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I couldn't help thinking of Albert Finney in the movie Tom Jones as I tore into a grilled squab with my bare hands, savoring the juicy, deliciously gamy meat in between mouthfuls of Petite Sirah. All that was missing was a wench across the table and a Great Dane at my feet. That's how eating game birds such as squab, partridge, grouse and quail make you feel -- devour them with abandon; relish those robust red wines.
Game birds hark back to the days when people were closer to what they ate. For example, the wild grouse and wood pigeon sold by companies such as D'Artagnan in Newark, N.J., and Durham Night Bird in South San Francisco, Calif., still have buckshot in them. According to Ariane Daguin, co-owner of D'Artagnan, "When they eat these birds, some people play a game of 'who gets to the buckshot first.'"
Grouse and wood pigeon are two prime examples of wild fowl. They are shot mainly in Scotland, where game estates are maintained for this purpose. (It is illegal to sell game hunted in the United States.) These game birds are typically dark-breasted and have a rich, gamy flavor that true aficionados lust after. "The strong flavors of Scottish birds like grouse and wood pigeon are, for me, the true essence of game birds," says Martin Hamann, executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia.
Wild game birds, which are best eaten fresh, are in season in fall and early winter. "They don't have a lot of fat to protect them from drying out when they are frozen," says George Faison, co-owner of D'Artagnan, which freezes game birds at the end of the season only. Grouse, specifically the red-eye grouse, is considered the king of game birds. It is indigenous to the Scottish moors and feeds on local heather, which gives the meat a distinctive resiny note. Grouse younger than a year old (8 to 10 ounces), are rare and are considered to have the best flavor. Older grouse weigh 12 to 14 ounces.
Some refer to the gamy flavor of grouse and similar birds as "livery." But Faison prefers the term "full-flavored." "That livery taste usually occurs when game is overcooked," he says. I braised my previously frozen, 13-ounce grouse with Cognac, Smithfield ham and tarragon. It was by far the most strongly flavored of all the game birds I tried, and had an intriguing olivey taste. If the flavor of grouse is too much for you, give wood pigeon a try. This 7-ounce bird (on average) is essentially a wild pigeon. I cooked my Scottish wood pigeon (also previously frozen) with the grouse and it came out as the less gamy of the two, but still quite robust, with echoes of fall leaves and earth. The still faint of heart might want to try the marinade used by Hiro Sone, owner of Terra restaurant in St. Helena, Calif.: verjus (the tart, unfermented juice of unripe wine grapes), soy, ginger, garlic and sake.
Most so-called game birds are not wild imports but farm-raised domestic fowl, which enables us to eat them virtually year-round. Farmed game birds can be plenty flavorful, too. Commercially raised squab is the descendant of the wild pigeon and has many of the attributes of that bird, including a dark breast and full taste. Squab is the hands-down favorite of chefs Hamann, Sone and Ferris Shiffer, chef at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis. "It's so meaty, and it has a wonderful richness that lends itself to marinades," says Shiffer, who marinates squab in plum wine and citrus zest. Squab is good to prepare at home, because at about 1 pound, it is just right for one person. I grilled mine, and got a buttery-tender result with a whiff of that wild-game taste.
Because it has a lighter-colored breast and a more domesticated taste than squab, quail is an ideal game bird for beginners. Usually at about 5 or 6 ounces each, you'll need two per person. You can get quail with the breastbone removed, but the bones keep the meat moist and more flavorful.
The quail I cooked at home (from D'Artagnan) were from Griggstown Farms in Griggstown, N.J., which lets its birds roam a bit more and age about twice as long as most other farms do. I roasted these birds -- seasoned with a paste of rosemary, thyme, olive oil, kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper -- and they came out crisp and delicious, with a pleasantly gamy flavor. Pheasant is available wild or domesticated. Wild pheasant are smaller and have darker skin and deeper flavor than domestic ones, though the flavor is not as pronounced as grouse's. The legs can be stringy and tough. You're better off sticking with domestic pheasant, especially the more tender, smaller females (about 2 pounds vs. about 3 pounds for males).
Pheasant has white breast meat, which can become dry when cooked (particularly in the leaner, wild variety). So it's a good idea to strap some bacon over the breast. Roasted this way, the breast of the female I tried (from Griggstown Farms) came out juicy, with far more character than that of the best free-range chicken. The taste and the sinewy texture of the legs were somewhat reminiscent of turkey.
The guinea hen is sometimes called an African pheasant (it originated in West Africa) or pintade by the French, who are particularly fond of this tasty bird. Unfortunately, the guinea hen, which is about the size of a chicken, hasn't yet caught on in this country. But as Daguin notes, "I'd rather have a guinea hen than a commercially raised pheasant."
The guinea hen I roasted (from Grimaud Farms in Stockton, Calif.) reminded me of chicken -- the old-fashioned chicken of my youth, that is. It was rich, succulent and amazingly flavorful. Because a guinea hen has 50 percent less fat than a chicken has, I barded the white breast meat with bacon.
Partridge, like pheasant, can be wild or domesticated. The larger chukar partridge is farmed and weighs 12 to 14 ounces, enough for one person. The wild red-leg partridge is smaller. Though farmed, the partridge I cooked at home still had plenty of game flavor and benefited nicely from the grill smoke and a mildly sweet pear sauce.
The simplest way to prepare game birds is to put them in a very hot oven (500° F) to brown the outside (about 15 minutes for larger birds like pheasant, about seven minutes for smaller birds like quail), then lower the temperature to 375° F to complete the cooking (about 30 minutes for pheasant, about 15 minutes for quail). Brining for one or two days will help keep birds moist and can season them as well. (Hamann adds honey and lavender to his brine for squab.) Splitting and flattening smaller birds makes marinating and grilling easier. Red-breasted birds should be cooked no more than medium-rare or they will be tough and dry. White-breasted birds can be cooked as you would chicken. For more on cooking game birds, two good references are D'Artagnan's Glorious Game Cookbook by Daguin, Faison and Joanna Pruess, and American Game Cooking by John Ash and Sid Goldstein.
Game birds, even those with white breasts, demand red wine. With domesticated pheasant I enjoyed a 1995 Gattinara Riserva and a 1996 cru bourgeois Bordeaux as much as I did a lighter California Pinot Noir. But my favorite was a nicely matured (1994) Napa Petite Sirah. It even tasted good with the buckshot.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).
How to Get It
(800) 327-8246; www.dartagnan.com
Durham Night Bird
South San Francisco, Calif.
(800) 225-7457 ($100 minimum order)
(415) 647-1300; www. polarica.com
Urbani Truffles and Caviar
Long Island City, N.Y.
(800) 281-2330; www.urbaniusa.com
834 Seventh Ave. (bet. 53rd & 54th streets), New York
(212) 245-7850; www.stagedeli.com.