04.28.08–Traditional Foods and Recipes–Game Birds in the Field

“…We say some grouse and ptarmigan (spruce chickens) in the Kamishak area. Since they relied on camouflage for protection, they would allow us to approach them quite closely. Consequently, we found them an easy food supply. After a storm, they would often lie under the fluffy snow invisible to the eye. As we would drive along the trials with our dog team, they would often startle us by popping out of the snowdrifts in a flurry of white flakes, flying right over the bow of our sled. The Natives often rigged nets between trees to catch these birds. Then they would startle the birds with loud noises so they would fly into the nets…”

Iva Senft, as told to Mary J. Barry, “Camp Cookery, Trail Tonics and Indian Infants” , published in Alaska Sportsman®, July 1964.

Game Birds in the Field

The basic rules for handling birds once they’ve been killed are the same as for any wild game: bleed and gut, allow air to circulate in the body cavity, cool the meat quickly and thoroughly and keep it cold and dry till it’s cooked.

Big game hunters follow the rules without to much exception, probably because all other action for the day is pretty effectively halted when there is an enormous carcass to be dealt with somehow. The bird hunter can and often does just keep on shooting, counting on cold weather to ‘take care of the meat.’

A casual attitude toward field dressing any warm–blooded, or cold–blooded creature, small or big, risks spoiling the taste if not the safety of the meat.

Gutting & Dressing

After the kill, bleed birds as soon as possible by breaking their necks or cutting their throats and letting the heads hang downward until bleeding stops. Gut them while they are still warm.

To gut, pluck a strip clean of feathers from the end of the breastbone to the vent. Make a shallow incision around the vent to cut an opening large enough to poke your fingers through to remove entrails. Cut only through the skin and thin layer of meat. Be careful not to cut into the intestines. Reach into the opening with two or three fingers–as far up toward the neck as you can–rotate your hand to loosen all the organs and bring the innards out in one motion. Remove and save the giblets–heart, liver and gizzard–being careful not to rupture the gallbladder which is attached to the liver. Cut the flashy ends off the gizzard, open it out and discard the material in the center. Wipe off the giblets and wrap them in waxed paper. Store them in a cool place.

If the crop did not come out with entrails, make a slit on the back of the neck and remove it. While you’re at it, this is a good time to figure out how you might cook this bird. Take a look at the contents of the crop. If it’s grain or some other vegetarian substance, you’re in luck. If fish, well, try out one of the hints for ‘fish feeders’ directions that follow below.

At this time also excise the preen gland, a small double–lobed button affair on the back of the tail. You may have to lift some feathers to find it.

Like the scent hocks on deer and the similar glands on small game, the preen gland secretes an oil that may give an off taste to the meat. So cut well around it and remove it without puncturing.

The gland is full of ‘hairdressing’, or, in this case, feather dressing, which the bird picks at with its beak and then spreads along its feathers to make them shine. We are reminded of a George Orwell story about waiters in the fancy restaurants of Paris who ran their fingers through their carefully pomaded hair, then wipe the oil around the rims of plates to give them an elegant glisten just at serving time. Cut the preen gland.

Next thoroughly wipe the inside of the bird with a clean cloth, paper towel or grass. Unless you’re ready to cook it do not wash the bird, and instead, do what you can to keep it dry since water spreads bacteria that may cause spoiling. Above all, keep the bird cool. Do not wrap tightly in plastic or other material. Cheesecloth is a good meat wrapper to keep meat clean as possible in the field, whether it’s skinned birds or large animals.

In the Kitchen

Back at camp or at home, eviscerated ducks may be hung in a cool shaded place, a breezeway is ideal, for three or four days. Leave the feathers on to keep off dust, flies and insects or protect with cheesecloth coverings. Giblets, however, should be refrigerated and used or preserved, freezing is easiest, within a day or two. If nothing else, use them to start a camp soup.

Plucking

Birds still warm from their own body heat are easiest to pluck. If you have a refrigerator at hand to protect the meat once it’s bare–or the weather is consistently cool enough; that is, not rising above 40°F (4°C)–you can proceed with plucking immediately after eviscerating…or even before.

Next best is to have the birds well chilled but not frozen. Pluck ducks and geese dry, not scalded. Paraffin makes the job easier but isn’t essential.

To pluck ducks and geese take small pinches of feathers and pull them out–always pulling in the same direction they grow to avoid tearing the skin. Then roll your hand against the skin to remove the down and pinfeathers. Remove the large guard feathers by twisting them gently but firmly. On small birds, you can save yourself the bother of pulling the large feathers by cutting the wings off at the first joint. Then make a taper of rolled brown paper, light it and singe off the down.

On geese there may be as much as 2 inches (5 cm) of down to pluck once the guard feathers have been removed. Simply peel it off, using a rolling motion of the hand.

SAVE clean dry breast and back feathers for pillow stuffing or for repair jobs to down–filled jackets and sleeping bags. And don’t forget the kids. Large goose quills make fun writing instruments.

IF You Have Paraffin

The procedure is, again, to have the birds well chilled but not frozen. Pull out the heavy back, tail and wing feathers. Cut off the wings at the first joint. Two pounds (1 kg) of paraffin is enough to process four ducks. Melt it in a tall, narrow container–tall enough that the entire bird can be dipped at once. Hot paraffin can cause the worst imaginable burns. Exercise all due caution with tipsy pots, open flames, curious children and yourself.. Holding the bird by its feet, dip it all at once into the paraffin and then immediately plunge it into ice water to harden the paraffin; the outside air will do if it’s cold. Peel off wax and feathers together. To reuse the paraffin, melt it down and strain out the feathers.

Some hunters don’t bother with plucking anything but large ducks and geese. Small ducks and upland birds are often skinned. But, if you want to roast these small birds with the skin on, there’s another way of making the plucking somewhat easier. Heat water in a deep pot–not boiling, just hot. A temperature of 150°F (65°C) will do. Boiling is 212°F or 100°C). Dip the bird in and out of the water several times until the feathers will pull away easily. Then let the bird drip dry for a few minutes and pluck the rest. Remaining down may be singed off.

For another ingenious style of plucking, see Kenneth Hughes recipe, “Duck In The Mud” following below.

Whatever the method, check the carcass of your bare bird and trim away shot holes or wounds that may have spread flavor from the entrails. Leg and back seem to pick up off–flavors more easily than does breast meat.

Duck In The Mud Recipe

While you are having breakfast at camp, build up a good campfire in a hollow. Your duck or goose is eviscerated, so wipe it inside and out with a cloth. Rub the inside thoroughly with salt and a little pepper. Stuff the cavity with an apple, an onion or both. Fold the feathers to cover all openings and plaster the whole thing with a coat of clay mud (sand or loam will not do) about an inch (2.5 cm) thick. Place the bird in the bottom of your fire among the ashes and cover it well with wood. Go hunting all day, and when you return for dinner, be prepared for the best duck or goose you ever tasted. Dig it out of the ashes, it should still be hot, and break off the clay. The feathers come with it.

Cited From: The Alaskan Camp Cook, by Kenneth Hughes of Haines, Alaska.

Skinning

Small birds–ptarmigan, grouse, and other upland birds especially–it is sometimes advisable to skin at the outset if you have a place to keep the meat protected and cool. Skinning is a whole lot quicker than plucking, doesn’t seem to harm the flavor of these small birds and may even improve it.

To skin birds, remove the wings close to the body. Cut off the foot at the joint just above it. Slit the skin under the tail and pull it back over the legs and up the body toward the neck. Then break the breast away from the back and cut the legs off close to the back. Save the heart, liver, gizzard, breast and legs and throw away the back, wings and entrails. Wipe the saved pieces thoroughly, don’t wash until cooking time, wrap them in waxed paper and keep in a cool place.

Cooking Game Birds

There are nearly as many controversies about the way to cook game birds as there are about other game meats. Most of them are the direct result of having to work with at different times. Cooks tend to make too many hard and fast rules. That it took a bottle of vinegar and a box of baking soda to make one old bird edible does not mean that’s the way to cook the bird henceforth. Here are some hints to help you be the judge of quality and how to accommodate it.

How Does A Hunter Bag The Best Eating Birds

“The best bet,” says one old–timer, “know what you’re shooting and don’t shoot fish birds. Concentrate on the seed and grass eaters. Among ducks that means pintails, mallards, teal, widgeon and so on. If you get a mistake bird–golden eye, merganser, old squaw–breast it and marinate in vinegar–water solution for a couple of hours before cooking normally.” Some other suggestions for ‘fish feeders’ are given below.

To Age Or Not To Age

Aging is the process of hanging killed game in various stages of dress, at least gutted and wiped clean, in a cool place for a period of several days to tenderize and improve the flavor of the meat. Most people agree that is an essential step for game animal meats–moose, caribou and the like.

About birds and the need for aging there is considerable conflict. Which birds should or shouldn’t be aged, how long, how they’re dressed are all subject to dozens of individual adjustments.

The English recommend bleeding birds immediately after the kill but not drawing or plucking them until just before cooking. Birds in this condition (i.e., with guts intact) may be hung until the legs stiffen and the skin turns green.

That is an extreme few hunters in Alaska–or elsewhere in the United States–favor. Since most ‘how-to’ advice insists that birds be bled immediately and then gutted as soon after the kill as possible, few Alaskan birds are aged in the English fashion.

If birds are to be hung outdoors in camp, many hunters do not leave the feathers on–partly so that the plucking job can be handed over to someone at home, we suspect–but also to protect the meat.

Feathered or bare and protected some other way, birds must be aged at a temperature that does not rise above 40°F (4°C), with a range of 34 to 38°F (1 to 3°C) being ideal. If the meat freezes, it doesn’t age very rapidly. And warm weather aging usually has another name–putrefying.

Roasting Wild Birds

Many recipes suggest placing extra fat such as strips of bacon over the breast of all wildfowl during roasting. Some birds need it; others–well-fed geese, notably–are fat enough to provide excellent self–basting without additional fat. To be sure the breast stays moist, roast birds breast side down until the last half–hour or so of cooking. Then turn the bird and allow the breast to brown, basting frequently with pan juices.

To Stuff Or Not To Stuff

Dressing is always a welcome accompaniment for roast wildfowl. Some cooks argue that the dressing should be baked separately because it takes on ‘too gamy a flavor’ cooked inside the birds. Others say that’s nonsense–the bird won’t have too strong a flavor if its not a ‘fish-feeder’ and the meat was properly cared for in the field. Obviously both opinions have a merit that must be judged by each cook on the spot.

But there is another reason for deciding to bake dressing separately. The length of the cooking time is considerably increased for a stuffed bird, and it is not just the meat that requires additional time. Bird AND dressing should both reach an internal temperature of 160 to 170°F (70 to 76°C). If the dressing is stuffed inside the bird, it will take longer for it to reach that safe point…additional time that risks overcooking and thus drying out the bird. For that reason, many cooks stuff the cavity of the bird with onion, carrot or apple, or sprinkle it with herbs for flavoring, and bake heavier stuffings–especially those containing bread–separately, basting the dressing from time to time with juices from the roasting bird. In any case, leftover stuffing must be removed from the bird, stored and reheated separately.

Hot Oven Or Slow?

Another controversy amongst cooks about the best way to roast wild birds is whether to use a slow oven or a hot one. Our advice, as usual, experiment to find out what suits your taste, knowing that there are good cooks who swear by each method. Hot oven is most often a recommendation for roasting ducks; slow oven for geese.

Hot-Oven Method

To use a hot oven method, start with an oven preheated to 450 or 500°F (230 to 260°C). Place the duck on a rack in a dry roasting pan and bake it, uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes. For those who like rare meat, the duck may be sufficiently cooked at this point. If not, reduce the heat to 250°F (120°C) and continue baking an additional half–hour, more or less, depending on the size of the bird.

Slow-Oven Method

The slow oven method for roasting a wild goose starts with an oven preheated to 325°F (160°C). Roast, uncovered, about 30 minutes per pound (0.45kg). Check breast juice with a toothpick; a pink–white color indicates the goose is done. If you have roasted the goose breast side down to prevent drying, turn it during the last half–hour of cooking and basting frequently with pan juices.

Fish-Feeders

What to do with a bird that has been eating fish–or any food that may transmit an unwanted taste to the meat–is another question fraught with disagreement. Some cooks say, “Give up. Toss the bird.” Others recommend one or another marination. Here are several:

  • One way to overcome the fish flavor of wild ducks that have been feeding on fish is to soak the dressed birds a few hours in water to which a little baking soda and salt have been added. Then parboil them in fresh water with a small carrot and a little onion inside each bird. Throw away the carrot and the onion, wipe dry and stuff with sage–flavored dressing. Roast until brown and tender.
  • If ducks are inclined to be strong in flavor, stuff dressed duck with peeled onion, apple or potato for a few days before cooking.
  • Late in the season, spruce hens go on their winter diet and develop a spruce–type flavor. They may be converted into a delicacy, however. Both ptarmigan and spruce hens (spruce chickens) breasts may be sliced and put to soak overnight in a mixture of sour milk and herbs–a pinch of oregano, marjoram and rosemary. Buttermilk or sweet milk soured with lemon juice or vinegar may be substituted for sour milk. Use 1 tablespoon (15 mL) white vinegar or lemon juice for each cup (240 mL) of sweet milk. The next day, roll the meat in flour, saute it quickly in butter or oil to brown it on all sides, and then simmer it very gently in the sour milk mixture until it’s tender.
  • Occasionally, a wild goose turned out to be too tough to be roasted in the ordinary manner. By steaming it for 15 to 30 minutes, then roasting it slowly, we made the feathered old–timer into a palatable entree.
  • Wash and clean the bird thoroughly as you would any fowl. Pour about a half-cup (120 mL) of vinegar into the body cavity and over the breast. Allow this to serve as a mild tenderizer while you prepare a stuffing…if you feel you probably have a tough, old gander to prepare, it is best to forego roasting it. Cut the goose into serving size pieces and parboil them in salted water for 20 to 30 minutes. Then proceed with a recipe that calls for slow cooking in a Dutch oven or covered pot.
  • Roasting goose in a brown paper bag saves cleaning the oven afterward. Several holes in the bottom of the bag allow grease to drain out, and the bird browns nicely without basting.

Cited From: Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans, published by Alaska Northwest Press, 1983.

Cooking Alaskan by Alaskans Cookbook

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