Seasoned Game Chef and author of The River Cottage Game Handbook, Tim Maddams shares his knowledge and expereince on how to make the most of game throughout the year.
Whether you’re into your partridge or dependent upon ducks there will be a point during the game shooting season when you will be outnumbered in the game larder. No one wants birds wasted and what a shame it would be to turn down free shot offerings from others due to a lack of space. Even if you are not shooting, as a beater out 2 or 3 days a week you could well end up with over 8 birds a week to deal with and whatever they are that is going to require a little thought and planning.
I am a big fan of freezing the glut for use later in the year, or simply to keep the menu in the kitchen a little more varied, we have all been there and although there are many, many ways to serve pheasant at some point you are going to have to give it a rest for a day or two at least. But how can we best select the birds for freezing, how should we prepare them for the freezer to obtain best results upon defrosting and what can we do to ensure that every bird gets used to its best potential?
That’s a lot of how’s, what’s and ifs but basically the first thing to consider is the practicalities and realities of the bird you have your hands on. First and foremost is age and sex, no sniggering at the back please. If you have a older bird, and particularly if its a cock bird (Im talking pheasant here) there is little point in spending your time plucking it as roasting it whole is never quite going to cut the mustard as it will be a little more toothsome than perhaps is desirable. Second on the agenda is condition. I like to look at this in two ways, firstly is there excessive shot or dog damage? Even falling form a modest height of say 30 yards onto hard ground will also have a detrimental effect on the meat quality. Secondly, environmental considerations are to be considered, for example, did the bird fall in the river? Is it covered in mud? All of these things need to be considered but it needn’t take a long time. Spend just half a minute making a brief examination on the overall state of the bird before deciding its culinary fate.
Any bird with more than minimal damage, old, young, male or female will certainly be getting de breasted and de legend rather than the full on plucking treatment. This saves time and allows you to be selective about which birds to hand a little longer, generally speaking any damaged birds should be prepared as soon as possible to avoid losses due to greening or contamination by grit, mud etc.
I am sure we all know how to remove the legs and breasts form a bird without plucking it first, but what to do with it next? The common answer is to bag it and freeze it until needed but I think a little more preparation at this point makes the frozen meat not only more accessible to the busy cook but can also improve the flavour and prolong the life of said frozen meat.
As a basic run down I will normally separate the leg from the thigh, remove the thigh bone and put this with the leg, I will bag several legs along with the thigh bones for braising at a later date. The long cooking process is best used with a whole batch of legs and bones as it takes little more time to braise a dozen than it does a brace and so its more efficient. I often save up the legs until I have loads and then make a big batch, later picking the meat form the bones and sinew and adding this back to the braise, to either finishing some pasta or serve as a stew, I may then even batch this into small tubs and re freeze for almost instant suppers at a later date.
The thighs I tend to rub with a little ground salt, pepper, oil, chopped rosemary and star anise powder, before adding a little rape seed oil and being in 6’s to be frozen, these work very well once defrosted on the BBQ or shredded and used for stir fry’s, sautés or even minced up and used in a pie, or a terrine etc. In fact I quite often flash fry them and eat them for breakfast with a fried egg and some mushrooms.
The breast meat is probably the best candidate for straightforward freezing but just hold that thought for a second. The issue with freezing any delicate meat is that the process of freezing damages the cell structure of the meat, allowing lots of juices to escape after de frosting, resulting in dry and slightly tougher meat than perhaps you were hoping for. Its time to apply a little cure to the proceedings.
Quick dry cure mix –
100g golden caster sugar
100g Table salt
4 bay leaves, chopped
10 black peppercorns and 4 juniper berries, crushed
1 teaspoon fennel seeds and coriander seeds, toasted a and lightly crushed.
Mix all the ingredients together and pop them in a jar. It will keep for ages so don’t worry about the amount you have. Now, season the next batch of breast meat that is destined for the freezer with tis mix. Leave it for 15 minutes and then rinse off and pat dry. At this point of you wanted to cook it just carry on, remember its almost a sort of pheasant bacon on the outside now so you will need a little less salt in whatever dish you decide to go with. You could at this point smoke the breasts in a hot smoker, or you could pop them in the freezer. Whatever you decide to do with them, one thing is certain. The end dish will be better, with more depth and a higher quality than if you had just chucked the meat in a bag and bunged it in the freezer.
For those of you with the desire I often make a note on a little sticker of the date, where the meat was shot and what it is before freezing as its amazing how everything starts to look alike once it’s in a bag in the freezer!