Ptarmigan from field to plate

Earlier this week I pulled a vacuum-sealed package of willow ptarmigan out of the freezer with the thought of developing a recipe that would showcase the dark breast meat of the birds, while complimenting it with a simple pan sauce.  As usual, prepping and cooking wild birds that I’ve collected yields the added pleasure of reminiscing about the hunt…

I’ve been lucky enough to hunt Alaska ptarmigan on two different occasions over the past few years.  The first was in 2014 when I put together a group trip to the Kenai Peninsula that involved a stay at the All Alaska Outdoors lodge and several days of fly-out hunting.  The second trip, which yielded the willow ptarmigan breasts referenced above, was a single day fly-out with the same outfitter that I tacked on to the end of a wonderful Alaska family adventure this past August/September. 

No different than most serious American sportsmen, I had long entertained the vision of an Alaska adventure involving flying into remote country for the chance to hunt and fish.  The big difference between my dream and that of many other sportsmen, was that most of them picture big moose, caribou, or perhaps even brown bears when they think about making the pilgrimage.   I, on the other hand, pictured pointing dogs and large flocks of ptarmigan in the air in front of them.  That first trip was the culmination of many years of dreaming of an Alaska fly-out bird hunting adventure.   

If you want to do a quality, guided ptarmigan hunt in Alaska, your outfitter options are actually pretty limited, especially compared to say, a fishing trip or a big game hunt.  There simply are not many guides that target upland birds in the state.  My advice is be sure the guide you choose offers dedicated ptarmigan hunts and can back it up with references.  And I can tell you right now that for an experienced guide who knows the birds and where to find them, you won’t do better than Bob Ledda (www.allalaska.com).   

One other piece of advice I would offer is to make sure you know what you’re getting into in terms of hunting these birds and are prepared for it.  Walking across tundra all day to chase willow ptarmigan is tough going even if its relatively flat – the ground is uneven, often mushy, and the brush can be incredibly dense.  For rock and white-tailed ptarmigan, the vegetation is not an issue because, well, not much grows on talus slopes and boulder fields.  Chasing these birds is more akin to sheep hunting than typical bird hunting.  Think chukars, and you won’t be far off.  Having said that, I don’t want to make this sound tougher than it is.  After all, one of the members of our group was 8 months pregnant at the time, and she handled it quite well.  On the other hand, Gina is not your average mom (see www.wildandwellfed.com).

Our hunting group takes a break in willow ptarmigan country. From left to right: Keith, Mark, Gina, and Bart. Not to mention Dory and Luna.

Our hunting group takes a break in willow ptarmigan country. From left to right: Keith, Mark, Gina, and Bart. Not to mention Dory and Luna.

That first trip turned out to be all I imagined and more.  The weather was exceptional – particularly for September in coastal Alaska- blue skies pretty much every day and mild temperatures.  The scenery and wildlife that we saw during our flights to and from the field were simply awesome, especially for a geologist.  Nothing like flying over perfect examples of every glacial feature and landform you studied for an entire semester of college!  I successfully hunted all three species of ptarmigan and for a bonus we spent a fantastic afternoon catching fresh silver salmon on a remote lake just a short hop from a spectacular fjord. 

Back at the plane after a successful hunt with two now tired pups. We couldn’t have asked for better weather!

Back at the plane after a successful hunt with two now tired pups. We couldn’t have asked for better weather!

OK, enough superlatives!  It was a great trip and I’m glad I did it.  I enjoyed it enough to do it again – if only for a day – this year as a single.  This time though, since I had driven to Alaska, I had both Dory and Timber along so I got to bring two dogs in the Super Cub for the day’s hunt.  Great weather again this time (just lucky I guess…) and far more birds than last time.  With Denali clearly visible as our back drop, and a wide-open bowl to explore, we spent a truly enjoyable day collecting a limit of willow ptarmigan which eventually found their way all the way back to my freezer in Sheridan.  Which brings me back to the culinary part of this missive.

The breasts after the Sous Vide but before searing in a hot skillet. The color you see reflects the finished internal temperature of the birds. If you prefer closer to medium (and I would not cook beyond that), you can increase the water bath temperature by 5 degrees.

The breasts after the Sous Vide but before searing in a hot skillet. The color you see reflects the finished internal temperature of the birds. If you prefer closer to medium (and I would not cook beyond that), you can increase the water bath temperature by 5 degrees.

Ptarmigan, like sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens, are dark meat birds – dark, as in red meat, so not what you might expect.  Think ducks or doves.  I love the taste of these birds, but make no mistake, they do not taste like chicken!  So one shouldn’t treat them like chicken (or pheasant or any white-meat bird).  For starters (and you’re probably tired of me repeating this!) the quickest way to ruin any wild game, and birds in particular, is to overcook it. For me, the easiest way to avoid that sin is sous vide (SV) cooking.  So I heated the SV to 131degrees and dropped the meat into the water bath in the bag it was originally sealed in.  Note that 131degrees will yield medium rare meat.  If you prefer yours more pink than red, push the temp up to 135 degrees. 

Next I turned my attention to the ingredients for the pan sauce.  Shallots and red wine were a must.  For something local to the area the birds are from I turned to a homemade huckleberry jam I’d picked up at a farmer’s market while on the same trip.  And to offset the sweetness of the jam and add a kick of tartness, frozen cranberries.    When the breast meat had been cooking for about 30 minutes, I put a combination of butter and olive oil in a cast iron skillet and got it hot.  I put the breasts, which had been patted dry and seasoned with salt and pepper, in the pan to sear for maybe 90 seconds on a side, put them aside to rest and built the sauce by sautéing the shallots, deglazing with red wine, and then adding the jam and cranberries.  I cooked the sauce down a bit to thicken, adjusted the seasoning and then served it over the breast meat which I plated on a bed of farro.   

Pretty quick and easy.And damn tasty.No access to ptarmigan breasts?You can certainly make this with any other dark meat bird including duck and I’ve no doubt it would be equally good with venison or elk.

The finished product. The wine, huckleberry jam, and cranberries combine to give this dish a great balance of sweet and savory to compliment the flavor of the dark breast meat.

A short side-note here.  Of the dozen grouse species that inhabit North America, ptarmigan are the smallest and probably least well known of the lot.  There are three different species: willow, rock, and white-tailed.  All three are found in Alaska, but only one, the white tailed, is found in the lower 48.  As a group, ptarmigan are unique in that they undergo a change in plumage color in the fall, becoming predominately white to better blend in with their snow-covered environment.  In addition, by the onset of winter, ptarmigan also develop natural “snow shoes” as their toes are covered with stiff feathers to allow them to better walk on top of the snow.