column By: Culinary Creations from Gordon Hamersley | July, 20
In The Whole Beast, Nose to Tail Cooking, chef Fergus Henderson of London’s St. John Restaurant celebrates the consumption of as much of an animal as possible, including game birds.
“Woodcock defecate before they fly, so they can be roasted with the guts in, which heightens the flavor,” he says.
While not common in modern times, livers, kidneys, hearts, brains and various other internal stuff (collectively: entrails or offal) certainly are legitimate foods.
Chefs are known for their culinary hubris, and I was a little skeptical about Henderson’s grasp of the biology involved, so I asked around. Neither Judy Wilson nor Kelly Kubik, local wildlife biologists with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, would go out on a limb and confirm his thesis.
The furthest Wilson would go was, “I eat clams, so why not woodcock entrails?”
And as for me, if it tastes good and doesn’t kill me, I’m all for it. In older cookbooks, woodcock entrails are routinely utilized to add flavor and body to sauces, patés and stuffings.
Jacques Pepin, French chef extraordinaire, uses woodcock entrails, too, minus the gizzard. Jacques once told me that he himself shot the woodcock featured in his book, The Art of Cooking, Vol. 1, but added he was never very good at it. Knowing Jacques and how he goes about things, I doubt that. This recipe from him might be the ultimate in classic French cooking.
Remove the entrails from the raw woodcock and reserve. Roast the bird whole in a hot oven and then lightly braise green cabbage and reserve. Chop the entrails, sauté and ignite with cognac to make a stuffing. From squares of white bread, hollow out little “baskets” and fry or toast until crispy. Spoon the entrails into the baskets, garnish with the cabbage, slice the woodcock off the bone, place on top of the entrails and drizzle with the pan juices. Serve with souffléed potatoes. Jacques’ presentation is elegant and classic.
My annual fall migration to visit hunter friends in search of woodcock usually starts in Vermont and angles east into New Hampshire. In Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, on cold autumn days, lunch is often woodcock noodle soup. We set up a propane stove on the tailgate to warm it and then slurp it from tin cups. Over in New Hampshire, Cap Kane has concentrated on hunting woodcock in the Granite State for over 40 years, and I’ve never visited when he hasn’t served perfectly roasted birds (whole, innards removed, skin intact), cooked over embers in the woodstove. We pick them apart with our fingers while waiting for the rest of dinner to finish cooking.
In Maine, Charles Gauvin, passionate conservationist and bird hunter, makes a pâté with 60% woodcock breasts, 40% chicken livers, shallots and port.
“Guests love it,” says Charles. “So does Moby, the big-hearted, Maine-bred springer who views it as a tasty reward for all his labor.”
Finally, as I’m heading south toward home, in Rhode Island I meet up with Chris Hearn, another spaniel aficionado. He marinates his birds in earthy, vaguely prune-flavored Armagnac and serves them with aillade, the garlicky walnut sauce popular in the southwest of France.
For me, woodcock don’t need much to make them taste good. Entrails add an earthy Je ne sais quoi to each bite. While it’s a hard flavor to describe, it’s definitely worth a taste to learn if you like the addition. But I keep it simple.
Aging woodcock isn’t really necessary, in my opinion, but if you want a bit more tenderness have at it, as this will intensify the flavor of an already flavorful little bird. But don’t overdo the process or the meat becomes unpalatable.
I like to butter baste my woodcock in a sauté pan. Bring the woodcock to room temperature and then melt a large quantity of butter in the pan. When it sizzles, add the birds to the pan and constantly spoon the butter over the birds, lowering the heat on the pan as needed so as not to let the butter burn. Keep spooning the butter constantly, turning the birds as necessary, until the skin is golden brown and crispy. In about 12 or so minutes, the birds will be medium rare. Fish the woodcock out of the pan and add wild black trumpet mushrooms, onions, garlic, some greens and perhaps a splash of medium dry sherry; entrails are optional. It’s a great method that bastes the birds with fat (the butter) and makes the skin wonderfully crisp. You can’t beat this for simple, good eating.
Many hunters find a recipe for woodcock they like and stick with it, thinking, “Why mess with success?” But adventure is the key to discovery, and often when friends do the cooking, it’s that much better and exciting, too. Happy cooking all!
(Books mentioned: Fergus Henderson, The Whole Beast, Nose to Tail Cooking, Harper Collins, 2004; Jacques Pepin, The Art of Cooking, Vol. I, Knopf, 1987.)