with treacle and spices. Don’t forget cock-a-leekie, which is hearty chicken and leek soup. I’m also most partial to rumbledethumps, a combination of the best Scottish Borders ingredients: potatoes, cabbage, onions, mashed potatoes and cheese. Yum! But my favorite by far is skirlie.
In its most basic form, skirlie is onions and oatmeal lightly fried in butter until it makes that all too familiar skirl sound. It truly doesn’t get much better than skirlie. Trust me!
To my taste, skirlie benefits from a wee flavor boost, so adding crimini mushrooms, dried porcinis, some fresh herbs, smoked bacon, a shot of whisky and some game bird broth adds woodsy flavor to the traditional recipe. The technique for adding the broth is the same as when making risotto. You add a little bit at a time, stirring constantly, until each addition is absorbed. Use steel cut oatmeal and use as much stock (not whisky!) as needed to render the oats tender, but they should still have some “chew” at the end. On its own or as a pheasant stuffing, this skirlie is wonderful. As the birds cook, the juices seep into a skirlie mixture, and the result is a rich side dish of luscious, oaty goodness.
Lately I’ve been dry brining very lean game birds like grouse and pheasant for a few hours before roasting them to ensure the birds are tender. After a light sprinkle of salt and pepper, leave the pheasants uncovered in the refrigerator for at least two hours or overnight. The meat will be tender, and the skin will get nice and crisp when roasted. Remember – you don’t need to salt the pheasants before they go in the oven since they have absorbed the necessary salt during the brining process.
A couple of years ago, I sat in the front seat of a Glaswegian cab while the rest of our party packed into the back seat. I asked the driver’s thoughts regarding the impending Brexit vote. What I got was a 15-minute lecture, of Parliamentary quality mind you, about how stupid the bloody English are. Unfortunately, I only understood 25 percent of his actual words. I kind of wish I’d asked him for his mother’s recipe for skirlie instead.
2 whole pheasants, about 2½ pounds each
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
4 slices smoked bacon
2 tablespoons butter
1 large Vidalia onion, diced
1 cup steel cut oatmeal
4 crimini or similar mushrooms, diced
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in hot water and drained
pinch kosher salt
pinch black pepper
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
3-4 tablespoons Scotch whisky
4 cups pheasant or chicken stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 scallion, finely chopped
Wash the pheasants with cold water and dry well with paper towels. Rub each bird with the salt and pepper and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Take bacon slices and cut into a ½-inch dice. Heat a medium skillet and add the bacon. Turn the heat to low and cook the bacon slowly until the fat is released and the bacon turns crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan and drain on a paper towel. Reserve.
To the bacon fat left in the pan, add 2 tablespoons of butter and the onion. Cook the onion slowly until it turns golden brown, and it is tender. Add the oatmeal and stir to combine. Cook the oatmeal slowly for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. You want the oats to brown but not burn.
Add the fresh mushrooms, porcini, salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are tender, about 6 to 8 minutes.
Add the whisky and 1 cup of the stock to the pan and cook over medium-low heat stirring constantly until all the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding the stock in this manner until it has all been incorporated. Note: Taste the oat mixture with each addition to determine when it is finished cooking. More or less stock may be needed. Add more salt and pepper if needed. Let cool.
Set the oven to 425 degrees.
Take the birds out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.
Fill the cavity of each pheasant loosely with the skirlie. (Reserve the remaining skirlie to serve separately with the birds.) Tie the legs of each bird with butcher’s twine so the stuffing doesn’t leak out while it cooks.
Rub each bird with olive oil and place on a baking sheet fitted with a rack. Roast the birds at 425 degrees for 20 minutes and then lower the oven heat to 325 degrees and continue to cook the pheasants until a thermometer inserted in the thigh reaches 155 degrees. This will take about an additional hour of cooking depending on the size of your birds.
Remove the pheasants to a cutting board, cover loosely with aluminum foil and let them rest for 10-12 minutes before carving.
To serve, divide the skirlie from the cavity among 4 plates. Carve the pheasants and divide onto the plates. Reheat the remaining skirlie and add to each plate. Sprinkle with scallions and serve with a small watercress salad.
Mise en Place:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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).