WILD GAME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (December 16/13)

Jake, my bird dog, is almost 11 years and understandably isn’t as spry and energetic as he was a few seasons ago.  So when the last four days of the pheasant season turned bitterly cold and windy, I moved the thermostat up in Jake’s kennel heater and told him he was done for the season.  “The weather out there is for young dogs,” I said.

I’m sure – absolutely sure – Jake never understood a word of what I said.  But when a friend showed up later with his young dog to take me hunting, Jake came out into his run and began to yelp and to howl mournfully.  And they say dogs have no smarts whatsoever.

On my last hunt with Jake, just before the cold and snow arrived, I bagged a rooster with him, a pheasant he pointed staunchly – I had to flush the bird out of swamp grass – and he retrieved it nicely.  I didn’t know then but it would be our last rooster of the season.

As mentioned in a recent column, I hang pheasants I harvest before dressing them.  So when I got around to drawing and plucking the rooster three days later, the snow and bitter cold had arrived and Jake’s season was over.  I decided then that Jake’s final bird of the season would on the table during the holidays.  It’s been a tradition for some time at our house to cook up a wild game dish between Christmas and New Years.  Generally it’s pheasants or ducks, and over the years I’ve perfected a couple of recipes that bring out the flavour inherent in these game birds.  Other friends that hunt do the same thing, a game dish during the holidays being a tradition with them as well.

Occasionally I’ve offered readers my favourite wild game recipes in this column.  I won’t do that this year.  I’ve found most hunters usually have special ways to cook wild game; or their spouses do, which is the same thing.  In other words, everyone has their own preferences when cooking game and they might not prefer mine.

Some hunters like game cooked with basic, simple recipes, with no special sauces, herbs, spices, condiments, vegetables and so on added to the dish.  Then there are hunters who like their wild game frilled up with wine, sour cream and even beer.   I discovered to my surprise some time ago that black duck and canned tomatoes (or tomato paste) make for an excellent combination in a wild game dish.  No, I won’t give you a complete recipe.  Simply experiment with breast of duck roasted with tomatoes and onions and watch out how fast it disappears when served.  I also found that pheasants and sour cream, along with red wine and mushrooms, combine well.  Try these ingredients with pheasant breast but beware:  You’ll have to fight for your fair share.

One remark I often hear from hunters is that they don’t like eating wild duck.  In the past a couple of hunting companions often let me take all the ducks we harvested since they didn’t like them.  But once I told them how to prepare the ducks for the oven and they discovered how delicious they were, the days of my keeping all the ducks disappeared.

Not that I minded.  It can get tedious plucking and cleaning a lot of ducks.  On one hunt my brother and I bagged our limit of black ducks and mallards.  He insisted, since he didn’t care for eating ducks, that I take all of them. This was okay at first – until I had to pluck and clean those dozen ducks in an unheated shed on a cold December day.  After that experience we had a new rule for duck hunting – you shoot a duck, you keep it, pluck it and clean it.

But that’s enough of rambling on.  I’ll close with saying there’s something about dining on wild game, game you hunted and harvested, during the holiday season.  Maybe it’s because the game we harvest, be it venison, waterfowl or upland game, is a unique treat and it deserves a special time to enjoy it.

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