Sim­ple things

By the time these words see print, bird sea­son will have come and gone. There was laugh­ter, mate­ship, tri­umph and fail­ure ... but it's also a safe bet there's some­thing in the freezer as well.

Field and Game - - ACROSS THE DITCH -

Recipes come and go, but all the great game cooks share a com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tic, and that's fo­cus on prepa­ra­tion. If you study the care a hunter takes with meat you know ex­actly what their level of re­spect for quarry is.

Quick chill­ing and care­ful dressing show thought to­wards the end prod­uct. Like seafood, game bird cui­sine al­ways walks a tightrope — over­cooked it be­comes ined­i­ble, over­sea­soned and that hint of wilder­ness is gone.

Wa­ter­fowl are pos­si­bly the eas­i­est for be­gin­ners to mess up. More peo­ple have been turned off by dry roasted duck than any other game­bird. Oven bags or cov­ered cook­ing with plenty of mois­ture — good stock or or­ange juice — works well, and when it's done the shred­ded meat works beau­ti­fully in a rich ragout sauce for pasta.

Then there's sch­nitzel, duck and mush­room risotto ... you get the pic­ture. Europe has known for cen­turies how to do the side­line flavours — cider-braised red cab­bage with its sweet-sour note, flash-fried ap­ples, or or­ange with its lift, fresh­ness and acid­ity.

Game cook­ing is not for­giv­ing. Wan­der off for a beer or get dis­tracted play­ing with the labrador and you'll come back to dog food. (Which is why labs hang around bar­be­cues in the first place. Told you they're smart.)

Be­cause of their un­even shape and lumpy distri­bu­tion of meat (the birds that is, not labradors) I pre­fer to open and but­ter­fly quail. A light work­ing over with the back of a chef knife quickly flat­tens them out.

The birds cook faster and more evenly, and kitchen nerds will tell you that you get a bet­ter ra­tio of cook­ing sur­face to vol­ume, which means mari­nades can do their job bet­ter be­fore cook­ing and you get more caramelised sur­face af­ter.

This kind of cook­ing starts with fire.

It isn't a style that works for a gen­tle elec­tric cook­top, which will usu­ally end up sim­mer­ing the meat in its own juices. Think smok­ing hot grill for the first few min­utes.

The mar­i­nated birds go on skin side down and are left alone un­til they are more than half done. By the time the skin has good colour the birds can be turned and fin­ished for a minute or two on the cav­ity side.

They're on the point when a light press on the breast gives a small amount of com­pres­sion. Squishy means still raw in­side, and hard means you're feed­ing the lab again. Err on the side of squishy. You can al­ways give them half a minute more.

There's no scope in a short col­umn to go into beers and wines for game dishes, but the gen­eral prin­ci­ple is to match the in­ten­sity of the dish.

Rab­bit is a clas­sic ex­am­ple. Crumbed and served as spicy South­ern style fin­ger food it cries out for some­thing light — a crisp Pilsener would do me.

That same beast slow-cooked to pieces with thyme, smoky ba­con, bal­samic vine­gar, bay and mush­rooms really de­mands a good dark ale or a pinot noir. Duck with its rich­ness needs a lit­tle acid to cleanse the palate from time to time. It goes well with sweet dark fruit like cher­ries, which points to pinot noir.

If there's a hint of cit­rus in the recipe try some­thing with a sim­i­lar tang, a good dry ries­ling or Emer­son's Bird Dog ale. (OK, you'll have to cross The Ditch to get the last one... but there are worse fates.)

As I write the New Zealand Game Bird Fes­ti­val is draw­ing to a close. Now in its 10th year, restau­rants across the coun­try have again been of­fer­ing game bird hun­ters the chance to have their bag pre­pared by professional chefs, much to the re­lief of some duck-hunt­ing wid­ows I'm sure.

There aren't many rules — just pick a nice bird, dress care­fully and let the chefs do their thing. It's a won­der­ful way to in­tro­duce new peo­ple to the life we love.

The most im­por­tant thing about game cook­ery is one that you won't find in any of the recipe books, be­cause it's be­yond tech­nique. It is the old­est cui­sine of all.

It comes from the cave, the desert, the river­bank — the days be­fore cities and towns, even be­fore farm­ing. In all that time only one thing has re­mained the same. It's all about com­pany. The best thing to go with a fine game meal are peo­ple whose hearts be­long in wild places, helped you to earn it and who de­light in the sto­ries.

Add to that a fire and a maybe an old dog to sleep by it and then, my friend, you have more than a meal. You have a mo­ment you might re­mem­ber for the rest of your life.

Pete Ryan's sim­ple quail

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