Driving through Scotland, way north of Inverness, the brilliant sunshine and cold air calling simultaneously for sunglasses and woolly hats, there is barely a field without its bevy of pheasants. There is a constant presence here of pigeons, deer, wayward sheep and game birds munching their way through the fields of wheat and oilseed rape. The pheasants are of particular interest to me, beautiful on the ground and in the air, and in the kitchen roasting sweetly, a bird that is just enough for two, lean and sweet.
There is little fat on a pheasant, and this usually calls for a duffel coat of bacon over its breast and legs to keep the flesh moist as it roasts. But this week I cooked a brace of them with rapeseed oil and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, resulting in flesh that was moist and delicious.
Roasted in a moderately hot oven for just over half an hour, the birds had lightly crisp skin, and the steam from the juice in the pan prevented the meat drying out. And though I like my curl of slightly too crisp bacon that comes with a roast pheasant or partridge, I sometimes feel the flavour of the bacon can intrude on the sweetness of the meat. (A huge leaf, say that of a fig or vine, generously buttered and placed over the birds will do the job as well.)
There are partridge to be cooked, too. I find one per person is enough, but only if it is given a bit of bulk with roast potatoes, polenta or brown rice. I like the earthy quality of lentils with these small roasting birds, cooking the grey-green pulses with onion, pancetta, red wine and celery. This time I stirred in torn spinach leaves and a dollop of crème fraîche.
Leafing through my year's notes, it is clear I haven't used anywhere near enough game birds, despite the fact they are quick to cook, lean and, if used wisely, relatively economical. The glorious roasts, the sumptuous casseroles, the endless variations on game soups are something I really must explore.
Even the bare bones are worth their weight in gold. Few carcasses are more valuable for giving a deep flavour to stock. I like to make a clear stock with onion, bay and peppercorns, simmered for 25 minutes, then used as a base for an onion soup. The onions are sliced finely and left to soften in butter over a low heat until they are bronze and transparent, a little flour is added and lightly browned to the colour of biscuit, then the game stock is poured over, a glass of Marsala or Madeira is added and the soup left to simmer gently for almost an hour. At the end is a sweet, rich soup to have with a wedge of cheese and some good bread.
Roast pheasant and pomegranate salad
Once out of the oven, a pheasant needs a few minutes to settle, just as a chicken or joint of meat does.
pheasant 1 bird
pomegranates 3 or 4, large
rapeseed or groundnut oil 6 tbsp
thyme 4 sprigs
black peppercorns 8, lightly crushed
bay leaves 2
For the salad:
radicchio 4 handfuls
shelled walnuts 50g
Halve a couple of the pomegranates and press on a citrus squeezer to remove their juice. You need 300ml. Pour the juice into a large mixing bowl, add the oil, the thyme and the lightly crushed peppercorns and bay leaves. Push the pheasant into the marinade, cover and keep in a cool place for an hour at the least, preferably 3 or 4. Turn the bird over occasionally.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Remove the pheasant from its marinade and place in a roasting tin. Pour the marinade over and around the bird, season with sea salt then roast for 35 minutes.
Let the pheasant rest for 10 minutes while you make the salad. Rinse and dry the leaves. Remove the seeds from the remaining pomegranate and set aside. Toast the walnuts in a shallow, nonstick pan over a moderate heat until fragrant.
Tear the flesh from the bird in large, juicy pieces, putting them together with any escaping juices into a bowl. Spoon over half of the juices from the roasting tin and toss gently. Use the remaining juices to toss the salad leaves.
Divide the leaves between 4 plates, tuck in the pieces of pheasant, then add the pomegranate seeds and toasted walnuts.
Partridge with lentils
Partridge can be roasted whole, but I like to split them in half and roast them as quickly as possible so they don't dry out.
partridges 4, oven ready
Puy lentils 200g
pancetta 150g, for cooking
olive oil a little
celery 2 ribs
thyme a few sprigs
red wine 500ml
crème fraîche 200g
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Rinse the lentils in a sieve under running water. Chop the pancetta and fry gently over a moderate heat until the fat runs. Peel and finely chop the onions, carrots and celery, then cook them with the pancetta, and a little oil if necessary, for 10 minutes until soft and pale gold. Tip in the lentils, tuck in 2 or 3 sprigs of thyme then pour in the red wine together with 400ml of water. Bring to the boil, remove any froth that comes to the surface with a draining spoon then partially cover with a lid and simmer for 30-45 minutes until the lentils are soft enough to crush with a spoon. They should be on the soft side of al dente.
Meanwhile cut the partridges in half with a kitchen knife or strong scissors. Generously oil and season the birds and roast for 20 minutes until nicely browned.
Wash the spinach and tear into small pieces. Stir into the lentils and continue cooking until soft and dark green. Season generously with salt and black pepper. Stir in the crème fraîche and simmer for a minute or two. Serve the birds, surrounded by the lentils and spinach.