Sharp-tailed grouse on the table
I was driving the short distance back to the house this morning after running the dogs when I saw a pair of Sharp-tailed grouse flush off a barn roof – presumably in response to the deliberate approach of a red tailed hawk. I really enjoy seeing grouse in the neighborhood if for no other reason than it reminds me that after 18 years in Laramie, we now live in country that supports huntable populations of a few different species of upland birds. And although I’ve been what you might call a casual or perhaps opportunistic hunter of “sharpies” over the years, I’ve only really come to appreciate them as worthy of focused attention after living in their midst.
Any professional bird dog trainer (and by “bird dog” I mean pointing dog) worth his or her salt knows that sharp-tailed grouse, particularly young birds, are wonderful training aids. In fact, numerous pro trainers travel hundreds of miles each summer with strings of dogs-in-training to places like North Dakota and eastern Montana to take advantage of (often) plentiful birds on public land that are generally pretty willing to hold for a point. That tolerance certainly decreases as the season progresses and the young birds wise up, but in August and September, life is good!
So having had a year to observe that there are indeed sharpies in the neighborhood, I resolved to take advantage of that happy fact by running Dory and particularly Timber (the youngster) in likely covers as often as possible prior to embarking on our grand adventure in October. Birds make a bird dog. And as luck would have it, the population seemed to be pretty healthy (although I had no real baseline from which to judge) and I was able to get some good dog work on the local birds in august and better yet, shoot several birds over solid points during the first week of the Wyoming season in September. Which brings me to the real point of this story.
Those of you who have been following these posts know full well that I love to cook and consume all manner of upland birds. And also that I believe that those who think birds with dark meat – sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, woodcock – are unfit as table fare (I’ve heard sharp tails referred to as ‘flying livers”) just haven’t had them prepared properly. Well watching those sharptails in flight this morning reminded me of a meal I put together last week; sous vide prepared grouse breasts with black garlic sauce and Spanish rice. And the thought that came to mind is that, this missive notwithstanding, those of us in the know should do all we can to promote the idea that these birds are not worth eating. The fewer hunters chasing them the better I say! Because they are excellent fare! And cooking them sous vide ensures that they come to the plate at the perfect temperature (134F). The garlic sauce was a wonderful accompaniment, but I can think of any number of other sauces that would work just fine. The point is- the filets were moist and tender, and although the flavor was not “like chicken” (thankfully), it was certainly not “gamey,” at least not in a negative way. Here’s the recipe:
Breast meat from 2 sharp tailed grouse (young birds if you have them)
2 Tbsp duck fat or butter
Salt and pepper to taste
For the garlic sauce:
6 cloves black garlic mashed into a paste
2 tsps sriracha sauce
2 tsps honey
1 Tbsp water
Splash of balsamic vinegar
Set up your sous vide and bring it to temp at 134o. Sprinkle the grouse breasts with salt and pepper and place in a zip lock bag with a tablespoon of duck fat or butter. Use the water method to remove the air from the bag and seal it. Submerge the bag in the SV water bath and cook for 40 minutes.
While the grouse is in the SV, prepare the sauce by blending together the black garlic, sriracha, honey, water and balsamic. I do this in a small food processor.
After 40 minutes, remove the grouse from the SV, take it out of the bag and pat it dry. Heat a heavy skillet (cast iron or carbon steel is best) until the fat is just smoking. Working quickly, sear the breast pieces about 30 seconds on each side. That’s it. Do not second guess yourself at this stage. The meat is already cooked. You’re just searing the outside to develop a bit more flavor and give the meat a better appearance.
I plated these grouse with a colorful side of Spanish rice and a drizzle of the garlic sauce. You could just as well set the finished breast pieces atop a bed of wilted spinach or other greens with whatever side you prefer. Enjoy!
One last note – although I have not tried it, I’m certain that if you don’t have a sous vide cooker, the same result can be achieved using the “beer cooler” technique described by Kenji Lopez-Alt in his book Food Lab. Also this recipe should work equally well with ptarmigan or sage grouse if you happen to be short on sharp-tailed grouse!