Pheasant hotpot with chestnut and apple by Shirley Spear
THE game season is in full swing and the dandiest bird of all is the handsome male pheasant, often seen from the roadside, pecking in recently harvested fields, or around the hedgerows laden with overripe berries. His female partner, although more tender and plump to eat, is dowdier in colouring and not always as visible. Rising from the undergrowth with a distinctly harsh, double squawk, these birds flap clumsily into the air, flying low; perhaps too easy a target. Driving through the Scottish countryside, there are many signs of shooting parties on open farmland, on the hunt for pheasant and partridge in particular, at this time of year.
There is an ancient culture of hunting feathered game for food in Scotland. Paired with autumn fruits, nuts and vegetables, older birds are delicious for one-pot, slow cooking, or a game terrine for winter parties. Younger birds can be roasted whole, very quickly. Old recipes extend to a variety of native duck, including mallard, teal and wigeon, plus grouse, woodcock, pigeon and snipe, particularly in the Highlands and Islands. Once upon a time, blackcock, ptarmigan and capercaillie were also considered fair game.
They say that the Romans introduced pheasant to northern Europe from the Middle East and bred the birds specifically for the table. Pheasant cooked with apples, cream and Calvados brandy comes from Normandy, home of these ingredients. I love this recipe for a family meal, adding sweet chestnuts for a seasonal flavour. Sweet chestnuts – which are covered in fine spines, like small green hedgehogs – are very different from the big brown conkers we know from the horse chestnut tree. Each nut contains three or four kernels, packed together. Traditionally, these are split and roasted over an open fire. They smell delicious while roasting, particularly outdoors, but you can easily do this at home in the oven too. You will find red string bags of shiny sweet chestnuts in the shops, but they are time-consuming to prepare. Those ready-cooked and vacuum-packed in tins or packets are more convenient. Pheasant hotpot (Serves up to 6) 2 large, oven-ready pheasants For the hotpot: 1 medium onion, chopped small 1 large leek (peel and chop the pale green and the white part of the leek into a similar size as the onion and set aside the darker green leaves for the stock pot) 2 sticks celery, plus the leaves, chopped into same size as above 2 tbsp rapeseed oil 1 rounded tbsp sieved plain white flour Sea salt and black pepper 1 bunch fresh thyme, leaves shredded (keep stalks for stock) 6 rashers unsmoked streaky bacon, chopped into 1.5cm square pieces Finely grated zest and juice of 1 large orange 2 crisp, sharp, medium cooking apples, such has Bramleys, weighing around 350g when peeled and cored, chopped into thumb-sized pieces and tossed in the orange juice together with the zest 180g pack of whole, cooked chestnuts 25g unsalted butter 2 tbsp brandy or Calvados (optional) ½ pint game stock (see recipe below) 2 bay leaves ¼ pint double cream to serve For the game stock: Carcasses and drumsticks from both pheasants 4 tbsp rapeseed oil 1 tsp each of sea salt and black peppercorns 1 medium onion Green top from leek used for hotpot 1 large carrot 1 large stick celery 1 large sprig flat leaf parsley, including stalks Stalks from bunch of thyme used for hotpot 8 juniper berries, crushed between thumb and forefinger 1 tbsp heather honey ¼ pint red wine Water Method 1. Pre-heat oven to gas mark 6, 200°C. 2. Prepare all vegetables for stock and hotpot. 3. Remove legs and breasts from pheasants. Check them for shot and blood clots, making sure they are clean and free from feathers. Divide the legs into two, separating thigh from drumstick. Reserve the drumsticks and carcasses for the stock. Keep the thighs for the hotpot. No need to remove the bone. Cut the breasts into three or four pieces, and place all meat pieces on a large flat dish; cover and set aside somewhere cool. 4. To make the stock, pour half the rapeseed oil into a shallow roasting tin. Place carcasses and drumsticks into tin and sprinkle over sea salt and peppercorns. Place in centre of oven to roast until sizzling hot, for 20-30 minutes. 5. Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables for the stock. Cut into chunks and soften in the remaining oil in a large saucepan, turning all the time until soft and beginning to colour. Add the juniper berries, parsley and thyme stalks. 6. When the pheasant bones are roasted and coloured, remove from oven and lift into pot containing the vegetables. Set roasting tin over a low heat. Pour the red wine into hot tin, stirring all the time to lift the meaty sediment from the base. Add honey and stir until melted. 7. Pour this liquid into the pot, followed by enough cold water to cover the bones. Bring to boiling point, reduce heat, cover with a lid and allow to simmer for 1 hour. Strain cooked stock into a bowl through a colander, then again through a fine sieve, and set aside. Discard contents of pan. 8. To make the hotpot, sieve flour over the pheasant meat and turn pieces to coat lightly on either side. Season with freshly ground sea salt and black pepper. 9. Heat oil in a large frying pan and seal the pieces of meat, a few at a time, removing to set aside on the plate until all are lightly browned. Add bacon pieces to the hot pan and cook until the fat begins to run. Add onion, leek, celery and toss with bacon in the hot fat until beginning to soften. Season with a little salt and pepper, adding thyme and bay leaves. Stir. 10. Add pheasant pieces to the mixture in the frying pan and pour over the game stock. Bring gently to boiling point, turning the meat and vegetables together with a fork and large spoon. Transfer all of this to an oven-proof casserole dish. 11. Add 25g unsalted butter to the frying pan and when melted, add the whole chestnuts. If using the brandy or Calvados, add this to the hot butter, swirl around and flame to burn off the alcohol. 12. Finally, add the apple and orange juice to the frying pan, stir quickly and pour everything into the casserole dish. Make sure the liquid level is just creeping halfway up the side of the dish. If you need a little more, add a dash of stock, but don’t overdo it. Cover the whole mixture with a layer of greaseproof or parchment paper and place a good fitting lid on top. Alternatively, seal the casserole aluminium foil. Place in centre of oven at reduced heat of gas mark 4, 180°C and cook for up to an hour, by which time the pheasant and vegetables will be piping hot and tender. 13. Just before serving, warm the cream in a small saucepan and mix into the casserole. Serve with seasonal vegetables. Shirley Spear is owner of The Three Chimneys and The House Over-By on the Isle of Skye www. threechimneys.co.uk Pete Stewart chooses the drinks to accompany Shirley’s recipes: P22