The quintessential Thanksgiving meal has a simple checklist: turkey, gravy, stuffing and cranberries. But delve into regional influences and family traditions—whether deeply meaningful or downright quirky—and the standard image of the holiday gives way to more characterful dishes. Fall presents an occasion to expand the horizons of the dinner table with tastes of pheasant, guinea hen or high quality heritage-breed chicken. The only thing home cooks need is a straightforward, versatile recipe.
Chef Thomas Hauck's restaurant, c.1880 in Milwaukee, regularly incorporates game birds from Wisconsin's annual hunting season into the menu. The restaurant—fondly called “Circa” by guests and staff alike—is an Award of Excellence winner led by Hauck and general manager and wine director Joshua Wolter. The restaurant sits close to the banks of the Kinnickinnic River, beyond which lies Lake Michigan.
For Hauck, the first choice is pheasant. The bird, which can be obtained from specialty meat purveyors, has "fantastic texture" and a uniquely delicate flavor. Heritage breeds like Blue Foot chicken or guinea hen, which Hauck describes as "what our grandparents remember chicken being like," are seamless substitutes. Turkey can work too, but its large size can be cumbersome.
“We wanted to do something different for a lighter bird that we could serve during the autumn,” says Hauck. “We roll the breast and make a roulade out of it and poach it. We do it sous-vide, so it’s a little bit easier, but you can do it with plastic wrap at home and it’ll be just as fine." All you need, encourages Hauck, is "plastic wrap and kitchen twine." To increase the amount of food for large family gatherings, multiple roulades can cook in the same pot. Hauck says four roulades would fit comfortably in a 6-quart pot—"even if it's the pot you normally use for pasta," he laughs. From chicken to guinea hen to pheasant, the process remains the same.
“Bring a pot of water up to a boil, drop it to a simmer and then you gently put the bird in,” says Hauck. When adding multiple roulades to the pot, the key is to make sure the water stays at an even simmer.
As a quick tip to check if the bird is ready, Haucks suggests inserting a thin metal skewer into the center of a roulade. Once removed, the skewer should be very warm to hot to the touch.
The appeal of poaching, besides the quick preparation (the roulades become fully cooked after around 18 minutes), is that it largely takes away the risk of overcooking and drying out the bird, a hazard home cooks face each year at Thanksgiving.
Of course, a Thanksgiving meal would not be complete without multiple side dishes. At the restaurant, the pheasant is lightly dusted in an aromatic vadouvan spice blend and served over a creamy orzo (leg meat from the pheasant can be added to give it a richer umami flavor). Charred Brussels sprouts complement the dish with an earthy crunch, and a pomegranate vinaigrette adds a sweet-tart touch, stepping in as a lighter alternative to a traditional cranberry sauce. The vinaigrette can be made a day ahead of time, and Hauck adds shallots and pomegranate seeds so the dressing, giving the dish “a great bite and zing.” (Even if you don't make the pheasant, these side dishes are tasty accompaniments to any Thanksgiving meal, including a traditional roasted turkey.)
What to drink? Wolter puts forth a classic terroir-driven Gamay from the Beaujolais cru of Côte de Brouilly, suggesting a producer such as Château de la Chaize.
“For me, Gamay is the No. 1 Thanksgiving wine; it really pairs well with so many dishes,” says Wolter. The wine’s balanced acidity, earthy notes and medium body complement the varying flavors of the dish, from the richness of the orzo to the delicacy of the game bird. He’s mindful not to overpower the food with a red wine that’s too bold or fruity, and is cognizant of the wine’s age.
“I wouldn't go with anything older than 2013,” he says. “It’s Gamay, it’s ready to drink right off the bat.” For Thanksgiving traditionalists, an elegant Pinot Noir also makes a classic pairing.
Below, Wine Spectator recommends 12 Gamay and Pinot Noir wines that have scored 88 points or higher.
Pheasant With Whole-Wheat Orzo, Brussels Sprouts and Pomegranate Vinaigrette
Recipe courtesy of chef Thomas Hauck, c.1880, Milwaukee, Wis.
For the pheasant (or alternative birds):
- 2 whole pheasants (or substitute chicken or guinea hen), cleaned and deboned, legs and breast meat reserved
- 4 tablespoons vadouvan spice
- 1 roll plastic wrap
For the side dishes:
- 4 cups whole-wheat orzo
- 2 small celeriac, diced
- 4 cups chicken stock (you may not use all)
- 4 cups Brussels sprouts, washed and sliced
- 2 tablespoons butter (adjust as desired)
For the pomegranate vinaigrette:
- 4 shallots, finely minced
- Seeds (arils) of 2 pomegranates
- 4 tablespoons pomegranate juice
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
To make the pheasant and side dishes:
1. Preheat the oven to 375° F. After cleaning and deboning the pheasant (removing the skin), season legs with salt and pepper. Roast on a baking rack for 35 minutes. Set aside to cool. After legs have cooled, pick meat from bones and reserve for orzo dish.
2. To make the vinaigrette, add shallots, pomegranate seeds, juice, olive oil and vinegar to a small bowl, whisk together and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside for plating.
3. In the style of risotto, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and slowly cook the whole-wheat orzo with the diced celeriac. Add chicken stock a little at a time until desired doneness is achieved. Add reserved leg meat from pheasant. Set aside for plating and keep warm.
4. While the orzo is cooking, fill a second large (6-quart minimum) pot with water and set to boil. Lay a cleaned, skinless breast on a large sheet of plastic wrap and season the pheasant generously with vadouvan (approximately 2 tablespoons per breast). Roll the breast in plastic wrap and tie tightly at both ends with butcher or kitchen twine, creating a tightly rolled “roulade.” Repeat for additional roulades. When the water has begun to boil, turn heat down to a simmer. Gently place roulades in pot for approximately 18 minutes and be sure to maintain the simmer throughout. Using a home thermometer, check that water is around the ideal temperature of 147° F. When done, set aside for plating.
5. Melt butter in sauté pan on high heat. Add Brussels sprouts to pan, cut-side down, and cook until deeply caramelized. Do not move Brussels sprouts until the edges turn brown and crispy.
To plate the pheasant and side dishes:
Place cooked orzo in a deep, wide-lipped bowl (similar to a pasta dish) and top with caramelized Brussels sprouts. Freshly stir the vinaigrette and lightly dress the sprouts. Slice the breast for presentation, and place over the orzo and sprouts. Serves 4 to 6.
12 Recommended Red Wines: Pinot Noir and Gamay
Note: The following lists are selections of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More red wines rated in the past year can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
The Four Graces Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2013
Bright and vibrant, pointing the plum, currant, floral and white pepper flavors into a crisp finish that expands and persists with refinement and presence. Comes together harmoniously and lyrically. Drink now through 2023. 15,400 cases made.
Hahn Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands SLH 2014
The texture is plush, with lots of complex flavors, ranging from plum to anise to dusty, cedary oak. Satisfying from start to finish, ending with dusty, nutmeg-scented tannins. Drink now. 26,500 cases made.
Louis Jadot Moulin-à-Vent Château des Jacques 2013
This light-bodied version shows some muscle, with concentrated cherry compote, blackberry and spice flavors, structured by supple, moderate tannins. Details of licorice, floral and mocha chime in on the lingering finish. Gamay. Drink now through 2022. 3,500 cases made.
Jean-Marc Lafont Morgon Côte du Py 2014
This light-bodied red is aromatic and fresh, with wild strawberry, cherry and floral notes bound together by juicy acidity. Ground spice, licorice drop and mineral details provide dimension through the crisp, clean finish. Gamay. Drink now through 2019.
Seaside Cellars Pinot Noir Marlborough 2014
The plush and juicy core of fresh raspberry flavors is impressively transparent and pure, with accents of clove, mineral and tobacco adding a lingering aromatic detail. Drink now through 2026. 8,500 cases made.
Nicole Chanrion Côte de Brouilly Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes 2014
This light-bodied, supple red is balanced by ripe raspberry and strawberry fruit flavors, edged with floral, herb and mineral accents that are well-structured, showing vibrant acidity and easy tannins. Offers a tangy, crisp finish. Gamay. Drink now through 2018. 822 cases imported.
Cooper Mountain Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Cooper Hill 2014
Generous and expressive, surefooted and open-textured, with orange peel–accented pomegranate and floral flavors that linger against lightly prickly tannins. Drink now through 2022. 6,500 cases made.
Castle Rock Pinot Noir California California Cuvée 2013
Offers aromas of wilted rose, spice, raspberry and blackberry. Delicate and detailed, ending with a long, lingering aftertaste. Drink now. 41,618 cases made.
Domaine Laroque Pinot Noir Cité de Carcassonne 2014
Juicy plum and dark cherry notes are matched with herb and licorice accents in this bright, focused red. Fine-grained tannins add enough structure through the minerally finish. Drink now. 5,000 cases made.
Château de Pizay Morgon 2015
A concentrated Morgon, with blackberry, black cherry and plum notes offset with smoke, mineral and cassis accents. Smooth, supportive tannins ease into the spicy finish. Gamay. Drink now through 2022. 600 cases imported.
Viña Santa Rita Pinot Noir Aconcagua Valley 120 2015
This juicy red offers effusive cherry and berry flavors that are supple, with some savory notes. The spicy finish shows accents of dried beef. Drink now. 111,100 cases made.
Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly 2014
A tangy, crisp red, delivering currant, cherry and leather notes that mingle with spicy underpinnings. A smoky mineral element builds up on the mouthwatering finish. Gamay. Drink now through 2018. 1,113 cases imported.