One of the reasons Ted finally caved in and decided we needed our fourth dog, the illustrious George, was he wanted a hunting dog. Well, George decided he preferred a different path and Ted still hunts, just not with his own highly trained hunting dog. The good news is, even sans hunting dog, we always have pheasant in the freezer.
I didn't have any experience with game birds before Ted started bringing them home. I knew to check the bird for stray shot but had no idea the head (with the feathers, beak and eyes) was still attached. I took one look at the green head with red ringed eyes, shouted something not terribly lady-like and took a few moments to gather myself. I remember standing at the sink and thinking if Julia Child can behead a chicken (I had just finished reading Julie and Julia), I certainly should be able to take care of the pheasant sitting in my sink. I grabbed my kitchen shears, removed his head and put him in the oven. That was over 5 years ago, I'm a professional pheasant beheader now.
My worst meal of all time involved a couple pheasants I made to impress my brother, Tom. I thought a traditional Normandy braise with Calvados, apples and cream would be lovely (recipe here). The pheasant was as tough as shoe leather, and not nice shoe leather, more like gnarly work boot leather. The next day I did a little research and realized it was not the recipe, it was the cook. I overcooked those poor little pheasants and not even cream and bacon could bring them back.
When I smoke pheasant, I make sure there is plenty of fat every step of the way. I start by brining the bird for 24 hours, wrap it in bacon (called barding) before it goes into the smoker and then it gets an overnight bath in a mixture of olive oil, red wine and duck fat. Lesson learned— pheasants are lean birds who are constantly on the run for their life, a little fat makes all the difference.
8 cups water 3/4 cup kosher salt 1 cup brown sugar 1/4 cup maple syrup 1 onion, chopped 1 orange, chopped 4 cloves garlic 2 Thai red chili peppers or 1 tbsp red pepper flakes 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh thyme 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary 2 pheasants
Add the salt to the water and bring to a boil. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the pheasant) and let cool until it is at room temperature. Add the pheasant, put it in the refrigerator and brine overnight or up to 24 hours.
Smoking The Pheasant
8 pieces of thick cut bacon 2 pheasants, brined, rinsed and patted dry Apple wood, soaked in water for 1 hour prior to smoking
Wrap 4 pieces of bacon around each pheasant, ensuring the majority of the bird is covered in bacon. Smoke at 200 degrees for 2 1/2 - 3 hours, until the breast meat reaches 165 degrees.
Duck Fat, Olive Oil & Red Wine Bath
12 ounces rendered duck fat 6 ounces olive oil 1 1/2 cup red wine
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and heat thoroughly. Put the pheasant in a pan large enough to hold them in one layer. Pour the duck fat mixture over the pheasants, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Remove the bacon and discard. Take all the meat off the birds and serve with a blueberry balsamic chutney (recipe here).