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. 
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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.


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