Thursday, January 22, 2015

Roasted Pheasant with Mushroom Cream Sauce

When I moved to Nebraska in the winter of 2013 to work at NEBRASKAland Magazine, I met Aaron Phillip Schroder during a photoshoot with editor Jeff Kurrus. At that time, Aaron was still the chef at Pheasant Bonanza Hunt Club in Tekamah, in addition to training dogs and guiding hunts. After the hunt, he invited us to see the clubhouse and gave us a sample of his delicious cooking. As someone who also loves to cook, Aaron and I hit it off immediately. 

Aaron with Charlie, Remington and Rio hunting on a CRP field in NE.
One of the first and funniest things Aaron told me was his hatred of canned cream of mushroom soup. "They had cases and cases of it when I arrived," he said. "That's all anyone ever does with pheasant here, and it's terrible. I got rid of all of it." The average cook may think him snooty, but before moving back to Nebraska, Aaron and his wife April-- whom I quickly befriended due to a shared love of horseback riding-- lived in New York. Aaron worked and trained as a saucier chef in top restaurants, even working under Mario Batali. April bartended at the hottest bars in the city. When a chef tells you that canned cream of mushroom soup sucks, you believe it.

Although April has since then taken over the kitchen at Pheasant Bonanza to allow Aaron to work full time as a trainer and guide, this recipe is dedicated to him-- our simple attempt at not using canned mushroom goop. What's more, this was also made with the same rooster he shot in the photo above, a wild late-season rooster off a CRP field in northeast Nebraska, which was carefully plucked, cleaned, aged and brined before its final destination in the oven. 

If you're ever in Nebraska and looking for a good time, look up Aaron Schroder at Pheasant Bonanza in Tekamah. Aaron and his dogs will get you into some birds, and April will cook a great meal for you afterwards. They're good people. 
 * * *
When cooking pheasants, there are two important things you need to do: age it and then brine it. Fresh pheasant can be bland and chewy, nothing to get excited about. Aging will help tenderize and develop the meat's flavor, while a good brine will further enhance its flavor and ensure a juicy end product. Our friend Hank Shaw at the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook wrote an excellent post "On Hanging Pheasants." If you have the tools and capacity to do this, go for it, though make sure that your bird wasn't shot in the guts.

Since we're not set up for that in our little apartment, I opted for a more conservative approach. After the pheasant was plucked and gutted, I ran it under cold water, dried it with paper towels as best as I could and set it in the refrigerator on a dish on top of more paper towels for 6 days to achieve a similar effect. Though Hank suggested 50-55º Fahrenheit for aging birds, average refrigerator settings will obviously be colder than that, which, according to deductive reasoning, would slow down the aging process. I bet I could've let the bird hang out for longer than 6 days in my cold refrigerator, but I was still happy to achieve some kind of success on my first try at a plucked bird. When it came out of the oven, the meat was remarkably more tender and flavorful than the fresh pheasants I'm used to eating. Rick and I have also found that aging venison by this method works as well, especially when one does not have the opportunity to hang an entire deer. We hope you give this recipe a try. We had a great time putting it together.

Servings: 2
Prep Time: 1 hour active prep, 6-8 hours (brine), 6-8 days for aging (optional)
Cooking Time: 1 hour  
- 1 whole pheasant, plucked and aged (see instructions below)
- 1 tablespoon of softened butter
- 1 teaspoon of Herbes de Provence, rubbed
- sea salt/Kosher salt to taste
- freshly cracked pepper
- quarter of an onion
- 5 fresh sage leaves, or your choice of fresh herbs
- 12 cups of water
- 3/4 cup of kosher salt 
- 3/4 cup of brown sugar
- optional spices: smashed cloves of garlic, peppercorns, juniper berries, sage leaves, etc.
Mushroom Cream Sauce 
- 1 large shallot, chopped
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 2 tablespoon of olive oil, divided
- 8 ounces of sliced mushrooms, such as baby bella or shitake (morels would be amazing, too)
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- pinch of thyme
- 1/4 cup of brandy
- 1/2 cup of cream, plus extra
- 1/2 cup of sour cream
- zest of half a lemon
- salt and pepper, to taste
- chopped parsley for garnish
1. To age plucked and gutted pheasant, pat the bird dry with paper towels inside and out after you've washed it under cold water. Try to get it as dry as possible. 

Place two layers of paper towels on a plate and lay the bird on top of it. Loosely cover it with plastic wrap and place it in your refrigerator to help the inside cavity dry out, about 2 days. 

Once dried, replace all the paper towels and seal with new plastic wrap, snug this time, to prevent the skin from drying out too much. Put the pheasant back in the refrigerator for another 4-6 days. Replace paper towels as needed as they get wet and to keep things sanitary. 
2. Once aged to your liking, make the brine. Warm up water, salt and brown sugar in a large pot, just enough so that the salt and sugar dissolve. Add in desired spices and allow mixture to cool. 

Once cooled, completely submerge the pheasant in the brine. Refrigerate for 4-8 hours-- less time for a farm-raised bird, more time for a wild rooster. 
3. Preheat the oven to 500º (or at least 450º). Allow the oven to heat up for a good half hour.

Take the pheasant out of the brine and allow it to come to room temperature for at least 30 minutes but no more than 1 hour before cooking. Then pat it dry with paper towels. Stuff the cavity with fresh sage and a wedge of onion. 
4. Mix 1 tablespoon of softened butter with 1 teaspoon of Herbes de Provence. Then rub it all over the pheasant and underneath the skin over the breasts. Lightly sprinkle salt and pepper all over the bird.

For more even cooking, we recommend that you truss the pheasant. Here's a great how-to video:
5. Place bird in a roasting pan breast side up. Roast in a 500ºF oven (or 450º) for 15 minutes. Then take it out and lower the oven temperature to 350º F. Roast the bird at this lower temperature for 30 to 40 minutes, or until thigh meat reaches at least 155º. We had a fairly good size wild bird, and 30 minutes ended up being perfect. Tent the breast with aluminum foil if the skin starts browning too much. 

Allow the roasted pheasant to rest for 10 minutes so it can finish cooking and reabsorb its juices. 

6. To save time, begin making the mushroom cream sauce while the bird is in the oven. 

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Add chopped shallots and sauté until translucent, 5 minutes. Remove shallots to a small bowl and set aside.
In the same skillet, heat another tablespoon of oil and then add sliced mushrooms, 3 cloves of minced garlic, a pinch of thyme and a pinch of salt. Sauté until mushrooms are slightly browned and then add the shallots back into the skillet. Add 1/4 cup of brandy and cook until alcohol is nearly evaporated. 

7. Lower the heat and mix in heavy cream, sour cream and lemon zest. Heat up the mixture at low simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. 

If needed, add more heavy cream to loosen up the sauce-- sour cream tends to thicken quickly. 

8. Break down pheasant by cutting out the breast meat, thighs, drumsticks and wings. Serve with mushroom cream sauce and garnish with chopped parsley.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Crawfish and Pork Egg Rolls

A spin-off on Chinese pork egg rolls, which to this day, I'm not really sure is Chinese at all. School lunches, Panda Express... I ate crispy, doughy egg rolls filled with what I assume was pork, cabbage and maybe some carrots. They were pretty bland, probably packed full of sodium and tasted too "American," but my 10-year-old palate liked them none-the-less. Well, here's a recipe to all you non-Chinese American kids: may we never forget our first childhood memories of being introduced to "Chinese" cuisine, and may we all receive the opportunity to eat real Chinese food (sooner rather than) later in life.

Servings: 4
Prep Time: 30-45 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
- 1 package of egg roll wrappers
- 1 pound of ground pork
- 2 cups of packaged broccoli slaw
- 1/2 teaspoon of sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon of Chinese rice cooking wine (not vinegar)
- 2 tablespoons of low sodium soy sauce, plus more
- 2 teaspoons of oyster sauce
- 2 scallions, chopped
- 1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled and grated 
- 1/2 cup of cooked crayfish tails, cooked, peeled and roughly chopped (or shrimp)
- peanut/vegetable oil for frying
- 1 egg plus water for sealing wrappers
- Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce for dipping

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, add broccoli slaw and a splash of soy sauce. Saute until soft, about 5-7 minutes, remove and set aside. 

2. In a medium bowl, combine pork, sesame oil, rice wine, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, oyster sauce, scallion and ginger. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat in a skillet and brown meat. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Transfer browned pork to a strainer to strain out any liquids-- wet ingredients will make wrappers soggy and cause tearing. Set aside.
3. Using the remaining grease in the skillet, quickly saute cooked crayfish tails to warm, 2 minutes. We cook crayfish tails ahead of time. We'll peel them and then freeze them for later.

If you don't have crayfish, add a bit of oil to cook raw shrimp.
4. Turn off heat and return browned pork and slaw to the skillet with the crayfish. Mix ingredients well. 
5. Lay 1 egg roll wrap on a flat, dry surface so that it looks like a diamond in front of you. Beat one egg and add a bit of water, and then brush the egg mixture all around the edges. 

Place 2 tablespoon, or so, of cooled filling along the bottom third of the wrap. 
Fold the two sides in, then the bottom corner up. Carefully roll the wrap and then seal. 

Repeat until you run out of wrappers. 
6. Heat 1 1/2 inches of oil in a frying pan to 370ºF-- we use a medium sauce pan to use less oil. 

Then fry egg rolls on both sides until golden brown. Fry in batches and drain on paper towels. 
Serve egg rolls with Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce (which is actually Thai) or any sauce you like.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Korean BBQ Wild Pork Ribs

We went to Oklahoma last spring to try our hand at pig hunting at Chain Ranch. Unfortunately, we never did the chance to shoot a pig, but another hunter in our group did. He shot a small pig one evening and decided that the ribs were not worth the effort to take home. So we offered to take them off his hands. And thus, what was one man's trash became another man's (and woman's) dinner. 

Looking at them, they looked different from the ribs of domestic pork. They looked more like skinny deer ribs, but without all the fat. Seeing that they were too lean and small to smoke, and putting them directly on the grill would be disaster, we knew that braising them low and slow would be the best way to go. Remembering an old Alton Brown recipe, this method would allow the tough meat to break down but at the same time keep it moist. 

You can buy ready-made Korean BBQ sauce in many Asian stores, but this recipe is made from scratch and adapted for braising. I have to say that we got pretty close. Though the Asian pear was very expensive and hard to find in our parts, it is a must to get that authentic Korean flavor. You can also use this sauce (without the white wine) to marinade sliced venison (or beef) for grilling or sautéing and serve with rice, also called "bulgogi." It's oh so good. 

Servings: 2
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cooking Time: 3 1/2 hours
- 1 side of wild pork ribs
- 1/4 cup of soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons of brown sugar
- 1/4 cup of cooking rice wine
- 1 teaspoon of Asian toasted sesame oil 
- half a small onion
- half an Asian pear (or bosc pear), cored and peeled
- 1 tablespoon of minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon of grated fresh ginger
- cracked black pepper, to taste
- 2 chopped green onions, plus more for garnish
- 1/4 cup of white wine
- toasted sesame seeds

This is what an Asian pear looks like. We found at an Asian store in Omaha, but I have seen it in some American grocery stores. They are expensive, ranging from $2-3 per pear. They have tough yellow skin that needs to be peeled, and a white flesh that is surprisingly very juicy, crunchy and sweet. Asian pears are used in Korean cooking for its ability to tenderize meat. 
1. Preheat oven to 225°F.

Rinse ribs under cold water and dab dry with paper towels. Be sure to remove any dirt or hair. 

With a sharp, pointy filet knife, remove large areas of silver skin without wasting too much meat. No need to clean completely. 
2. To make the marinade, puree onion and Asian pear in a food processor until smooth. Then pour mixture into a bowl and combine with soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, black pepper and green onions. Pour marinade and ribs into a zip lock bag and massage to distribute marinade. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

* You can eat the other half of the pear, or puree it and freeze to make more Korean BBQ sauce in the future. 

3. Place a large sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil on a cookie sheet shiny side down. Remove the ribs from its bag and lay it flat on the foil. Pour the marinade over the ribs. 
Fold the top and bottom over to make a packet and roll up one side. Pour in white wine through the open end and then roll up that side to seal. Shift the packet back and forth to distribute the liquids. 

4. Place package into the oven with the cookie sheet and bake for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until meat is tender. 
5. Once tender, remove ribs from the foil and set aside. Pour braising liquid into a saucepan and reduce over high heat by about half, or thickened enough for brushing.

Brush sauce over the ribs and caramelize under the broiler, or use the sauce to baste the ribs on a hot grill to get a slight char. 

Cut ribs into desired pieces and garnish with sesame seeds and green sliced green onions. 
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