Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Game, set and match

Many years ago when a rather smooth work colleague asked if I liked pheasant, I accepted his invitation to dinner at home with alacrity. When I arrived at the appointed hour, the other two guests had not yet arrived and I was conscious that there was no welcoming aroma of roasting meat wafting from the kitchen. The reason quickly became clear, when I was presented with a brace of birds in all their glory, complete with feathers, heads, feet and innards. Clearly I had been invited not only to eat dinner, but also to prepare and cook it - from scratch.
Fired by a combination of pride, hunger and red wine, I managed to convert the birds to a reasonable state of oven readiness. As far as I remember, they tasted pretty good and the other guests appeared to enjoy them. Smooth work colleague was quickly despatched to social history, but the experience did not put me off my liking for most feathered and furred game.
Game is lean, flavoursome and surprisingly affordable – especially if you buy it in the country where butchers have a ready local supply or if you have access to a Waitrose where surprising bargains can be found on the meat counter late on a Saturday afternoon.
Game also makes a great dinner party dish, creating an air of celebration or special treat, except when entertaining vegetarians or people with labradors and a gun cabinet. Or, as happened on one memorable episode from my anthology of culinary nightmares, if you serve wild rabbit in Italian sauce to someone who has just returned from putting down their favourite bunny at the local vet.
What’s more, the intense flavour of game means it can be stretched into several meals, with complementary vegetables such as mushrooms and fillers such as lentils and chestnuts. Here is how two pigeons and 600 grams of lean venison made excellent eating over a weekend.
Roast pigeon
Rounded off a busy week with a dinner a deux. Put a couple of rashers of dry cured bacon across the tops of two pigeons and roasted them for 40 minutes. Served the breasts only, with puy lentils (Merchant Gourmet, microveable sachet, very quick and tasty) , brussels sprouts and a gravy spiked with dry sherry. Before retiring to bed, put 600 gms of casserole venison to marinade in a pint of red wine, a tablespoon of olive oil, a bay leaf and six crushed juniper berries.
Put the roast pigeon carcasses in the pressure cooker, with an onion stuck with two cloves (onion washed but unpeeled so that the skin would give a golden colour to the stock), one carrot , a stick of celery and the stalks of the chestnut mushrooms that were destined for the venison casserole. Added the dregs of the red wine from the night before and enough water to cover everything by an inch or so. Cooked at full pressure for 20 minutes (equivalent of an hour ordinary simmering, covered). Strained through a sieve, discarded bones and vegetables, let cool and stored in fridge. Then moved on to cooking main dish for supper party.
Rich venison casserole with chocolate
Poured hot water over a pack of dried porcini mushrooms and left to swell. Drained the venison (saving marinade) patted dry with kitchen paper and then seared quickly on all sides in little oil in frying pan. Put to one side, then quickly browned 10 shallots (peeled, roots trimmed and then halved) two cloves of garlic. Sprinkled on 1 tablespoon of flour and cooked gently for a couple of minutes before adding the marinade wine, the drained porcini mushrooms and liquid, the venison and shallots. Cooked on low heat for one hour, then added half a packet of frozen cranberries and 150gm fresh chestnut mushrooms, washed and quartered and cooked for a further half an hour. Then stirred in 2 tablespoons of damson jelly and two squares of 80% dark chocolate and checked seasoning before leaving on low heat in oven
Served venison casserole topped with individual golden discs of puff pastry, celeriac and potato puree, red cabbage braised with whole garlic cloves and the finely chopped skin of a preserved lemon plus a spoonful of petit pois to give fresh green colour and taste.
As there were five for dinner rather than six, there was a generous helping of venison casserole remaining, kept in sealed box in fridge.
Luscious left-overs
Gently sauteed a finely chopped onion, two thinly sliced sticks of celery and a handful of sliced mushrooms in a little oil for five minutes. Then poured over the pigeon stock and simmered for 15 minutes, before adding the remains of the venison casserole and three tablespoons of puy lentils left over from Friday supper (Merchant Gourmet, microvable, very useful and tasty). Result: enough delicious and intensely flavoured game soup to serve six people.
Illustration: Courting pheasants, by Robert E Fuller

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