column By: Culinary Creations from Gordon Hemersley | October, 21
The kitchens I grew up in were highly charged and at times brutish places. What exactly is in that bucket? It looks like leftovers from a pathologist’s autopsy. Are we doing something with that or selling it to the pig farmer? Knives flash as stuff you don’t know the name of is being sliced, chopped and minced with speed and precision. You’re handed a 25-pound bag of carrots (I recognize them) and told to top, tail, peel and cut them into a brunoise for soup. Huh?
It would be a year before I was capable of participating in these nightly activities in a meaningful way, but it finally did happen. I cooked a lot of dishes that were the work of some very fine chefs. Some of that food I might want to eat; most of it just wasn’t my style. I was learning as much about ways I didn’t want to cook as ones I did. I consumed ideas wherever I ate out and read cookbooks that were inspiring and helped me begin to imagine the food I would later develop into a style of my own. I got lucky when I began working for the late, great French chef Claude Segal in Los Angeles in 1980 because his food made total sense to me. He came from Paris and became chef at the famed Ma Maison Bistro after Wolfgang Puck left to open Spago.
Segal’s food was deceptively simple-looking. It was beautiful in the way a country French garden is beautiful – sometimes a little wild-looking but always under control, unlike its English cousins to the north. It burst with subtle flavors and colors as Segal masterfully fused American (and later Asian) ingredients with his French techniques. The flavors he got from five or eight ingredients were assertive and robust but never jarring. His food had a clear, confident, natural elegance. I wanted to cook more like this. One night he served pigeon with roasted shallots that blew me right away. The pigeon smelled slightly livery with the pungent aroma of caramelized shallots, honey and sherry vinegar commingling to become the most sublime mouthful of game bird ever.
Segal’s pigeon arrived on a beautiful Villeroy & Boch plate with its characteristically highly decorated rim. Whole roasted shallots, cooked in their skins, made a bed for the bird. Breasts, bathed in sweetened cooking juices, were served rare. Legs, cooked a little more, leaned up against them. The sauce, made from the roasted bird carcasses, was enhanced with sherry vinegar, garlic, aromatic herbs and honey. Sprigs of thyme and rosemary provided a touch of textured green to the earth tones. I’d never seen any food look so beautiful and taste so good.
Pigeon? Game bird? OK, I know what you’re thinking. “Pigeons will never be thought of as ‘The King of Game Birds’,” and you’d be right. Pigeons are simply considered pests in most places, and farmers are happy to have you clear their barns of them. And if you get some, take them home and cook them.
Like any craft, learning to cook takes time, and I was fortunate to work with, learn and later borrow from some of the greats, and Claude Segal especially helped me see more clearly the direction my own food would eventually go. To start cooking, learn techniques that transform your food, and the way you think about cooking becomes part of you. Then if you’re any good and you’re lucky, you develop your own style. It can be subtle, but you’ll know it when it happens. Your instincts begin to guide your ideas. It’s an exciting time for any cook when their cooking becomes part of who they are.1 small branch rosemary
Place the shallots, thyme and rosemary into a medium baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and cook for about 60 minutes or until the shallots are very tender. Reserve.
Heat the canola oil and butter in a large skillet. Season the pigeons with salt and black pepper and cook, skin side down, until crisp and golden. Flip the birds over and cook for an additional 2 minutes for the breasts and 4-5 minutes for the legs. Remove the birds from the skillet and let rest on a plate.
Carefully remove the shallots from their skins and add to the pan the pigeons were cooked in. Add the garlic and cook over medium heat for 4-5 minutes until the garlic is fragrant, and the shallots are golden. Add the honey and cook for 1 minute longer and then add the sherry vinegar and game bird stock. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to medium and cook until the sauce is flavorful. Season with salt and pepper to your taste and reserve.
When ready to serve, add the pigeon to the pan and gently heat through. Divide the roasted shallots among 4 plates and top with the pigeon breasts and legs. Garnish with fresh thyme and rosemary. Serve the sauce separately.