From Minnesota woods to table...
First a quick recap of the Minnesota portion of my Fall Odyssey. This will be plowing a bit of old ground for some of you but it sets the stage for the food discussion to follow and I’ll try to keep in brief.
All in all, I wound up spending 2 full weeks camping and hunting in north central Minnesota during the first half of October, 2018. Ann and I drove out from Sheridan and she stayed with me for the first week, hanging around camp, taking long walks along the lake shore and occasionally joining me for afternoon hunts during which she handled the camera while I handled the dogs and the shotgun. A workable division of labor and satisfactory to all concerned. My buddy Jim Sorenson joined us for a few days of hunting that week as well, and with his 3 GSPs plus Dory and Timber, we were not wanting for dog power. Woodcock were scarce – it seemed that the flight had not really gotten underway – the dearth of birds or sign in the coverts confirmed as much, and the unseasonably warm days and winds out of the south that prevailed throughout my stay did nothing to encourage the little migrants to get on with the business of heading south. To be sure, we collected some woodcock over the course of the week – and I even shot a couple of three-bird limits, but no one who treasures these fascinating game birds as I do can feel good about shooting most of the birds the dogs find in a given day. It just doesn’t sit well.
So with woodcock scarce, we concentrated most of our efforts on ruffed grouse during the latter portion of our MN hunt. At the end of the first week I dropped Ann at the airport where she hopped a flight east to visit family. Mark Shively joined me at camp with his English pointer, Sam. Mark is a Wyomingite born and raised, and hunted big game for many years before I got him to see the error of his ways and take up the gentlemen’s sport of pursuing upland birds with pointing dogs. So at this stage we were on a bit of a quest to get Sam, his pointer, to figure out grouse and woodcock, and to get Mark his first ruffed grouse. By the end of his 3-day stay, Sam had pointed a grouse with plenty of style but alas, Mark had failed to connect on a grouse over Sam’s or any of my dog’s points. But as Mark so rightly stated – that just gives him a reason to come back!
Since we were camping during the entire stay in MN, we did consume a fair number of the birds we bagged. We were ever mindful of the possession limits for grouse and woodcock, though I’ll admit that we never came remotely close to pushing the limits given the general lack of opportunities and shooting skill. I tend toward fairly simple preparations when cooking in camp – woodcock wrapped in bacon and cooked medium rare over coals. Grouse filets with a spice rub grilled over the fire. In camp, everything seems to taste better – especially food you’ve harvested yourself. But back at the house, there’s time and facilities to get a bit more creative… I thought I’d share a couple of dishes that I’ve prepared in the winter months following the close of bird season. The first, involving ruffed grouse, is described below. I’ll follow with additional recipes in the coming weeks.
Ruffed grouse are hard to come by, absolutely delicious, and deserve one’s best culinary efforts. The following dish was concocted one afternoon using, believe it or not, ingredients on hand. I had been inspired to make something special so pulled a brace of grouse breasts out of the freezer in the morning and started rummaging through the frig and cabinets to see what I could pull together for dinner. This recipe, which I call Grouse Bailey, involves combining grouse breasts and pork rillettes (which I was recently introduced to by my future daughter-in-law).
To prepare the dish, I filleted the breasts, lightly pounded them, coated them in seasoned semolina flour and then quickly seared them in duck fat. You want the breasts just browned – perhaps 90 seconds on a side in a hot pan. I then set the breasts aside and sautéed onions and mushrooms in ghee in the same pan. Once the onions were soft and the mushrooms had released their moisture, I cooked the mixture over high heat until the moisture was evaporated and then deglazed the pan with white wine and made a quick pan sauce of Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and garlic. All the while the above was going on, I made up rustic mashed potatoes (from small, skin-on red potatoes) and wilted some spinach. With all the components ready to go, I spread a spoonful of the prepared rillettes (which is a whole ‘nother story!) on the grouse breasts and popped them under the broiler for 4 minutes. The dish was plated with the wilted spinach as a base, followed by a layer of potatoes, one or two seared grouse breasts, and with the mushroom sauce. Paired with an Argentine Semillon, this was pretty damn awesome.