As I considered the plump little pheasant in my hands, my mind immediately jumped to a memory of casserole topped with a curly wurly crust of fresh dough – the bread risen and baked to a fluffy top, ready for ripping and dunking into the gamey broth below. Then I remembered my habit of lending out dishes, roasting tins and baking trays, and the fact that my casserole dish has been similarly waylaid. I’m thinking of encouraging an amnesty: a box outside the front door where people can just slip the items in anonymously.
Casserole dreams shattered, I poo-pooed the idea of roasting and challenged myself to draw maximum flavour from this famously stupid bird. Generally found rooted to the middle of the country road, oblivious to screeching of tyres, beeping of horns and cursing of motorists – the thing practically tastes of stubbornness. Considering the fact they seem to sit around so much, pheasants are surprisingly lean and therefore easily dried out, plus those stringy, fusty-tasting drumsticks are, more often than not, plain unpleasant.
I think much of the bird is better used as a flavour base and so I jointed him, slinging the legs into a pot with some aromatics (a.k.a the contents of the fridge plus some herbs and juniper berries), along with the roughly chopped carcass. The breasts were pan-fried until barely cooked, ready to add back to the broth in the final moments of cooking. A few fine shreds of savoy cabbage gave extra nourishing winter heart and parsley, grassy pungency.
The resulting soup powered right through to our chilled, dampened bones with the kind of restorative effect that can only come from simmering some animal bits in a big old pot over a teeny little flame for a moderate amount of time. A generous hunk of crusty loaf was plunged and plunged again into meaty depths, sucking up robust, peppery juices; dunk slurp, dunk slurp and wipe the bowl clean. A piping hot end to a fine little bird and a cold winter’s day.
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 fat spring onion, roughly chopped
1 small carrot, chopped into three
A few juniper berries
1 bouquet garni (thyme, bay and parsley stalks for example)
500ml chicken stock
A good slug of brandy (I used Courvoisier)
1/2 small savoy cabbage, cored and leaves finely shredded
About 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Put your pheasant breast side up on a chopping board and remove the legs by pulling them away from the breast and using a sharp knife to cut them at the joint. Remove each breast by cutting along either side of the central bone and then following the line of the carcass until the meat is free. Chop the carcass into a few pieces as best you can manage.
Rub the breasts with oil, season, and cook skin side down in a skillet on high heat for about 4 minutes, then turn and cook for another 2-3 minutes another until just cooked through. Set aside.
Put the legs and carcass pieces in a large pot and add the onion, spring onion, carrot, juniper berries, bouquet garni, brandy, stock and water, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for about 45 minutes, skimming every now and then if necessary. Remove the legs from the stock and set aside, then strain the soup through a fine sieve. Return to the pan.
Melt the butter in a separate pan then mix in the flour on a low heat. Stir this into the soup and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the shredded cabbage and simmer for another 10 minutes. Remove the meat from the legs, then shred the breast meat and add both back to the soup during the final few moments (you don’t want to cook it any more). Check the seasoning, add the parsley, and serve.