I hate January. More specifically, I really hate the approach of 31 January, and with it the looming tax deadline. Doing my tax brings out that peculiar combination of impending doom and instinctive avoidance tactics that reminds me of algebra and nuns. Last night I had two choices: start my tax, or gut and dress the game birds. It was a no-brainer. I won't lie to you: dressing birds is never a task I particularly enjoy, but it was still preferable to that mountain of receipts in my study.
A few things about getting birds in feather: first of all, you know what you've got: cocks or hens, old or young birds. That's useful because you will cook them differently. Younger birds, and especially hens, can take more straightforward roasting. An old cock wants putting in a pie, pot roasting with a lot of moisture, or jointing and pan-frying. Secondly, there's the cost difference. I was looking on-line last night and saw dressed pheasants for around £7 each. You can buy a brace of birds in feather for £3. Thirdly, and I know this won't appeal to everyone, but it makes you to come to terms with the fact that what you're eating was a living, and usually a rather beautiful, thing. A lot of carnivores I know will think I'm mad, but I think occasionally skinning a rabbit or preparing game birds gives me more respect for all of the meat that I eat.
So there I was, last night, skinning my birds while my tax receipts glared at me from the dining room table.
I've never done partridges before, and they were a total doddle. The dressed birds are only about the size of pigeons, so a brace should feed two people (just about). I was inspired by reading my friend Jo's facebook yesterday to joint my pheasants. I plan to get a few more roasting birds for the deep freeze, so having a few legs and breasts about for pan-frying or making soup now is a good idea. One of the pheasant legs was pretty badly shot up, so I decided to chuck it in with the carcasses for stock - especially because Jo had also mentioned yesterday that she was making pheasant soup. I still have a memory of eating pheasant soup over 20 years ago at the wonderful (sadly demised) La Fourchette restaurant in Wayne, Pa. That was the first time I ever ate pheasants or truffles, and it was one of those Damascene meals that probably helped to turn me into the saddo you see before you today. Like many wonderful dishes, I have wanted to taste that soup again ever since. It never occurred to me to try amd replicate it - it was beautifully light and elegant, two qualities that usually describe neither me nor my food. However, last night when the stock was bubbling away, I caught a whiff and thought, "Chestnuts." Pheasant and chestnuts is a winner, so why not in soup? And a food memory from all those years ago kind of assembled itself in my head. For lunch today, I gave it a go.
It was one of those lovely times when the flavour that I intended actually comes quite close to the flavour on my plate. Moreover it was dead easy to make, and I will probably serve it as a starter the next time anyone comes over for dinner (you've been warned). So, without further ado...
Pheasant, chestnut and Bramley apple soup
Serves 3 ordinary people or 2 greedy ones. (16 WW ProPlus Points per greedy serving.)
For the stock:
1 - 2 pheasant carcasses, plus a leg
a few stalks of fresh thyme and 2 bay leaves
1 onion, quartered
Cover the carcasses and herbs with water, season, and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of hours, skimming off any scum that comes to the surface. Leave to cool. Strain the liquid through muslin or a clean tea towel placed in a colander so you get a lovely, clean stock. Strip the meat from the leg (being careful to avoid the needly little tendons) and any residual nice bits of meat from the carcasses, breaking or shredding it into small pieces. You should have about 100g of meat and a couple of pints of stock. Chuck everything else away.
For the soup:
100g pheasant meat
half a Bramley (or other cooking apple)
16 chestnuts (vacuum-packed)
30 ml double cream
15 ml half fat creme fraiche
pinch of cinnamon
root vegetable crisps and fresh parsley, to garnish
Put the stock into a large, clean saucepan. Add chopped and peeled carrot, onion and apple. Add whole chestnuts. Cook for 20 - 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat and liquidise with a stick blender. Return to heat and reduce until slightly thickened (about 10 minutes). Whisk in the cream and creme fraiche. Stir in pheasant meat and cinnamon, and return to the hob. Warm through gently, removing form heat when it is just coming back to the boil. Season well. Garnish with root vegetable crisps and parsley (avoid beetroot crisps as they will "bleed" into the soup) and serve.
Oh - look at the time! And I still haven't done my tax...